2006 – Working in a distracted society
I once spent far too much time reading a book by Joseph
Heller called Something Happened. I read it because I had
enjoyed his first and best known book, Catch 22, a satire
that exposes the absurdity of rules, hierarchy and assumptions
The irony of Something Happened is that nothing ever does
happen throughout the novel that relates the dull, repetitive
working life of Bob Slocum, a US corporate executive.
In the long run, however, the book may have helped to crystallise
the thinking that turned me in to an office renegade. A
fellow renegade, David Bolchover, became so disillusioned
with office work that he broke free and wrote The Living
Dead, a book that exposed what its subtitle called, somewhat
dramatically, “the shocking truth about office life.”
The problem with office life today is that it is not shocking.
When working in an office did have the capacity to shock,
it helped to maintain your energy levels. Like a good family
row at Christmas it gave us something to talk about. Bosses
used to shout, typewriter carriages could be slammed with
intensity and the earpiece of a phone was robust enough
to be battered on the desk in frustration.
“It isn’t a laugh anymore,” confessed
an old colleague last week. It isn’t a barrel of laughs
in my home office either. Home working, the much vaunted
alternative to the large office, can be a lonely existence
at times when your only social contact is the dog.
The big advantage of working at home, I suppose, is that
you can switch at a whim from office work to doing something
else. But you can do that in the office too. As David Bolchover
pointed out, quoting from various surveys, people are spending
large chunks of their office time every week dipping in
and out of web sites to look for holidays, amuse themselves
on internet games or venting their spleen in some favourite
forum. We live in a distracted society.
One of the reasons he chose to work for himself, he admits,
is that previous office jobs, including highly paid management
jobs, had left him chronically under-worked. The point he
makes in the Living Dead is that he was far from alone.
There are thousands of people in big companies everywhere
drawing good salaries for doing very little.
How can you possibly feel good about your work if there
is little to provide any intrinsic satisfaction? I wouldn’t
recommend working for yourself as a panacea for office-based
idleness, but it does remove any need for the kind of “sham
busyness” that prompts people to switch screens from
their computer game to that on-going project whenever anyone
approaches their desk.
At the same time it removes the guilt attached to under-work
and keeps you focused on each piece of contracted work that
must be undertaken to the satisfaction of a client. The
customer is boss.
No-wonder so many companies are beginning to focus on employee
engagement. Disengagement is endemic. Some are seeking internal
remedies but many are looking increasingly at external labour
sourcing. This was apparent in a survey of mostly finance
and HR executives carried out last month by Archer Mathieson,
a Windsor-based headhunting and interim management firm.
It wasn’t a large sample – some 260 respondents
– but the results from the feedback were overwhelming.
A big majority of the executives expected project work in
their companies would increase in future, that outsourcing
and offshoring of jobs would also increase, and that homeworking
and other flexible-working arrangements would grow.
They expected a greater, not lesser need for cross-border
mobility of workers in future. They understood the implications
of demographic trends, believing that the numbers of workers
on their payroll over 60 years of age would need to grow
in future. No quite so many – two fifths of the sample
- believed that they would experience difficulty with entry
level recruitment. But had that question been asked five
years ago I doubt if much more than two or three per cent
would have envisaged such problems in future.
I must declare an interest in this survey because I primed
the questions myself. I know that some labour academics
are clinging to job tenure statistics that suggest that
employment patterns are not changing so dramatically. If
change is not happening so swiftly it is because neither
employers nor the government have yet to install the mechanisms
and incentives to create more fluidity in the employment
Over-manning in public and private sector employment is
not seen as a priority within a government that views full
employment as an economic target. But full employment should
not be achieved at any price. There is little economic merit
attached to a job that does not deliver sufficient productive
In the private sector such complacency is dangerous. Globalisation,
new market entrants and cheaper competition are dictating
the pace of change in labour sourcing. Internally there
is a more insidious competition undermining employee productivity
– the competition for attention.
The competition for attention is not confined to junior
employees such as clerical staff who are emailing their
friends. Senior executives are emailing in just the same
way. The chances are they have been given the means to do
so any time, anywhere on hand-held devices such as the Blackberry.
When there is no differentiator anymore between tool and
toy, should we be surprised if the toy begins to win the
battle for attention? As the same technology that became
the great enabler proves its capacity as a disabler, some
companies are fighting back by monitoring email and internet
A report last week by the Surveillance Studies Network,
prepared for the Information Commissioner, disclosed the
extent to which the UK has become a surveillance society.
It is not uncommon today for the vans of maintenance crews
in the utility sector to have their routes monitored by
global positioning satellite. Any deviation to the route
or a break for a cup of tea and a read of a paper in a lay-bye
can be monitored.
Such intensive monitoring, however, is destroying trust.
How many of us want to work for a business that is not prepared
to trust us to do our work properly? If companies are genuine
about empowering their employees they must give them the
freedom to get on with their work in a way that is going
to deliver results and that must allow opportunities for
exploring new working relationships.
The “permanent job” is a meaningless phrase,
more so today than ever. Work itself is permanent. It’s
not going to go away, nor would we want it to. But working
relationships, the variety and diversity of work must change
for all our sakes.