Wisdom from the realm of the office zombies

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The air-conditioning hums, beguiling and deadening. The clock ticking away on the wall soothes the senses. Beware my friend, lest you become one of the sitting dead; zombified into observing the rituals of office life.

Chris Johnston cartoonEven if we are lucky enough to be able to stare out of a window, the respite of daydreaming doesn't change our reality. The postmodern, multi-levelled, Dilbertian wasteland of open planned desks and shared oxygen is familiar to many of us, by experience or observation. As reported last year, the average office worker in Australia puts in 40.6 hours a week.

On top of that, ABS figures from 2015 suggest that one in three of us are still in non-leisure mode when we leave the cubicle, with 'nearly half of the 3.5 million people who often work from home in their primary employment [doing so] to "catch up" on their heavy workloads'.

The Pollyanna aphorism 'find something you love to do and you'll never have to work a day in your life' has apparently been inaccurately attributed to Confucius since 1985. The closest the sage came to this romantic view of yakka was a line expressed from the view of the bosses, saying, 'When he chooses the labours which are proper, and makes them labour on them, who will repine?'

The answer as to who will repine, rather obviously, is the labourers.

Work is work: a voluntary choice to cede sovereignty of your time and efforts, so as to be remunerated. You may believe in some of the results engendered. You may be using and refining your skill sets. You may actually like some of the people wedged cheek to jowl. But it's not your ideal, your oasis; nor was it ever going to be so.

It's weird, is it not, that we spend so much of our lives with people with whom we wouldn't necessarily engage otherwise, or choose as companions? Awkward social scenarios and workplace malfeasance are not new ground, thanks to the UK and US versions of the mockumentary The Office. There are and will be office politics, misunderstandings, gaffes and inadvertent rifts in the social fabric.


"Abandon all hope, ye who enter therein without a sense of humour and a modicum of tact."


The ABC recently explored the role and presence of anger in the workplace, utilising the research and observations of associate professor Peter O'Connor. O'Connor posited 'merit to both expressing and controlling anger' in, out and around your cubicle. Aggro, he finds, tends to occur when people feel 'unjustly treated by others ... When you feel like someone is messing with your goals or obstructing your plans [and through] interpersonal conflict, like personality clashes and differences in attitudes.'

Thankfully, I have found over decades that having to choose whether or not to intervene in someone's meltdown (or throw a tantee myself) has been a rare ethical dilemma. The vast hordes of office workers tend to pick and choose their moments. Contrary to the infrequent outbursts I have seen over decades, it is not worth risking employment over a passive aggressive inquisition into who thieved whose lunch from the fridge, who gets to shiver under the air-con ducts, or who's nominated to growl at the troglodytes who didn't refill the photocopier's paper trays or left their cups in the sink.

Perspective, balance, considered thought, and measured action. Do your work, meet your obligations, and put in. If you control your tongue and show a good poker face in staff meetings, you could be a lock for that promotion, or at the very least you're a good chance of surviving the merger.

Actually, Confucius probably would have thrived in the artificiality of the modern workplace, with his admonition that 'the superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions'. He also would have mastered the art of dragging out a project or tempering the boredom with other projects, as he believed 'it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop'.

Mandarins may come and go. The seasons may (too slowly) change. But surviving the repetition and banality of a life entombed in the same walls takes some doing. We were not born to breathe in the corporate rhetoric and deaden our minds until home time.

My take? Make your own fun. Live in your thoughts. And abandon all hope, ye who enter therein without a sense of humour and a modicum of tact.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, office work



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Existing comments

"The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life". So said Samuel Johnson. In 1756. In the age before open-plan offices, and trays of photocopy paper. However, the more things change..... Thanks, Barry, your perspective is always humourous and tactful.

Pam | 24 February 2018  

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