A eulogy (or should that be epitaph?) to the office

Written by: Miri
May 23, 2022
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As the world descends into monkey madness on this otherwise splendid summer's afternoon, I thought I would take the time to reflect upon the thought - the hitherto very unlikely and improbable thought - I have every Monday morning: "I wish I was going to the office."

Since losing my conventional 'day job' courtesy of the corona circus in 2020, I have not set foot in an office, and every single thing I have done to earn money since (from stuffing envelopes to strongly worded letters and a variety of things in between) has been done from the "comfort" of my own home.

And, although some aspects of this are indeed "comforting" (certainly, not having to endure arduous commutes: there was a time in my life when I commuted from Lewisham to Putney every day - 10 minute walk to the station, overground to Charing Cross, transfer to Embankment, District Line Olympia to Earl's Court, District Line Wimbledon to Putney Bridge, 10 minute walk to the office, then back again at the end of the day - and that I do not miss) - other aspects of it, well, they might be sending me slightly mad(der). As I know I'm not alone in this, I thought I would share some further reflections...

I've always liked getting out into the world and working, and indeed, was quite an industrious child in this regard. When I was primary-school aged, me and my friends would go door-to-door, sponges in hand, asking the neighbours if they wanted their cars washed - and, on one particular occasion when short of funds, me and my friend Alistair phoned up the local newspaper to arrange to place an advertisement to sell some of our computer games. We promptly used the proceeds of our lucrative scheme to hire a bouncy castle for the day (my dad was rather surprised to return home from work that day to find a giant inflatable filling up the entire back garden, but congratulated us on our savvy business nous). And we just LOVED car boot sales, and as often as possible would round up old toys and clothes and pester a parent to drive us to one so we could convince unsuspecting members of the public that they really DID need to acquire a seven-year-old Big Yellow Teapot for 55p (we would allow ourselves to be generously talked down from 70)..

As soon as I was old enough, I started doing odd jobs for the university administration on the campus upon which I grew up, including stuffing envelopes for mass mailing exercises and - and I genuinely think this remains my favourite job of all time - working on the Clearing switchboard. If you're not familiar with it, 'Clearing' is the annual scheme in which A-level students who didn't get their predicted grades and therefore missed out on their university of choice, engage in a desperate scrabble to gain a place at another institution. Because Keele, the university at which I resided, is a small, semi-rural campus and not part of any major city, it has never been hugely popular with your average 18-year-old, and so it always has a lot of Clearing places. That meant that, in almost every case, when someone would phone up - often close to tears after being rejected from the university they had so carefully selected and imagining their future evaporating before them - I could offer them a place at Keele instead - and then *I* would be close to tears at how absolutely euphoric and enormously grateful they were.

At the time (a long time ago now), there were no huge tuition fees and a degree still really meant something, so it felt like I was doing something meaningful and good. I truly loved that job - and not just the nature of the work, but the people. That was my first proper taste of office culture, and it showed me how quickly really close friendships can develop in those environments, replete with little in-jokes and anecdotes and funny phrases (that people outside of the office just don't get). In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, instead of going onto university myself once I'd finished my A-levels, I instead elected to get a full-time job working for the Keele Admissions office.

That job I also really enjoyed: it lacked the intensity of the highs of the Clearing summer, and to be honest, I remember very little about the actual nature of the work I did - but I do remember the culture, the people, and the life - the human drama - of the office. And I loved it. I was (and indeed remain) an only child, and I never liked it. I had friends, plenty of them, and I saw them a lot - but what I really wanted was to be part of the hustle and bustle, the drama and noise, of a big family, and office life was the first comparable taste I got. Office life, I discovered, had it all: friendships, frenemies, romance, rivals, secrets, conspiracies and lies - it was all there! I stopped watching soap operas at that point, as I didn't need them any more - I was living one! I genuinely looked forward to going to work every morning - again, not for the nature of the work, which I've long since forgotten - but for the people and the culture, which I certainly have not.

Eventually, I decided it was time to spread my wings a little further than the tucked away university that everyone thinks is a service station, and so, when I was 24, I moved to London. The aim was to pursue a career in professional writing, but first, as all London-based aspiring creatives must, I had to pay my dues in a series of the city's call centres.

The first one I worked for was a large outbound charity fundraising outfit, located just off the roundabout on Old Street. I can remember the general theme of the work - calling people to try and secure a £2 a month direct debit for charidee - but nothing more specific than that. No phone call or direct debitor stands out. What I do recall with vivid clarity however, is, once again, the culture and the people. I made several really good friends who I went on to see regularly for the remainder of my seven-year tenure in the capital, and who brokered many new opportunities for me, both socially and professionally. Indeed, courtesy of someone I met at this call centre entirely by accident (the friends I usually sat with and I had been separated by the grumpy manager for talking too much and I was sent to sit beside a random) went on to link me up with the best-paying job - and best office culture - I ever had. (That also happened to be the one with the ridiculous commute, and for those two reasons - especially the latter - I was prepared to keep doing it.)

After my stint at Old Street, I went on to work in another call-centre which had similar aims - raising money for charity - but was known for being, shall we say, rather more "direct" about it. Hence, they were subsequently investigated by an undercover reporter for the Daily Mail and closed down, but that was after I had left. The news of their exposure did not surprise me in the least - what surprised me was that it had taken so long for it to happen... I went to work there because rumours ran amok at my initial workplace that this rival call centre paid a princely £10 an hour, which seemed an unfathomable fortune at the time. They did, but it quickly emerged what they expected from their staff for this king's ransom, and they weren't things I - or most of the other staff - were prepared to do (being really aggressive to the point of bullying on the phone etc.), hence they had a huge staff turnover and people rarely lasted longer than a month. Often because they were summoned to the manager's office, screamed at at length, and fired if they hadn't succeeded in that day's extortion goals... Not a great culture there, then, but again, I met some fantastic people, and I liked the commute - it wasn't far from where I lived, and I could get there on the DLR, which is probably one of the most exciting things in the world for semi-rural 20-somethings who have just moved to London. The DLR, you see, is an electric train with no driver, so you can sit right at the front and pretend to drive it yourself. And yes, adults do do this. The DLR goes through the London docks, which are super-modern and futuristic to the extent they look a bit like something out of a computer game, which adds to the overall excellence of the experience.

My next job (with the dreaded commute) really sealed my love of office culture, which expanded not just to include the office I worked in, but other offices in our building, staff at local cafes and coffee shops, and other regular commuters. I developed a whole little routine, starting with where I got my first coffee in the morning, to people I said hello to each day and had the same conversations with over and over again - I used to get my lunch from a little French café right by Putney Bridge station, that did delicious authentic food at really reasonable prices - chicken cassoulets and beef bourguignon - which they kept at the front of the shop under heat lamps. For most customers, they would stick it in the microwave for a few minutes, but for me (already a budding conspiracy theorist), who was suspicious of microwaves, they would just give it to me as it was - "you'll heat it up in the office, right?", the twinkling French server would always say with a smile (that's the excuse I gave so as to not come across as a weirdo).

Then I would walk back to the office down the New King's Road (and once the commute was out of the way, Putney was really a very pleasant locality to perambulate around) where I would always see "smoking guy" outside the office (always at lunch, and first thing in the morning). We would always smile and say hello, but he worked in a different office to me, so in the nearly three years I worked there, I never knew his name. Not that that really mattered, given I had such a bustling and intense social life courtesy of the office I did work in.

A sales outfit that mainly employed Antipodean travellers under 30, it was about as intensively social an atmosphere as you could get, and featured such highlights as "Vodkaccino Fridays" (going to the nearby Starbucks at lunchtime Fridays, getting Frappuccinos, topping them up with vodka, and returning to work...). The atmosphere was so close, friendly, and almost family-like, that people would stay on after hours or come in on Saturdays when they weren't contracted to do so, just to hang out and chat. Indeed, on one occasion, one colleague of mine who was "between houses" (kicked out after a row with a housemate) actually moved in to the office. She tried to disguise it, but we all realised something was amiss when she suddenly started being on time for work every day.

"She's on time," observed another colleague of ours cannily. "Because she's sleeping here." - and indicated a pillow hastily shoved in a draw.

She didn't NEED to sleep there - she was from a wealthy family who were bankrolling her travels - she just liked the adventure (and the mischief).

I can remember all the local eateries and pubs - The White Horse, Aragon House, The Red Lion, and good old TGI Fridays - and the "hangover cafe" (I can't remember it's official name), which did full English breakfasts and the strongest coffee around. When eventually the commute got too much and I moved to Wimbledon (as such was the pull of that office, I preferred to give up my house than my job), I would look forward every morning to the sunny stroll through town and the novelty of a - finally, very short - overground-underground journey (Wimbledon Park, Southfields, East Putney, Putney Bridge. Once, I stayed on further to Parson's Green as an experiment, and walked to work the other way, but that just felt all kinds of wrong - it wasn't part of the routine).

When that company later went into liquidation, it was nothing short of a tragedy for many who worked there - not primarily because they were losing their income - even though it was post-recession London and tough to get a new job - but because they were losing, almost, their culture. People worked there from all over the world - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil - but we created a little microcosm to which we all belonged and losing it was really hard. (It was at this point, when I was temporarily out of work, that I finally had the time on my hands to order my first "conspiracy" themed book and learn there was a little more wrong with the world than microwaves.)

Several other office jobs followed, right up until 2020, when I was working in market research in an office a short drive away from my house. Again, the nature of the work was largely forgettable, but I did enjoy the structure, the routine, the being around other people.

I knew that that was all changing in a deeply dark way forever, when I was coming out of the office toilet stalls to wash my hands, and a complete stranger barked at me to "sing happy birthday twice".

Soon afterwards, our manager summoned an emergency meeting and announced it had been decided we would all work from home for an unspecified period "as a precaution".

More than two years later, everyone at that firm is still working from home and there are no plans for it to ever change.

I actually ended up losing that job because the specialist piece of equipment I needed to work from home - that I was expected to arrange myself - didn't work, and "because of the pandemic" I was unable to get anyone to come and fix it (the company in question would only take calls from "essential workers"). So, ever since then, I've undertaken various things to facilitate an income - and every last one of them has been done from inside the four walls of my home, not somewhere I have ever before in my life associated with "work". From when I was very young and touting my bucket and mop door-to-door, work was always something you got out into the world to do, and that was one of the most attractive things about it.

No more.

Because the thing is, almost everything I have ever done to earn money (apart from aforementioned car splashing - not sure we would really call it "washing") is something that can be done from home, as is the case for many. Admin can be done from home. Envelope stuffing can be done from home. Telephone work can be done from home. And of course - writing can be done from home. In the climate in which we now reside, there's no reason for me to ever set foot in an office again, and it struck me (again!) this morning what a real loss that feels. The overlords know this, of course. That's why they've restructured work expectations and so handsomely facilitated and subsidised WFH options (which I can't help but always read as 'WTH' - internet speak for 'what the hell'). They want us to feel that loss, because they know just how sustaining "going to work" is - not just "doing a job", but the whole multifaceted tapestry that surrounds that job when you go out of the house to do it.

If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend checking out this "cute" (terrifying) little cartoon the BBC released, just veritable weeks into the pandemic, about how work life would be revolutionised forever in the future, and "going to the office" five days a week would become a relic of the past.

The current ruling elite waged psychological war on us a long time ago, and they have been relentlessly trying to demoralise us for decades, because a demoralised people is apathetic and rootless and easy to overthrow. In their quest to break our will, they have fractured most of the institutions that have typically sustained humanity and made a human life worth living - culture, community, religion, family - all things under sustained attack in the West and mostly destroyed altogether - but the human spirit has remained quite buoyant in spite of all that's been done to us, and a key reason for this for many people was - going out to work.

The overlords realised this. That's why they've taken it away.

I read a truly harrowing account recently of a father who is tearing his hair out over his twenty-something son, who was at university when "the pandemic" hit. All classes went online, so his son returned home to complete his degree in his bedroom. He then got a job with an accountancy firm, who have gone 100% WFH, so this young man spends his entire working week sitting alone in his bedroom. He has no work mates, no breakfast meetings, no Friday night works' drinks - no life. He has "a job", he earns money - but for what?

His father is deeply concerned - and with good reason - that he will effectively never leave his bedroom again. He said his son is quite shy and so this "suits" him - that without a work routine forcing him to leave the house, he is quite happy not to do so.

A whole generation is at risk of this fate, and as much as I miss the highs and lows, the gossip and dramas, of office life, at least I did get to experience it, at such a formative social time in life. What about young people now? How are they going to socially develop in a normal way when it is completely viable for them to effectively never leave the house again?

What I'd really like to see is some kind of "shared office club" - they have these in London, hubs for small business owners and others who work from home in which to rent a desk and be around other people - but one for like-minded people - a conspiracy commerce club! - where us anti-maskers and anti-quaxxers, who are stuck working from home, can get out of the house and be in a work-like environment, and reclaim that vital piece of human connection that has kept so many going for so long.

Who's with me? I'll even throw in Vodkaccino Fridays... (not from Starbucks, though, obvs. And - let's just be clear on this right from the start - no sleeping in the office...)

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