Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Office culture and officiousness

The culture of the Western office has been entirely remade in the last ten years or so, at least in terms of popular culture referents. As to whether “office culture”, as that term might be anthropologically understood, has indeed shifted, who knows? – I doubt that there is too much serious research going on in this area, so if there is a lost tribe somewhere out there, still using telexes and pools of typistes in 2003, the chances are we’ll never know.

Apart from absorbing popular culture, though, I have had a few forays myself into actual office work over the last decade – so I can assure any readers out there, anxious about an imminent possible descent into a Cultural Studies Wank, that you need not fear. This blog always has been, and always will be a “Buffy”-free zone, and while you can be a fan of this show without being a Cultural Studies player, the converse has, I believe, been scientifically proved as impossible.

Here goes reeling off some keynote referents of the pop-culture office – Dilbert, open-planning (also oxymoronically known as cubicle culture), slack workers and nightmare bosses (the latter two memorably portrayed in the British TV show “The Office”)*. From my limited working experience in offices, the above pop-culture mosaic is pretty close to the actual mark, but with one exception. Call centres, despite being physically almost identical to pop-culture’s idea of the office, culturally resemble factories. This is hardly an original observation, yet its is one that the broader public still stubbornly refuses to accept, so let me spell it out – You get “service” from call centres just like you get “quality merchandise” from the factories of China; i.e. you get what you pay (them) for, and semble, when was this ever not so?.

But back to the office ordinaire. The thought that got me writing this was an experience I had this morning, at an office tres ordinaire. It was at my Work for the Dole provider (another oxymoronic term, as it is my unpaid “work” that provides paid work, of the dig-a-hole-and-then-fill-it-back-in variety, for all of them). This morning, I presented myself at my WfD provider, as I am required to do, but was soon informed that my supervisor was sick, therefore (to paraphrase) the proceedings of the day were cancelled. Fair enough – one could hardly expect any of the six of so able-bodied people in their office today to be able to take over the highly-technical task of babysitting a few uni graduates for eight hours. And I’m sure outside locums for such tasks are in equally short supply. And maybe the regular supervisor only called in sick a few minutes before I got in, thus accounting for the provider’s otherwise lack of courtesy or common sense, in not ringing me earlier to say “Don’t come in”.

All fair enough, as I’ve said – that is, until the WfD provider’s receptionist, in bidding me off, said that I “could make it up next week”. By which I assumed that she meant I would be under some kind of obligation to submit myself for extra WfD babysitting next week. As to which my silent (of course) answer was (of course): “Like fuck!”.

I bring up the receptionist’s comment here because it strikes me as being worlds away from the modern pop-culture office. She spoke spookily from the office of another time, using the jargon of pure officiousness – that little extra dollop of mild malice, mixed with the gratuitous striving of someone ill-educated-and-trying-to-hide-it.

* Alas, despite my being on notice for having a bee in my beanie about baby boomers, I can’t help but note here, Ken Parish, that the arsehole boss in “The Office”, played by Ricky Gervais, is a boomer presiding over a wretched gang of mainly Gen X subordinates.

Update 2 September 2003

Thanks to Yobbo for his comments reminder re "Office Space". It seems that this movie has had a neatly inverse career path to the typical US white collar worker - going from underperforming box office fodder in 1999, to being a watch-and-watch again daytime "cult" hit, courtesy of 2003's couch-dwelling, unemployed ex-dotcommer legions.

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