Slaves to the office

Technology promised to bring an end to the daily grind, but it has only extended the office's reach

I remember being told, around the turn of the millennium, that my days in the office were numbered. Clever technology had turned the idea of being chained to a desk from nine to five into an anachronism. Adverts for laptops, cellphones and home-office equipment all suggested that we could dodge the dreaded commute by being mobile and adaptable. Property shows followed downshifters who cashed in the equity on their town houses and happily did their jobs from converted barns in deepest Dorset.

This dream about the end of the daily grind was always a middle-class one, the preserve of those working in the high-status knowledge economies. The more lowly - shop assistants, secretaries, cleaners - have always had to clock on wherever the work is. However, according to the new issue of Social Trends, even the PDA- wielding professionals cannot tear themselves away from the office. The hours may be slightly more flexible, but most workers still commute every day. The office remains the seminal modern workplace, as the proportion of jobs in service industries and public administration continues to rise. Just over a million people enter central London each day during the morning rush hour, an increase of 6 per cent in the past decade. Reports of the death of the office were exaggerated.

Office life is never news because, however unfulfilling it might be, it seems unproblematic and apolitical. Office politics are not real politics; they are petty, gossipy, personal, unchangeable. Office life is invisible to anyone who isn't a part of it. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the dynamics of modern, deregulated econ omies are increasingly hidden in this way: "The place of the visible character of work, concentrated in factory halls and tall buildings, is taken by an invisible organisation of the firm." City-centre offices might serve as the company's brand statement, with their high-rise towers, mirrored-glass walls and welcoming atriums. But the essential drudgery takes place where land and labour are cheap: in anonymous, shed-like buildings in out-of-town office parks, surrounded by parking lots and security barriers, without even an identifying logo outside.

Given that this kind of mundane existence is how many people fill their days, it is odd that we reflect so little on its history and politics. With a few exceptions, such as C Wright Mills and David Lockwood in the 1950s, sociologists have steered clear of office life, preferring to focus on more obvious forms of social inequality. It has mainly been left to creative writers to cover this terra incognita.

In 1970, when Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy published a novel-cum-essay called The Office, his tone was almost valedictory. The British office was "a large squat nanny, waiting comfortably there to gently fuss me with all the details of her tiny, cosy world". This netherworld of tea trolleys, afternoon naps and loyal retainers seemed like the last refuge of a hidebound, backward-looking nation in gentle decline. By contrast, the most perceptive of contemporary writers on the office, such as Ricky Gervais and Joshua Ferris, have seen it as a strange amalgam of the backward-looking and the cutting-edge. Their theme is the tension between the tedium of office life and the happy-clappy motivational rhetoric that permeates modern work culture.

Although it portrays itself as groundbreaking and revolutionary, there is nothing new about this motivational school of management. It originated in the 1920s as human relations theory, which argued that workers are more productive when they feel involved in decision-making. After the Second World War, William H Whyte noted the rise of a management style that sought moral legitimacy through its emphasis on the employee's "personality" and "soul". Whyte's "organisation man" was suspicious of authoritarian leadership and viewed the group as the appropriate space for negotiating and resolving problems. But, as Whyte noted perceptively: "If every member simply wants to do what the group wants to do, then the group is not going to do anything." He invented a term, "groupthink", to describe the forms of irrational collective psychology that developed in office cultures in which the overriding aim was consensus.

By the early 1980s, human-relations management had mutated into an evangelical concept: corporate culture. In their book In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman argued that the best companies had strong cultures in which all employees felt part of the firm and bought in to a common ideal. This book, the first management text to make the New York Times bestseller list, appeared at an opportune moment - in the middle of a recession in America, when the Japanese work model of company songs and other rituals of belonging seemed to be the future. Britain was also going through a recession at the time, as well as supposedly suffering from the more chronic "British disease" of mediocre management and demotivated workers. Fostering a strong corporate culture, par ticularly by urging workers to have a positive, can-do attitude, soon became a ruling motif in transatlantic business life.

This Americanisation of British work culture sought to make the office a more congenial and informal place. It jettisoned the most visibly hierarchical rules and relationships; tore down the walls to make open-plan spaces; and frowned on status markers such as reserved parking, corner offices and power desks. I wonder if the reason for the success of "business" programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragons' Den is that they offer a compensatory mythology that dismis ses this egalitarian culture as wimpish evasion. "Sir" Alan Sugar has all the usual accoutrements of status, from a higher-backed chair to a swanky boardroom policed by a secretary on intercom. At least, that is what his skyscraper, television-set workplace is like; Amstrad's actual HQ in the Essex suburbs is never shown.

In most modern offices, there is no macho manager who theatrically declaims "I'm out" or "You're fired". The problem is rather the lack of an obvious chain of command when workers are less sure about their status and roles, and rewards are so fluid and uneven. When tough managerial choices such as redundancies need to be made, it is much easier to blame abstractions - the need to maintain share prices, the impact of new technologies, the unbuckable global markets - than people or politics.

This touchy-feely culture is encapsulated in a near-universal feature of the modern workplace: the employee's annual appraisal or "performance review". (It is difficult to imagine Alan Sugar or Dragons' Den's Duncan Bannatyne ever conducting one.) The appraisal encourages employees to reflect on and take control of their own working lives, but combines this with subtle forms of psychological surveillance.

The soft issues about sharing information and giving you "the training and skills you need to do your job effectively" have become all mixed up with the hard issues about monitoring workers' performance and profit margins.

Dishonesty of office life

In a classic scene from The Office, David Brent helps the lugubrious Keith complete his appraisal form. Brent asks Keith a series of questions using the now ubiquitous sliding scale devised by Rensis Likert in his 1961 book, New Patterns of Management ("Not at all", "To some extent", "Very much so", "Don't know"). Keith answers "Don't know" to every question and then, when he is asked to pick a different response, has forgotten the question. Brent repeats the various options, his growing impatience exposing the process as a charade. It is a brilliant scene because it points to something far more insidious than the Darwinian struggles on The Apprentice: the dishonesty of office life. It constantly wastes our time because it insists on the formulation of "strategic goals" for the most routine tasks, and because it refuses to be open about the inequalities of work.

In the modern workplace, every employee has to be on-message, familiar with mission statements and benchmark standards, working towards pre-agreed aims of increased "customer satisfaction" and "shareholder value". The desk bound job of Whyte's organisation man has been replaced by the time-consuming activity of consensus-building. Despite all those predictions about the imminent arrival of the paperless office, paperwork has increased, as the need to keep people in the loop creates an avalanche of ritualistic memos, emails and reports.

The American cultural critic Thomas Frank sees motivational management as part of what he calls "market populism" - the contemporary orthodoxy that unregulated markets are egalitarian, helping to sweep away outdated hierarchies and inefficient bureaucracy. For Frank, motivational management is a form of public relations for this deregulated market. It bangs on about flexibility and self-management in order to sugar the pill of downsizing, outsourcing and short-term contracts.

In a period of declining union power and minimal government intervention, when executives command unprecedented power and spectacular salaries, management gurus have the chutzpah to spout off endlessly about employee "consultation" and "empowerment". This new kind of "cool" capitalism - which values flattened hierarchies and creative teamwork - has taken on board the left's familiar critique of capitalism as alienating and conformist. It has created a workplace where friendliness and informality are encouraged, but where inequalities are simply taken for granted.

The injustices of the modern office are not immediately obvious. On the surface, it is an agreeable, non-confrontational place where sociability and networking are crucial. The rationale goes like this: as companies use technology to automate their routine tasks, or farm them out to low-status workers in back offices, higher- status workers are left with more complex tasks that can only be conducted in teams.

Many offices now have "break-out areas" or "magnet facilities" with cafe-style tables and chairs, a decor and ambience clearly influenced by the cappuccino culture of the high street. The office has become an important place for people to meet and make friends, particularly when they are more likely than ever before to be single, and less likely to be involved in social networks outside of work. But this kind of creative, interactive office life is still work - with all its unfairness and compromises.

Work-life balance

The decline of formal office hierarchies comes at the cost of uncertainty about where work begins and ends. The academic Andrew Ross calls it "no-collar" work. Its first-name etiquette and dress-down culture tend to blur the distinctions between the office and our social lives, reframing work as an "existential challenge" and enlisting "employees' freest thoughts and impulses in the service of salaried time". When work is supposed to be this fulfilling, it is potentially endless. As Ross discovers, it is the higher-status workers with the most flexible working arrangements who are putting in the 70-hour weeks.

One of the main obstacles to a "work-life balance" - a buzz-phrase whose obvious desirability is matched only by its bland indefinability - is dealing with this psychological hold that the office has on our daily lives. Until we do that, the newer technologies, such as palmtops and BlackBerries, will not make it easier to escape the office; they will just teleport the office on to the commuter train, into the home and on to the street. Then the office will be everywhere.

Joe Moran is a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University

"Queuing for Beginners: the Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime" by Joe Moran is published by Profile Books (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits