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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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