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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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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