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)