The Meaning of (Office) Life

29th March 2014:

This first appeared in PA Enterprise Magazine - January 2014


The Meaning of (Office) Life


Audiobook Review :  Lucy Kellaway’s History of Office Life”


Have you ever looked at your work colleagues and wondered “what are we doing here?” or even “how did we get here?”


If so, you are not alone.  Lucy Kellaway is the management correspondent for the Financial Times and she has been writing about office life for over 20 years.   It’s probably fair to say that she’s obsessed by it: the meaning of it, the depiction of it in the media, and the history of it all.   For two weeks during the summer, her Radio 4 series – now an audiobook – ‘The History of Office Life’ looked at every aspect of the office, from the “inky fingers and dusty coats” of Dickens’ clerks to the increasingly blurred boundaries between home and work. 


What she discovered was astounding.  And worrying.  And deeply depressing.


Nothing – absolutely nothing - about today’s office life is new.  Not in any way.  The stress, the new technology, the annual appraisal, complaining about the boss, the skiving, the boredom, the layers and layers of management – it’s all been done before.


And nothing is quite what it seems, either.  Promotion started out a way to exert control over employees, job titles began as a way to infer status on “the company man”, and open plan offices were – and possibly some still are - all about power and (that word again) control.   As for Dress Down Fridays …


Ms Kellaway starts her first programme under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, looking out across the City at all the office blocks stretching away into the distance in all directions and wondering how it all started, where it’s headed now and even if we really do need to all work together in these places we call ‘offices’.


The first purpose-built office in the country was East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, the HQ of the East India Company.   One of their Clerks, Charles Lamb, worked there for 30 years and in 1792 wrote some of the best accounts of office life in the late 18th Century.   Lamb wrote about how fond he was of his colleagues, how he found the work boring and repetitive, he complained about bosses and about long hours (he and his co-workers suffered badly from work-related stress - some even driven to suicide).  He also writes about how much he missed the job and his colleagues he when retired.   All very familiar, even at a distance of 200 years.


At this time, office jobs were often obtained by patronage rather than qualification (a case of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’) and by the late 18th Century, this was starting to cause problems.  Charles Trevelyan, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wrote a report on the unsuitability of recruits into Government departments.  In 1853, he wrote the Northcote-Trevelyan report, tearing into the inefficiency and mediocrity of Civil Service employees.  The result was that, after much opposition and hostility (and a bit of a delay for the Crimean War), examinations were introduced for all new applicants.


This is a sample of the exam questions for an office junior position – yes, office junior – within the Civil Service:


+ 'What were, at different times, the titles of the Chief Magistrate of Republican Rome?’


+ ‘Name the first and last of the 12 Caesars and who were the principal writers of the Augustine era?’


+ ‘Draw an outline map of the overland route to India.’


Bad enough.  Although, even today, interview questions aren’t always as straightforward as “why do you want to work here?”  At Goldman Sachs, interviewees are sometimes asked “if you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put into a blender, how would you get out?” 


I think I would rather draw the overland route to India.


By the late 19th Century, office technology had started to make its presence felt. Adding machines were becoming more popular, closely followed in 1870 by an invention that was seen as a giant leap forward for Clerk-kind: the filing cabinet.  Until this time, Clerks had to write everything in huge ledgers but the filing cabinet meant you could write on separate bits of paper which you could then file as you wished.  How wonderful!  I will never look at a filing cabinet in the same way again.  


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