Tag Archives: office

All aboard the mood elevator!

As a homeworker, I’m normally able to maintain a certain distance from the patronising initiatives that our bosses periodically roll out (their phrase, not mine), so it can be a shock when I’m confronted by the bunkum that my colleagues have to endure. On a recent visit to the office, I was bemused to find myself sitting at a hotdesk opposite a wall of motivational posters, the management equivalent of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’ One of them instructed me to ‘Be here now’, an injunction that, far from achieving its purpose of focusing my mind on the task in hand, created an earworm that led me to waste a good half-hour tracking down old Oasis songs on YouTube. ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’ burbled another. Well, duh, as my nine-year-old would say.

Alongside these pearls of management wisdom was a poster illustrating a vertical scale. The top half was labelled with upbeat words such as ‘resourceful’, ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’. ‘Sense of humor’ had been lobbed in there among the adjectives, demonstrating a cavalier disregard for UK spelling conventions and grammatical consistency, and contributing to the impression that the diagram had been scribbled out on the back of a beer mat five minutes before closing time. The lower half of the scale was reserved for a range of negative emotions towards which I felt myself rapidly gravitating – among them, ‘irritated’, ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’.

This is the mood elevator, an essential tool (so I’m told) for creating a healthy and fast-paced working environment and managing our corporate culture. The premise is that negative thought-patterns generate low moods, which impede our effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a neat solution, absolving employers of responsibility for their workers’ well-being. Never mind that you’re bored shitless on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, working for a boss who passionately believes in this kind of crap: just change your way of thinking and – ta da! – problem solved.

Initiatives like this are beloved of senior executives, whose bonuses and sense of self-worth depend on forcing underlings like me to waste our working hours attending culture workshops and goal-setting meetings. I wish I could just do my job, instead of filling out endless self-appraisal questionnaires and 360-degree feedback forms. What’s the appropriate response? To sink into an even deeper depression, or just shrug and go along with it?

One option is to be quietly subversive, playing the system while privately acknowledging its inherent absurdity. In her bestselling critique of French corporate culture, ‘Bonjour paresse’, Corinne Maier advocates various ways of subtly undermining our bosses. One of my favourite tips is: ‘You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.’

In the end, though, my ‘sense of humor’ fails me. Perhaps I would be able to laugh if it weren’t all so insidious. Taken seriously, many of these corporate mind-control games strip us of authenticity, turning us into cynics and manipulators. Once I was sent on a networking course, where I was taught various techniques for working a room. So now I know that the person who is rather creepily mirroring my body language has been on a similar course and is trying to establish a rapport, while ‘Can I get you a drink?’ is code for ‘Thanks, I’ve got what I wanted from you and it’s time to move on.’

My company trumpets innovation as a core value, and yet the one piece of blue-sky thinking that it’s not prepared to countenance is the suggestion that these initiatives are a massive waste of time. Another oft-cited value is diversity. Odd, then, that our bosses seem intent on making corporate clones of us all, drumming out the mavericks and weirdos who refuse to modify their ‘behaviors’ and simply want to get on with their work.

There’s no sign of any let-up. Today we received an e-mail encouraging us to create a special break-out zone in the office where individuals can contemplate their emotional well-being and mark their current level on a blown-up, laminated copy of the mood elevator. I think you can guess which adjectives I’ll be circling. Here’s a plea to management: let us be ourselves. We sell you our labour, not our identities; what we do for a living isn’t the sum total of who we are. Who knows, our productivity levels may even benefit from this refreshingly hands-off approach. Perhaps I should present it to our gullible executives as a ground-breaking new management theory.

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Bringing it all back home

When I tell people that I work from home, more often than not I’m met with surprise. ‘How can you do it?’ they ask. ‘Are you not lonely? Don’t you feel isolated?’ In short, I’m regarded as a bit of a freak. I’m bemused by this reaction, because I rather like my arm’s-length working arrangement.

The moment I return from the school run and shut the front door behind me, I feel a sense of relief. Alone in the house with the smell of ground coffee and the child-free hours stretching before me, I can focus on the tasks that matter. It suits my introverted nature, and above all, allows me to avoid an awful lot of the crap associated with the modern workplace.

My would-be office – on the rare occasions when I put in an appearance – resembles a call-centre, with its banks of workstations and fluorescent glare. The hot desks, break-out zones and refreshment hubs are designed to foster collaboration but seem to have the opposite effect. Perhaps it would work better if we were beardy creatives bouncing ideas off each other, or upbeat sales reps making calls all day. But our work is solitary, requiring us to concentrate for long periods, and the people it attracts tend to be slightly mis-socialised.

The physical environment exposes my office-based colleagues to scrutiny, obliging them to be polite and restrained. It’s stifling, exhausting and infantilising to have to work like this, always keeping yourself in check. An awkward silence descends as everyone taps away at their keyboards in enforced proximity; social interaction is restricted to a tight-lipped smile over the water cooler. At home, meanwhile, I can hum, scratch, grimace, gurn, argue out loud with myself, excavate bogeys – even lift a buttock and let rip, should I so wish. Try that in an open-plan office and see what happens.

Another advantage of being based at home is that I don’t have to engage with all the corporate blather. Recently, curiosity prompted me to attend a lengthy meeting at which a group of senior executives talked about innovation, brand perspective and the company’s go-to-market capabilities. We were instructed to ‘own that vision’, engage with our stakeholders and focus on the company’s organic growth strategy. Questions from the audience were designed, not to challenge the speakers, but to demonstrate how on-message (and therefore deserving of financial reward) the questioners were. I understood not a word of it.

How did we get here, to this upside-down place in which management is regarded as a profession in its own right, elevated above all others? How can it be that chief executives are paid two hundred times as much as employees in possession of specialist, technical knowledge – the people who make the product that the customers buy, bringing in the money that pays for the bosses’ big, fat salaries?

They’re like a dungareed tribe of overgrown toddlers, these executives, forever drawing up new corporate strategies with their glittery washable marker pens, and making up nonsense words to denote divisions and directorates within their tinpot organisations. They shift their coloured building blocks around the boardroom table to represent acquisitions, restructurings and redundancies, with no regard for the effect on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. They strip away our collective bargaining rights and impose performance-related pay to incentivise us, forcing colleagues to compete against each other for a share of a finite pot of cash that amounts to a tiny fraction of the executives’ bloated annual bonus.

Welcome to UK plc. Of course, I’m not completely protected from any of this by my home-working arrangement, nor am I so precious as to suggest that I could never work in an office. I could if I had to: I have in the past, and no doubt at some point I’ll do it again. It’s just that, in the words of Bartleby, that notoriously reluctant office worker, I would prefer not to.