Commentary: I made fun of office life – and then it disappeared
Office culture had gone from being timeless to being a time capsule, says the Financial Times' Rebecca Watson.
LONDON: When my debut novel went to auction last year, the one thing I didn’t expect was that by the time it was published its setting would be obsolete.
A day in the life of an office worker in her twenties, the novel, titled Little Scratch, in part mocked the mundanity of the working routine.
The unnamed narrator travels to the office on the train, commuters huffing and rushing to get to their important destinations alongside her. She eats her lunch alone in an office nook, she is bombarded with emails and tedious phone calls, she clock-watches like it’s a competitive sport.
The working day was a timeless plight. I had no fear it would go out of date: These mundane systems seemed to have a stubborn permanence. Futile, boring yet dominating many people’s lives.
That’s what I believed, anyway. But when my book came out in the US this week, the structure I was satirising felt like a fossil. Office culture had gone from being timeless to being a time capsule.
A DIFFERENT PACE
The pandemic has inevitably shifted perspectives on work. I know friends who have recognised how much of their self-worth has been skewed towards work: The feeling of being needed, of having purpose derived from the work routine.
Suddenly, they went on furlough. They learnt that they were expendable.
Recently, I was shown the results of a staff survey for a medium-sized London company, about the experience of working from home since coronavirus struck.
The majority of participants answered that they valued the money and time they had gained working from home for the past five months, and would prefer in the future to work one to three days in the office. Many had found a better balance between work and life.
For me, working from home – the anxiety and misery of the pandemic aside – has been far better than being in an office. This is no slight on colleagues, who I am very fond of and who make the days pass in jest.
But I feel freer. I cannot pinpoint what it is exactly. Yes, I no longer sit under strip lighting, unable to see the outside. Yes, I no longer eat lunch out of Tupperware. But it is more than that. It is a complete shift.
There is a different pace. I feel more together. Inexplicably, I have more time to think. I do not get home late and go straight back out to buy ingredients for dinner. I do not rise early, racing to leave on time.
Now when I am tired I sleep in, waking up at 9 in time to start for 10. When I am not, I read in bed. I write. Or I simply think.
Working days have never felt like passages of time where I could reflect. Everything piled up, collecting until Saturday like the weekly wash.
STUCK IN THE NINE-TO-FIVE ROUTINE
The nine-to-five office routine is a trick: It doesn’t just trap you into its daily structure, it forbids change. The near necessity of living in expensive cities if you want a job in certain sectors means forking out money on travel, or if you're living in London, on rent that can halve a salary.
How do you escape? For many it is impossible to save, or only in slithers. The distance between you and the treadmill never changes.
For my generation, working in a system not as a means to an end but as a means to anything, work culture felt broken far before the pandemic. But there wasn’t a clear fix – maverick choices are difficult without financial support.
Now, remote working suddenly seems like something companies might take seriously. I have gone from feeling as if I will never own a place to wondering: Where could I move that might make it possible one day?
It is not that I want to be a recluse – repetition can happen at home too. I have suffered with a lack of creative stimulus. Writing has been difficult without changes in scene. But that isn’t working from home, that’s a pandemic.
What has felt right is the flexibility. I have taken actual lunch breaks. I have walked to parks near our flat, rather than aimlessly perambulating the city streets before turning back 15 minutes later.
If it’s raining, I can read on the sofa. I am not stuck to my desk, with all the corporate signals prompting me back to my email. There is a rigidity – a one-tone to the office working day. At home, it softens.
OWNERSHIP ON TIME
Prior to working at the Financial Times, at a different office job, I once needed to leave work 30 minutes earlier than my hours prescribed. In order to do so, I had to get written permission.
It wasn’t that a task would otherwise not have been done, it was the ownership on time. It was that old-fashioned idea that showing up is working, that employers have the monopoly on your physical body.
Over the past five months, preparing to launch my novel, I have often wondered how the book would read if it was set now. My character – who is concealing from herself a trauma – uses the busy structure of the working day to hide.
Distractions compete for her attention. The office routine holds her together but it also enables her self-deceit.
What if she had been working from home? I suspect that the pace would slow, the interruptions would lessen. Finally, she would have time to think.