The Blog

What Are the Realities of Working in a Contemporary Office?

Maybe, like high-tech production facilities there is a need to rethink the long-term effects of working on the same task day after day. IT was supposed to make our lives simpler and increase the range of things we could do. Some may be justified in feeling that it has helped to enslave.

When I was growing up I was warned that those who did not work hard would end up in a factory doing a mundane job. Strangely, during my PhD research in the early 1990s into using quality management systems I did get to opportunity to visit a number of high-technology (world-class) and they always seemed like fairly exciting places where people were producing, in many cases, wonderful products which customers would value.

If you have never been to a modern car factory the clever use of technology to assist workers is something to behold and very different from the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times in which the character he plays is subjugated by the speed of the machinery which, in turn, is controlled by unseen - and uncaring - capitalists.

However, working in an office was something that never appealed. The idea of sitting behind the same desk day after day didn't seem like much fun. More particularly, the prospect of dealing with mundane paperwork was not likely to offer the degree of stimulation that I craved. If you see old pictures of lines of office clerks there is something vaguely militaristic and overly-systematic.

The rise of the bureaucracy has been captured in many films but most provocatively in Terry Gillam's dystopian and nightmarish fantasy Brazil which concerns the character of Sam Lowry who works for the Ministry of Information. He yearns to escape the shackles of the system which is used to spy on every person.

However, in the last three decades in this country, working in an office has become the form of employment for millions who carry out a range of administrative functions. Granted because of computers the amount of paperwork has significantly decreased; remember that it was predicted that by now we would be living and working in the paperless society. But the basic functions remain the same; dealing with those processes which have not yet been replaced by IT.

Perhaps the best example of contemporary office working is the call centre where hordes of telephone operators spend their day either phoning customers or being contacted by existing or potential clients with a range of queries, issues or complaints. If you haven't seen it, try watching the reality television series The Call Centre which is filmed in two companies in South Wales. It is truly excruciating and though there may a degree of acting up for the camera, the fact that it real makes it much more uncomfortable viewing than Ricky Gervais's The Office which was at least a parody.

In The Call Centre is meant to give a view of this form of office as being a place where, it appears, almost exclusively young people, are engaged in what is known as 'telesales'. For those who know nothing about what goes on it could seem like a fun place. Indeed, as the intensely annoying Nev Wilshire, who is a great deal older than his employees (53 years old) contends, "Happy people sell. Miserable bastards don't. So smile as you dial?"

However, this approach has to be tempered with the fact that two of the companies which were featured in the series have been fined £225,000 by The Information Commissioner's Office for making nuisance payment protection insurance calls. As we all know, receiving these calls is not welcome though I don't expect that you have told the 'cold caller' to "F**k off" or that you hope they die which, we are informed, occurs regularly.

Working in the modern office engaged in sales is a high-pressure activity which is not for the faint hearted. However, for many people they are now the main form of employment in places, such as South Wales, where traditional forms of employment have largely ceased to exist; though I accept that the mining and steel industry were largely the preserve of men. Indeed, they employ over 30,000 people and contribute £400 million to the Welsh economy so, I guess without them there would be a lot more unemployment and misery.

As Sandra Busby who is MD of the Welsh Contract Centre Forum argues, the antics we see are not representative of what really occurs and the reality is a good deal less "glamorous work." And, call centres account for over a million jobs in the UK so is not an insignificant form of employment. It's worth recalling that only twenty years ago the belief was that call centres would all move to India where companies could significantly reduce their costs.

Now, it seems, companies are returning these centre back to this country. Many realise that having well trained and dedicated employees who are, to use the jargon, 'customer-focused' is a way to achieve success.

But a modern office can, according to some, be like a modern form of prison with supervisors in a contemporary form of the panopticon. Your activities are monitored by very technology which was meant to liberate us. It can tell managers how many emails we send and to whom, which websites we have visited and, in the case of call centres, the number and duration of calls made to clients. The use of performance-related pay to incentivise sales is an inevitable consequence of the need to ensure that employees create as many 'closures' as possible.

Working in offices as well as being a very significant form of employment is probably seen by most as a thoroughly modern trend. But it is not.

There is a radio four series currently running which is dedicated to considering the history of the office; Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life. As she explains, the provenance of the modern office has its origin in the commercial enterprises which grew larger as a result of the boom in trade following the industrial revolution. Clerical employees dealt with the invoices and paperwork.

Fascinatingly she describes the essayist Charles Lamb who wrote about the working life of an administrative clerk employed by the East India Company in the 1800s who complained about the 13 hour days which included weekends.

Work-related stress may also seem like a new phenomenon but Lamb describes one man who threw himself out a window to his death because he could not stand the pressure. The belief is that if office working induces tedium then a good way to relieve the boredom is to allow workers to let off steam and play games; in The Call Centre Nev Wilshire organised karaoke.

Whatever we may think about office work, for the foreseeable future it will remain as a form of employment for many.

Maybe, like high-tech production facilities there is a need to rethink the long-term effects of working on the same task day after day. IT was supposed to make our lives simpler and increase the range of things we could do. Some may be justified in feeling that it has helped to enslave.

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