An account of working in an office.
Working in an office — for a while
One of the articles that particularly intrigued me in the first issue of the Red Menace that I received was the one on "working in an office". I feel that I would like to share my experience and opinions on this subject. Both my name and the place where I now work are held back, for obvious reasons. My present position is only a temporary one (it is the first time that I have ever worked in an office), but it would still be rather unpleasant to lose it at this time.
What Me Work
The first thing that strikes one about working in this particular office is how little actual work ever gets done. Productivity is absurdly low. The essential reason for this is that efficiency is punished. Extra work will be piled onto anyone who has finished their assigned work. If there is no extra work to be found, the supervisors will still express their severe disapproval of anyone who appears to be doing "nothing". Anything that is totally outside the bounds of the usual "work'', such as reading a book, is only rarely done (and usually only by supervisors). One secretary was sacked for bringing her knitting to work.
While most activities that might even vaguely hint at personal enjoyment are verboten, there are two methods of time wasting that are tolerated. The first is to literally do nothing, to sit and stare at the wall. Numerous people can be seen practicing this "yoga of the void" at various times during the day. This method of time wastage is tolerated because 1) it is impossible to maintain for extended periods of time and therefore not immediately threatening and because 2) the excuse can be raised that one is "thinking about the job".
The preferred method of time wastage is, however, not daydreaming but talking. The people in this particular office have evolved a system whereby they are able to spend at least 3 or 4 hours out of each day taling to each other about linoleum, the kids, hunting, insurance, insulation, the new car, the old car, etc. Some people seem to do nothing more with their day than make the rounds of other peoples' offices.
The result is an effective reduction of the work day. The problem, however, is the narrowness of the means of reducing it. To have to converse all day is close to being as oppressive and boring as having to work.
Another problem that results from this method of workday reduction, a problem at least for those who have to deal with this particular office, is that nothing ever gets done. There are no incentives and many disincentives against ever finishing anything.
The supervisors are caught in a quandary in their attempts to deal with this problem. On the one hand, establishing an incentive program to increase productivity would challenge their control over the office environment. People when they would work and when they would read or go shopping. The office disipline would be undermined. On the other hand, attempts to increase the office workload by pressure cannot succeed either. In the first place, the attempt to force the staff to work harder would involve a substantial increase in the workload of the supervisors themselves. The incentive to accept this burden is not really present given the present organizational setup. Also, the open hostility that such a move would provoke would destroy the buddy-buddy" system upon which the supervisors presently depend to get anything done at all. The result of increasing the workload would more likely be catastrophic breakdown than increased efficiency.
We're All Friends Here
Which brings us to another point. The pseudo-friendly attitude that pervades the entire office is probably necessary for the staff to effect their reduction of the working day. You can hardly spend hours talking to someone you openly dislike. The real attitudes of most of the people here can, however, be gauged from the fact that it is rare for people from the office to meet socially outside of work hours. From what I have heard this is quite usual in most offices.
The greatest source of pseudo-friendliness, however, is the manipulation practiced by the supervisors. This technique is their response to the "shirking" of the staff. It connects well with the eternal conversations, as one of their favorite ploys is to break into a friendly conversation and gradually move it towards work matters. The conversation often ends with a grand finale of work assignments to everyone taking part in it. All this is, of course, done with a smile.
This happy bubble of friendliness is often punctured by minor plots that swirl up from the depths. These plots are usually due to the efforts of either two people in similar positions vieing for a promotion, or the efforts of an immediate subordinate attempting to work his way up the ladder a little faster. The lowest levels of the hierarchy rarely take part in the plots. The probable reason for the refusal of secretaries to take part in such plots is that they have little or no hope of promotion. Lower level technicians are usually too insecure in their positions to dare to take part in any plots. After all, anything they say may be passed on to the person referred to.
A Finely Tuned Sense of Hierarchy
One thing that strikes anyone entering an office from another job is the well polished nature of the hierarchy. Certainly in other jobs there is a boss and usually a supervisor. The majority of people working in a place, however, tend to be of roughly the same level in the work hierarchy. In this office, and perhaps all offices, the ladder is minutely graded into a multitude of different layers. Titles and subtitles proliferate like rabbits.
The physical layout of the office gives mute testimony to the hierarchical nature of the organization. The offices of the high suits, the chambers of the gods circle the outside of the office. The advantages of highsuitdom are numerous. Windows; you can actually see the sun during the day. Doors; you can shut out the rest of the office and read or go to sleep. Walls that are not simply dividers; you can make those hour long phone calls to the wife or mistress without the nagging fear of being overheard. Private secretaries; to enhance one's sense of self importance and to run interference with anyone who would dare to call upon a god.
Next on the ladder come the assorted non-descript administrators. These are graded into a hierarchy of byzantine complexity, as are the high suits. Unlike the high suits, however, their offices are grouped in the centre of the building. They are formed by dividers and have no doors. They are, however, still private offices. It is harder for these people to goof off than it is for the high suits, but it is still not impossible. The assorted administrators have unlimited access to the general office secretaries, but not to the private secretaries of the high suits. Perhaps one out of ten are women (none of the high suits are female). While it is possible for these people to goof off in private they generally prefer the talkfest method of wasting time. Maybe it helps in promotions to be "sociable".
Next on the ladder come the "lowly technicians". These people are generally grouped two to an office. These offices are of about the same size and layout as those of the administrators. They are also, however, infinitely more crowded as the lowly techicians usually require some sort of working instruments and files. The office "toys", so prominant in the offices of high suits and administrators, are absent here.
Whether paperweights, potted plants and "cute" fans are really so terrible to lose is debatable.
Next come the lowlier technicians. These are generally tucked in small corners off the major through-fares of the office. This position has the disadvantage that goofing off in private is impossible. All the desks of the lowlier technicians are arranged so that they can be seen but cannot see who is watching them without contortions worthy of the rubber man in the circus. These people, and the lowly technicians are the real talkers of the office.
Somewhere near the bottom of the heap come the lowliest technicians. These are not true office workers at all, as they are really laboratory technicians. They are occasional visitors to the office, and a likely source of high blood pressure for the more finicky administratiors. Lowliest technicians wear blue jeans and blue jean jackets, track in mud from the field, laugh loudly at bad jokes (their own) and generally disrupt the genteel routine of the office. They refuse to treat the functioning of the beloved institution with the seriousness its exalted status deserves.
On about the same status level as the lowliest techicians (perhaps a bit above them actually) are the private secretaries. These are generally older women. Their desks are placed in the open, as a sort of block to anyone attempting to enter a high suits office. Because of the positioning of their desks, they have absolutely no opportunity to goof off in private. They do, however, link in with the talk rounds of the other people in the office. Their major difficulty is that they are not permitted to "go visiting" unless on a definite mission. The private secretaries generally appear to be busy most of the time. Whether this is appearance or reality is hard to judge.
Finally, at the bottom of the heap come the general office secretaries and the "front desk girls". There may be a status difference between the two, but I have so far been unable to observe it. The only apparent opportunity these people have to kill time by talking is if someone from the higher levels gives them the chance to linger in an office. Initiation of talk fests amongst lover level secretaries is held in extreme disapproval by the supervisors.
The Lunch Room Too?
One of the interesting things about the above mentioned hierarchy is that it continues outside of the office environment. Besides the obvious fact that the different people in different levels live in different neighbourhoods, there are also numerous other ways in which the layering makes its presence known. In the lunchroom, for instance, each level sits only with its own kind.
The lunchroom in the building where I work serves several different offices. What makes me suspicious that the situation I have described in my office is typical is the fact that the tables occupied by people from other offices appear to be segregated similar to ours. An interesting side note to this segregation is the recent presence of repairmen working in the building in the lunch room. Abot two days ago a sign appeared on the door to the cafeteria: "This facility for public servants only".
One can distinguish the various levels of the hierarchy by physical appearance. The high suits, for instance, are all male, usually older, more conservative in dress, more confident looking, fatter, and generally more "prosperous". They have the look of someone who has "made it". The assorted administrators have a hungry discontented look about them. The various levels of technicians are indistinguishable, except for the lowliest technicians. Their physical appearance has already been mentioned.
The tables in the lunch room are usually sex segregated. This is despite the fact that everyone would love to relieve the boredom by talking to someone of the opposite sex. During one coffee break, I counted 6 all male tables, 9 all female tables and 2 mixed tables. The mixed tables are generally either a lone female administrator or technician sitting with her own kind or one of the high suits "visiting" one of the more attractive secretaries.
And so on, and so on.
Possibilites for Change
The possibility for change, at least in this office, is limited by several factors. The first is, of course, the finely graded hierarchy. There are not two classes of worker in offices like these but many. This means that each class, except for the lowliest, feels that it has some stake in the status quo. I suppose that this is an old story.
The potential for breaking down the barriers erected by this hierarchy is limited. The chance of "promotion" serves to compensate many of the people working here for the meaningless routine they have to endure. People who ceased to believe in the desirability of the hierarchy would be more likely to walk out (and be replaced by a believer) than stay and struggle on the job. Any push by the lower levels to increase their privileges (such as people beginning to come late regularily, or reading while at work) would only result in a corresponding increase in the privileges of the upper parts of the hierarchy and a maintenance of the hierarchy.
Another important factor that limits the evolution of offices such as this one into functioning parts of a free society is the total uselessness of most of the work performed. The prospect for transformation is blocked because institutional "liberation" would go hand in hand with personal liberation, and more critical individuals would be likely to peck it up and leave for more satisfying work. They would, once again, be replaced by believers, by people who would likely act as a drag on institutional reform.
These limitations, put together, make me believe that it is impossible to approach government offices in the traditional style of "organizing". A government office is not a place, such as en electronics or automobile plant, a library or a construction company, where workers could collectively turn their labour into liberatory channels if they had control. Smell victories, within the context of such offices, can and should be won, but they should be seen in a total strategy, not of transformation, but of destruction. Our goal, as libertarians, should be to erode the legitimacy of certain institutions to the extent that they begin to have serious manpower shortages - shortages that occur as workers begin to leave for more satisfying work/play.
The fight to gain small privileges within the office should be seen as part of this process of delegitimization. This process has already begun, under its own dynamic. Our job, as libertarians, is to experiment with methods of speeding it up. As long as people continue to take such jobs seriously, they will continue to act as stabilizing forces within those organizations whose job it is to reintegrate threats to the system (e.g. welfare agencies reintegrate threats from welfare rights groups, environmental departments reintegrate environmental groups, city planning departments reintegrate neighbourhood groups, etc.). Work from within such government agencies is important only in so far as it is subordinated to the construction of an independent system of opposition groups and workplaces, groups and workplaces which cannot be reintegrated into the system of government.
Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The Red Menace, Spring 1978.