Adverts and MPs praise the “buzz” of the workplace, but we all know the truth: offices are awful

Depressed workers, terrible bosses, infinite pettiness: why the end of office life is one of the few things worth celebrating about the pandemic.

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A few weeks, perhaps months, ago, employees at advertising agency ­McCann London sat down to work on a ­billboard. The campaign, for disinfectant brand Dettol, focused on “the little things we love” about office life. A dark green poster plastered around the London ­Underground in early September reveals what they came up with: “hearing an alarm”, “putting on a tie”, “plastic plants”, “buzzwords”, “CCing” and – perhaps most ­bafflingly of all – “taking a lift”.

On 3 September, the billboard went viral for all the wrong reasons, becoming a Twitter trending topic and making headlines in the Metro and Evening Standard after a user tweeted a picture of the ad. Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, joined in the mockery, tastefully noting the tonal ­similarities to Rent Boy’s famous speech by simply tweeting, “Choose death”.

But I think the mockery is misplaced. I’ve counted, and the team at McCann London managed to come up with 20 things they like about the office, which is surely a world record. As an experiment, I’ve just stared at my kitchen wall for five minutes in an ­attempt to come up with something better. What do I like about offices? I’m not sure that, “When a colleague brings in their dog and/or a Colin the Caterpillar cake” would fill up a billboard.

The Dettol ad is the latest example of offices being romanticised as the government tries to get us “back to work” (or more accurately, “back in black mesh swivel chairs”, as millions of people have in fact been working – and working hard – from home during the pandemic). Around the same time the “taking a lift is amazing!” Dettol ad was blowing up on social media, Jeremy Hunt told Sky News that people “need a bit of office banter” and praised the “buzz”, “fizz” and “excitement” of offices.

Offices only “fizz” once a year, and that’s when employees are each handed a third of a plastic cup of warm champagne to celebrate Christmas. As a freelancer whose office is a 13.5 tog duvet, I’m in the perfect position to admit what we all know but MPs and disinfectant brands don’t want to admit: offices are uniformly awful, and they may be the only casualty of this pandemic worth celebrating. (“Carol, could you find the plastic cups from last Christmas, please? They should be behind the leaking pipe and the stained mugs. No, we don’t have budget to buy more, give them a rinse.”)

The history of the modern office is fascinating, in that after everyone realised cubicles were depressing employees, open-plan spaces flourished, only for scientists to realise they made us depressed too. Three years before he died, designer Robert Propst, who invented office cubicles in the late Sixties, himself told the New York Times, “The cubicle-ising of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.” That same year, 1997, psychologists from the University of Calgary monitored Canadian ­employees as they moved into an open-plan office. Productivity plummeted, as did ­employee satisfaction.

The common denominator, then, is the office itself. Perhaps we’re not depressed by the insertion or removal of flimsy felt walls, but by needing a key card to pop to the loo, by colleagues that yell when they’re on the phone, by spilling soup on our keyboard, by making awkward small talk by (and sometimes, with) the printer, by the new kid looking over at your screen and attempting to bond by remarking, “I love that YouTube video too” – making your shoulders and those of your boss tense simultaneously.

My favourite memories of offices are favourites only because they are memories. For example, I once had a boss who used to stand in the middle of the thin corridor between the banks of desks, blocking the only access route to the loo and kitchen. As you walked up behind him, he refused to move out of the way. I can’t imagine what was going on in this man’s head; there is no possible explanation of his behaviour that could satisfy me. Later, he refused to let my line manager buy a communal fruit bowl out of fear it would make other teams jealous. Another superior at that company – who was not physically the same man, but almost certainly was spiritually – once lost a welly wanging contest at the mandatory work Sports Day, and spent the next two hours repeatedly throwing wellies over and over again while the rest of us picnicked.

So, yes, you could write, “the office gives us an unprecedented glimpse into the twisted variations of the human psyche” on a billboard, but then you’d have to admit that those psyches hold power over you for eight hours every day. At that same office, a colleague’s grandmother passed away while he was visiting her in Scotland. Although the funeral would take place in Scotland a week later, he was forced to return to the London office for a week rather than work from home. I myself was told to get a train that got me to the office half an hour early every day, as the next train would make me five minutes late. There was no reason for this except that it was how things were done. But that is not how things need to be any more.

Plagues have always changed our working conditions – you only need to sit through a primary school history class to know that the Black Death gave surviving workers unprecedented power. Research published by academics from the ­University of California, Davis, in June found that real wages increase after pandemics, with gains ­lasting up to four decades. Now that many of us are able to work flexibly, the idea of ­withholding a fruit bowl or not letting someone start work five minutes late already seems barbaric and archaic. Dettol and Hunt both seem out of touch. Down with offices, down with hearing an alarm, putting on a tie, plastic plants, and buzzwords. Down with lifts. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour

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