I have never worked in an office before. I often wondered what it would be like and created, as one does, my own imaginary picture of “office life”. Now I am able to compare the reality with the imagined version.
If you ask me whether it’s good to work in an office, my answer must be a resolute “yes and no”. There is a good side to it and a bad side. Of course, as this is the first office I have experienced, it would be foolish of me to try to draw general conclusions. I imagine that offices, like households and communities, have individual characteristics, and that the office that you work in might be completely different from mine
The first thing I noticed was what long hours people work. In most of my other jobs, work was timetabled. In the library, for example, I might be on the counter for the last hour of my shift. Someone would come and relieve me and that was that. There was nothing left to do except go home. In the office, it’s different. There are people who are there when I arrive and who are still there when I leave. I jokingly asked one chap if he lived there and he replied that no, he normally left at 5 pm but today had got embroiled in emails. I have yet to see him leave at 5.
The next thing I noticed was how hard they all work. We are told that Britain is a nation of skivers and scroungers. Not according to what I see here. Of course, it depends on how you define “hard”. Sitting at a desk all day processing papers may not seem as “hard” as drilling a hole in the road or carrying bricks on a building site but it’s “hard” enough in its own way. I asked one person how she could bear to work like this all the time and she replied “It’s the people. We all get on together. That makes it bearable.” I can relate to that: what I enjoyed most about working in the library was the team spirit and the fun we had together.
Another thing is that in the office, everyone has his place. In other jobs I had no place: I just went wherever the timetable said I was to go. If I had to do sit-down tasks like processing books, I would find an unused PC in the workroom, make some space by moving boxes and heaps of books, and get on with it. It was a place to work but it wasn’t my place. In the office, each has his desk, chair, PC and personal items. There is the little deckchair for the mobile phone, the photo of one’s kids, a half-eaten Mars bar. And, of course, the personal wallpaper on the PC which you change according to the season: currently they all have Easter-themed wallpapers.
At the library, I was very mobile. I had to go here and there, upstairs and downstairs. The office is static by comparison. People arrive, they set to work, they go to the coffee machine, pop out for lunch or eat at their desk and get stuck in again until it’s time to go home. This affects me. I feel guilty when I go to the toilet and find myself hurrying, despite telling myself that how long I am away is my business and no one else’s. There is something oppressive about it, like being locked up all day even though the locks are cultural rather than made of metal.
I steady my nerves by telling myself I am not really an office worker. I am doing this as a temporary job for pin money. This isn’t me. I am acting a role. This comes easily as I have never felt that I was whatever it was I was pretending to be, teacher, bookshop assistant, library assistant. I have always done my work “with the tips of my fingers”, as the French say. This is just my body in this chair: I am somewhere else.
Would I do this job – or one like it – again? That’s a difficult question to answer. My instinct is to shudder and say no, never again. But like anyone else, I can be seduced with money. Time passes, memories dim – especially memories as vague as those engendered in the humdrum world of the office. Perhaps if they offered me something in a few months from now I might be tempted. As of now, I can’t wait for 5 pm next Friday when my contract ends and I will at last be Freeeee!