Sat, Mar 28, 2009 - Page 9 News List

‘An unrivaled capacity to excite desire’ — the hidden pleasures of the office

By Alain de Botton  /  THE GUARDAIN , LONDON

As some of us clear our desks for the last time, and many more of us look around with new gratitude at our workstations, we should pause to appreciate the intense, rarely mentioned and often denigrated pleasures that are involved in going to the office.

The fashionable move is, of course, to mock the office. Artists are particularly prone, largely because they never go there and secretly envy those who do. If you went by most novels written today, the only things humans do is fall in love and, occasionally, murder one another — whereas, of course, what they really do is go to the office and sleep.

The office lends us an identity: We only need to look at our business cards to confirm that we are, say, a marketing unit senior manager rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe. How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate all that one might have been.

Watch anyone halfway competent at work and it’s hard to do anything other than respect them. In our age, levels of commitment that in previous societies were devoted to military adventures and religious intoxication have been channelled into numerical, legal and managerial needlework.

In the olden days, home used to be the place of kindness and refuge while the workplace was cruel and blunt. Now the equation is often reversed. How politely we tend to behave at work, next to the insults we throw at one another at home, where there is no human resources department to coax us into being more civilized.

Nowadays workers have to be “motivated”, meaning they have — more or less — to like their work. So long as workers had only to retrieve stray ears of corn from the threshing-room floor or heave quarried stones up a slope, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit. But the rules had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be, to a significant degree, content, rather than simply terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to draw up legal documents or sell insurance with convincing energy could not be sullen or resentful, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of managerial concern.

The new figures of authority must involve themselves with childcare centers and, at monthly get-togethers, animatedly ask their subordinates how they are enjoying their jobs so far. Responsible for wrapping the iron fist of authority in a velvet glove is, of course, the human resources department. Thanks to these unusual bodies, many offices now have in place a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying, a hotline for distressed employees, forums in which complaints may be lodged against colleagues and (I know of one office) tactful procedures by which managers can let a team member know his breath smells.

Contrived as these rituals may seem, it is the very artificiality that guarantees their success, for the labored tone of group exercises and away-day seminars allows workers to protest that they have nothing whatsoever to learn from submitting to such disciplines. Then, like guests at a house party who at first mock their host’s suggestion of a round of Pictionary, they may be surprised to find themselves, as the game gets under way, able to channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter. Power has not disappeared entirely in modern offices; it has merely been reconfigured. It has become matey. It is by posing as regular employees that executives stand their best chances of preserving their seniority.

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