Working in an office for
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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