Saturday 16 May 2020

We shall miss the office if it dies

Will the Coronavirus pandemic (apparently it is not a pandemic, because too few people have been infected so far, but let that pass) be something everyone will remember for generations? 


Will it make huge changes to the world economy, to politics, to human nature? Virginia Woolf said, "On or around December 1910, human character changed". Will it change again?

Who knows?

What we can be sure of is that it will accelerate changes that were happening anyway. Sales of newspapers will never recover, for example, and anyway they were anachronistic. 

In Romania they never caught on in a big way after the revolution and people used to get their news from television. Now they get it from the internet. This terrifies those who rule us because they cannot control the internet, mostly thanks to the US First Amendment protecting free speech.

It will also change forever the old fashioned habit of people travelling into offices. 

Will offices as we know them even exist in ten years? The old offices of filing cabinets, tea ladies, people smoking at their desks and drinking at lunch are gone. The old Romanian offices of twenty years ago, pullulating with flirtation and office affairs, where cognac was offered to guests at business meetings, are also gone. 

I wrote about 1990s Romanian office life here.

Lucy Kellaway, who used to mock office life in a column in the Financial Times (I never found her funny), now says we shall miss it if it dies. She makes some very good points. The office imposes discipline on the most undisciplined (I know this), even if the firm is a very small one and it creates rituals. Rituals are essential to life and give it its meaning.
The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work its meaning. Most of what passes for work in offices is pretty meaningless, and the best way to kid yourself it matters is to do it alongside other people intent on doing the same.

Even in interesting jobs like journalism, meaning comes largely from physical proximity to your colleagues. After six weeks of writing in her own bedroom, one friend reports: “I’m churning out the same old articles as before, only now I no longer give a crap”.

Without an office, without a body of people beavering away at the same place and time, it is hard to know how a company could ever create any sort of culture or any fellow feeling — let alone anything resembling loyalty.

The office helps keep us sane. First, it imposes routine, without which most of us fall to pieces. The uptight schedule of most offices forces even the least organised person to establish habits. Even better, it creates a barrier between work and home. On arrival we escape the chaos (or monotony) of our hearths; better still, we escape from our usual selves.

One of the beauties of the office is its artificiality — it demands a different way of behaving, a different wardrobe and even a different language. Having two selves with two different outfits and two ways of being is infinitely preferable to having just one: when you get tired of your work self, return to your home self.


  1. I've read your old post about office life in Romania in the 90s. I'll share an anecdote.

    In 1995 or 1996 I was an intern for the summer in the IT department of the state-owned Romanian Railway Company. One male employee spent his day playing some Rallye or Forumla One video game, another one was a huge hobbist of everything electronic so he spent his day fixing radios, TV sets etc, the only guy who seemed to be working was a competent guy called Costi. There was also a young girl, slightly overweight, but yummy, pale white skin, reddish hair, often dressed in a very short jeans skirt, ending just under her buttocks. I suppose her job description was very vague because I couldn't gather what she was doing there.

    One day she notices an acquaintance of hers through the open window (we were on the ground floor in the city centre in an old magnificent building, high ceilings, high windows with old wooden frames), goes to the window, and starts chatting with her friend outside the building. She stretches her body on the window frame and we get an even better look at her behind and thighs. The intelligent guy, Costi, just gets in through the door opposite the window, the first thing his eyes meet are Angi's buttocks and spontaneously bursts: "Angi, if the boss ("şefu'") saw you now his dick would immediately get hard". (I think that you can imagine how it was formulated in Romanian.) She jumps up like burned, turns around, "băi Costi", she elegantly retorts, "you promised me when they hired me that you would treat me like a fellow male colleague!". "And this is how I treat you", he says, "otherwise I would have long fucked you".

    Everything was in a joking tone, both his two comments, and her reproach. I was about 19 or 20 and had to keep a straight face. Should I also mention that I got my internship there because my mother worked for the Railway Company?

  2. Livia Micu commented:
    So much space wasted when we can work from anywhere. I am sure that that space could be met by more suitable needs... Why not housing for homeless people or other people in need