Friday 10 June 2022

Careers Syndromes: Part Two, The Office

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

Keep an eye out for the writing on the wall, while taking the mood of the meeting and reading the tealeaves...

An office is staffed by five women and one man. Only the man understands the accounts software they’re supposed to be working with so he does the work while the women chat and make tea. None of them can be sacked because unions/public sector. (See Keith Waterhouse’s Office Life, about an unambitious man who gets a job at an organisation that at first seems like all his other workplaces. But the phones never ring, and slowly he works out that the whole teeming ant-heap of employees are producing... nothing. And none of them have noticed.)

Not so unthinkable – some staff manage to work at an organisation for years without really understanding what it is for. (And I used to temp at firms for a week or a few days without having a clue what they did – I gradually worked out that most firms make and sell widgets and this is what makes the world go round.)

We have accreted people – and some of them took the opportunity to do nothing. (Ex-colleague)

You’ve been in a job for a while and you notice that nobody is performing function X. After a few more months you realise that The Powers That Be are expecting YOU to do it, without meetings, instructions, job description, mentoring or oversight. You don’t have the job title or requisite salary. You may get the sack for not doing the job they never told you to do, once they've worked out you aren't doing it. (I have actually lost count of the times this has happened to me.)

You're hired as X's assistant, but are gradually given several other responsibilities. X still thinks that when you're not helping him out, you're doing nothing. You end up as X's boss, but nobody – least of all you – dares to tell him.

Someone starts a job they don’t have much experience in, picks up a few technical terms and confidently throws them around but gets them slightly wrong. Doesn’t bother to do the research, read the book, manual or info, or ask questions. When you try to show them how to do something, they are too busy bluffing to listen. Or else they say “I don’t need to do that!” You give them, successively, five copies of some instructions. They bin them all unread. Frustratingly, they are very good at their job.

You send round memos (remember them?) giving tips on the computer system as you discover them. You get told: "I didn't read it because I didn't understand it."

You'd think people would be glad to know how to do their job faster – but that's the last thing they want. If they can do this task faster, they might be given more to do to fill up their time. And they find it easier to use the slow, inefficient way than to learn the new, efficient way – or to think of a workaround.

Ghost jobs: the people who did them have been made redundant, but the work still needs to be done by those who remain.

A plain, single older woman is a member of your team. You can’t get rid of her, so you get her to do something inappropriate which she has to go along with as a “good sport”. It makes her look utterly ridiculous, so that all the younger team members can laugh at her.

Spend an entire meeting discussing where to store the office Pritt stick.

You get a job, join a team, bond and have a great time. Then the boss leaves, a new one arrives and suddenly most of your friends have gone too. The new chief recruits his people. You realise he wants to replace all the old guard. Desks are “reorganised” in order to break up existing alliances – or to make them almost impossible to reach. You aren’t given tasks, and get criticised for not pulling your weight. The boss takes you aside for a "brief word" and tells you that you don't seem to be happy, and have you ever thought of going freelance? The new team has been instructed to freeze you out by pretending you aren’t there. You may “turn” them one by one, or make a dive for the exit.

You're hired, but are not given anything to do. Slowly you realise that your colleagues don't have anything to do, either. 

As the office shrinks around you, you still have a job to do and do it. You keep thinking it’s over, but it isn’t quite. But one day it is. 

In a 6-month period: I was hired to manage a growing anti-abuse team; hiring was frozen; an exec seized control for his own glory; my team was decimated; I and others were laid off; I got no severance. (@williampietri)

In the novel Towards the End of the Morning, Michael Frayn wrote about the old Fleet Street, once home of the UK’s newspaper industry, where people had jobs that took them a few hours a week, and thought life would go on like that for ever. They've become quite good at filling the empty hours, but it never occurs to them that this is no way to run a railroad – or a life.

I once worked with this guy who had the perfect scheme going where he solidified his reputation as the “busy guy” so nobody ever asked him to do anything or expected him to know details because he was “so busy” and in hindsight I think he just never worked.

Another staff member touchtypes invisibly, so people interrupt her, thinking she's not doing anything. She doesn't know you are supposed to act "I am terribly busy" – hunching over your keyboard and audibly huffing and puffing. Touchtyper wonders why they are making such a meal over doing something quite simple.

When someone is doing something computery and says "I can't talk now – I've got to concentrate", you carry on talking, because you just can't imagine what they might be doing.

A group of colleagues works together for 20 years. The firm sells the valuable office space and relocates their department to join others. The internet happens and the team's work is no longer needed. They are given other tasks, but some never forgive or forget. They sit in meetings with histrionically miserable expressions, trying to catch your eye.   

Computers automate parts of your job, but instead of being grateful, you moan that your job has changed and keep expecting Mary Poppins to come along, wave a wand, and say "All as before!" And it never occurs to you that if the operation is more streamlined and efficient, we can all go home earlier. (Techies say: "Your first task is to automate your job out of existence.")

A new colleague joins the team. After working alongside you all for a few months, she's given a new role: saving the company money. After a while she leaves to "write a novel". A round of redundancies follows. (Took me years to work that one out.)

New guy is clearly going to supersede the boss. Boss suffers “slow erosion of his position”.

A colleague had her workload reduced and her job moved to another state. (

When someone looks and acts like a leader, but isn't one. (Koen Smets

Lead from behind:
 Make someone else the leader. Someone malleable, with expertise but no ambition. You pull her strings and tell her what to say, while taking none of the blame. ACT II: She turns out to have ideas of her own. Act III It turns out she really cares about the job/project. ACT IV: She refuses to spout your ideas or enact your policies. You do her favours, you take her on offsites, you open the discussion in a pleasant location – and she still won’t follow your instructions because she has more loyalty to the organisation, the project, or the art you are engaged in – than she has to you. She has actually become the leader instead of you.

Why not undermine the person who’s supposed to be in authority over you, in view and hearing of others who are also supposed to be managed? They will enjoy it, and you can all get together and laugh about it.

An employee has repeatedly let you down. So you give him some responsibility, because, poor thing, nobody trusts him.

Some people ask “What would I do if I was in charge?”, while others wonder “How will this affect me, one of the crowd?”

In the Richard Bissell's novel The Pajama Game, the manager won’t give the workers the pay rise they merit, or update the aged machinery, but spends huge amounts of time and money on motivating his sales force. 

A new manager abolishes antiquated procedures and activities. She throws out 20-year-old rubber-band balls and drawers full of unusable Treasury tags, and stops staff saying “When we were in the old building...”. Work is now streamlined and efficient. As soon as she goes, everything goes back to as it was in Year One

An organisation goes through many updates and reboots over 20 years. But there are some who, given an inch, will rush straight back to the original conditions, ignoring all updates and reboots as if they had never happened, and forgetting everything that has been added to or altered in working practices in the past two decades. They spend a lot of time galloping down memory lane and reminiscing about the Good Old Days. They imagine the organisation's original form and purpose is the real one that can never change.

Another, on the other hand, joins the organisation with the intention of turning it into something completely different it is never likely to become. He assumes an authority he doesn't have. After a few years of trying to impose his vision on colleagues, he leaves to pursue the same project elsewhere.

Staff are emotionally invested in duplicated paper records, and a library that nobody needs any more since the internet happened. They even regret grimy old yoghourt pots used as pen holders, and long-expired herbal tea-bags.

Anything on a woman's desk – pens, staplers – belongs to the firm and can be used, borrowed or appropriated permanently.

You work in an office for several years without finding out where the stationery cupboard is – or that there is one – or that such things exist.

You have little idea what your colleagues do, and it doesn't occur to you find out. You manage not to see that they are working, and interrupt them every five minutes. 

You work for a well-known firm while simultaneously despising it.

I know so many college-educated people whose idea of incompetence is someone who won't do something until the second nudge email, rather than someone who literally won't do something the right way even after you demonstrate it ten times and explain why it's important. (@herandrews)

You refuse to learn more about new technology than the minimum needed to do your job, so that you are terribly surprised when it becomes possible to run the operation from another country and you're out on the street.

When newspapers got rid of printers operating hot metal typesetting machines, many journalists were astounded to find that they were now effectively typesetting their own stories on a computer. They just hadn’t foreseen it.

Staff waste a lot of time fixing problems caused by a software setting that could easily be tweaked to solve the issues at a stroke. And every time they fix it here, it pops up again there. When the boss is told how it could be fixed for good and all, she doesn’t understand the explanation, and comes up with an instant objection that isn't really an objection. Unfortunately the tweak would need to be made in the master template by staff at head office, who don’t understand the problem either. The one person with the knowledge can’t get past the boss, and has no authority to give instructions to staff at head office, who barely know of their existence. (More technophobia here.)

You think yourself too good for most jobs. You expend more energy in moaning about conditions than doing anything about them; in getting compensation than doing the job. Sometimes while living off a boyfriend or girlfriend.


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