Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The hidden pleasures of office culture

The hidden pleasures of office culture Alain de Botton

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, of course, is 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 (let’s say) a marketing unit senior manager rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe.

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 resource department to coax us into being more civilised.

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. The new figures of authority must involve themselves with childcare centres 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 resource department.

Contrived as these rituals may seem, it is the very artificiality that guarantees their success for, the laboured 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.

Office work distracts us, it focusses our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it gives us a sense of mastery, it makes us respectably tired, it puts food on the table. It keeps us out of greater trouble.

(Alain de Botton’s new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is published by Penguin.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

Courtesy : The Hindu

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