The office stripped bare

A new 'biography of the office' from Melbourne-based writer Gideon Haigh captures at last the centrality of office work in our lives.

The office is a microcosm of society, a place where people come together for work and relationships, encounters, confrontations and all sorts of clumsy adjustments to get things done. Today’s office, however, is in a state of flux through the impact of outsourcing, telecommuting, hot-desking and the rise of Wi-Fi warriors tapping away at their lap tops in cafes and bars. But then, as Gideon Haigh writes at the end of his latest book, The Office (Melbourne University Publishing), it’s an institution that’s not about to disappear. That’s despite us now being in an era of conclusions with pronouncements about the end all sorts of things, from the end of America and the end of history to the end of oil and the end of ideology.

Look around you and you will see that rather than it coming to an end, the office is now more visible than ever. If office buildings were to vanish tomorrow and everyone were to work where they lived, Haigh says, it would be the ultimate triumph of the office because our work would be all encompassing and everywhere, with no escape.

Haigh writes: "Yet the nature of the office is that it has never been the stuff of absolutes – total rationalisation, absolute paperlessness, unswerving obedience, complete freedom. Rather has it hosted activities of the most human sort: endless balancings, muddled compromises, temporary improvisations, a doing of the best that’s possible in the time and circumstances. Office work, furthermore, hardly seems to be vanishing. Far from it: there seems more than ever, which is precisely why the physical office is bursting at is boundaries, and our jobs are worming their way steadily into our homes, and ever deeper into our days.”

In this first-ever biography of the office, Haigh shows how it is so much part of the human condition. "Precisely because the office involves mind work, it is a playground for all the passions and pains, rompings and resentments, dartings and divagations we know our minds, directed and not, to be capable of... It is true that the office is a place where the emotion and instinct do not enjoy free rein, but it is in the act of reining that we are often put in closest touch with our humanity. However staunch our resistance, the office is a maelstrom of feelings, suppressed and otherwise…”

Haigh looks at the birth of the office in Ancient Egypt and the tomb of Meketre, the treasurer who had worked for Mentuhotep II and who had supervised the coffers and cargoes of Egypt’s complex command economy. His tomb, now behind glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, features several 20-centimetre figures performing what is unmistakably office work. They include scribes writing on tablets and papyrus scrolls, doing what clerks have always done, copying and record-keeping, putting everything in triplicate.

Signs of the office were also found in the clay tablets of Babylon’s Hammorabi and in the catalogue system devised by Aristotle for temple papyrus scrolls. The Romans, rigorous compilers of voluminous notes, actually developed a system of shorthand for office use.

Haigh looks at offices in monasteries and those established by the merchants of Christendom. He takes us to the offices set up bankers and bureaucrats like the Medici. Then we are taken on a tour of offices run by statesmen of the Ancien Regime in France like Cardinal Richelieu and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the all-powerful minister of everything. Colbert was given to 16-hour days. With his relentless focus and eye for political games, he became Louis XIV’s closest confidant with such titles as Secretary of State, Intendant of Finances, Superintendent of Buildings, Superintendent-General of Commerce and Administrator of the Ile De France and district of Orleans. Haigh brings Colbert’s office to life. It was a world that incorporated his home, archive and library with 23,000 volumes – bibles, manuscripts and classical works, and all the documentation of state, from statistical digests and industry surveys to sketches of winches and price lists of nails.

He then takes us to the office of the East India Company, which actually produced the oldest surviving office manual, all 80 pages of the Laws and Standing Orders Made and Ordeyned by the Governor and Company of London Trading to the East Indies, for the Better Governing of the Affaires and Actions of the Said Company Here in England.

The office has always been a seat of power and influence and office life. And all those Groundhog Day routines of endless and systematised repetition have never changed. As Samuel Pepys wrote in his 17thcentury diaries:

"2 January: So went to my office where there was nothing to do.

5 January: I went to my office where the money was again expected from the Excise office, but none brought.

13 January: Thence to my office, where nothing to do.

14 January: Nothing to do at our office.

11 February: This morning I lay long abed, and then to my office, where I read all the morning my Spanish book of Rome."

It’s ever been thus.

Then again, the philosopher John Stuart Mill enjoyed the office as "an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried out simultaneously, being sufficiently intellectual not to be distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought.”

Haigh writes of Mill: "He walked to work daily, arriving at Leadenhall Street at 10am in time for tea, a boiled egg and buttered bread, then composed political dispatches while standing at an upright desk for as long as they took him – usually three hours. Nice work, if one could get it.”

Those, like Mill, who thrive in the office will always be with us. Which is why that world is not about to disappear.

While Haigh looks at the goings on in all the powerful buildings and in the businesses behind them, the most captivating parts of this book are found where he surveys the office in literature, film and TV. The bibliography here makes captivating reading.

Indeed, the creation of Mad Men was just part of a tradition that nurtured the creative spirits of figures like Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Christina Stead, Honore De Balzac, Anthony Trollope, PG Wodehouse and Franz Kafka to name just a few. They too wrote about office life.

And then there was T.S. Eliot, who got a job at Lloyds Bank in 1917 where he spent his days, mechanically tabulating figures and summarising the French and Italian press, perhaps while noting down his thoughts for his poems with their layers of meaning covering over his disillusionment with the world. During this time, he produced The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men.

Eliot wrote: "I sit in a small office with a mahogany desk and a tall filing cabinet, and feel much more important than my salary warrants, as I have charge of all the balance sheets of the foreign correspondents, filing and tabulating and reporting on them. Not that I know anything about banking, but the business is so huge that I don’t think more than half a dozen men in the bank know more than their own little corner of it.”

Like Mill, Eliot found office congeniality was the rich soil that allowed his creativity to flourish.

No feature of office life is left unexamined here, from the impact of technologies ranging from the typewriter to the BlackBerry, the telephone (Stalin said of the telephone that "no greater instrument for counter-revolution and conspiracy can be imagined” and kept a secret phone in a drawer for eavesdropping on conversations of colleagues without recourse to the Kremlin switchboard), the introduction of punch cards, email and word processing, the focus on punctuality, the urge for meetings, the constant interruptions, office affairs and pornography.

Still, if the office has been such an important part of working lives, why wasn’t this biography done before? Maybe it is because in the twenty-first century, the office has become fashionable, with the rise of shows like Mad Men and the British and American versions of The Office – a tradition that began with various shows like The West Wing, The Wire, Boston Legal, 3D Rock and Ally McBeal.

Haigh’s work therefore is a timely reminder of the centrality of the office in our lives.

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