Office life is a peculiar beast. Here, in our sterile surroundings we can make magic happen. If we’re lucky and hardworking, then the outcome that matters is not what makes the company money, but that we are able to build anything in the first place. That we’ve chipped a bit away from the hostile work environment, from the glass ceiling, from the privilege and exclusivity of power. But it’s hard work.
Thankfully work and the office also provide an endless source of fascination for writers, thinkers and been-there-done-it’s; and their output helps to mask the fact that one day you’ll open your eyes in your whitewashed, open plan, fake-aired hell and realise shit, I still have another 45 years of this.
Books that are not worth reading; or books about how you should work
I’ve never really understood modern business books. In the same way that I don’t understand diet books or self help books.
The new breed of books on office or work process for tech companies are often little more than over-extrapolated blog posts with buzzfeed-esque hooks: “11 crazy ways you should do business like a drug dealer”. As with any well packaged promise, they encourage you to have little or no interest in learning from your own experience (lest you discover common sense). Their unsubtly in marketing their own brand or company amongst the “advice” is vulgar. But more importantly, they put profit before the evolution of thought. The joy of the internet (as in mass idea sharing) is that thoughts are free to evolve with no marketing team or book printers to pay. If an idea doesn’t work we can move on, quickly. A favourite example of this comes via a recent blog post by one of the Agile Manifesto founders, who explained that agile is dead because it is no longer… agile. There are currently nearly 1,500 books about agile on Amazon. That’s a lot to rewrite.
As David Ogilvy in Ogilvy On Advertising (1983) says, don’t get distracted by buzzwords:
I occasionally use the hideous word creative myself, for lack of a better. If you take the subject more seriously than I do, I suggest you read The Creative Organisation, published by the University of Chicago Press. Meanwhile I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. ‘Creativity’ strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.
Books that are worth reading; or books about how you probably should not work
So what books should you read to prepare you for a life of tedious grind in an uncomfortable chair where you’ll never smell the seasons on the wind? These are some of my recently, read along with a classic favourite:
London and the South East by David Szalay (2008)
This is the story of Paul, who is driven to an existential crisis by the meaningless vacuum that is a career selling advertising space in an obscure financial publication.
First off, a confession. I am hugely biased about this book, because at times it felt like David Szalay had reached into my own memories for the narrative. It’s familiarity was nauseating at times. I lived this book for almost three years.
The book is set in the relatively austere 1990s. This was the world of print-based niche financial publishing pre-2007 subprime mortgage induced financial crash, which means:
First, the at-desk vice was largely booze. Drugs made a more prominent at-desk reappearance in advertising later in the 2000s with the birth of the startups, but here were simpler times of alcohol abuse and performance-bonus anxiety.
Second, there was no modern sales process machine to mitigate the fear of failure. No Salesforce, no lead qual scoring, no new products to sell so you had to blame your yearly hike on “inflation” and “paper prices”. This was the era that made people stand up to sell, but selling drunk was actively encouraged (not least because it helped you forget how tough it was).
Thirdly, there was literally nothing to do when your magazine went to print. In fact, there wasn’t much to do at any time you weren’t on the phone except stare at the magnolia walls hoping their blandness would absorb some of the soul-destroying rudeness, patronisation and inappropriateness of the people you had to call, and fixating on the impossibility of even making your sales target let alone filling the empty spaces on the magazine pages over and over until the clock dragged itself to 5.30pm.
So I lived Paul’s crisis. Others I worked with lived it. Paul, in the midst of his crisis becomes obsessed with a job in the menial. One that bypasses the complications of office politics and personal development plans. We dreamed and obsessed over this pre-industrial fantasy. It’s natural to want to draw a line of simplicity in a field in Devon. But we never escape it. Hope dies a horrible death. Like Paul, we eventually swing back round, climb back on the carousel horse and nod sadly at the operator and accept that – as the music starts – it probably won’t stop again.
In reality, I found myself in the wrong job.
Why should you read this book?
To be reminded of two things:
One: Work is important, but it shouldn’t trigger an existential crisis because you hate it. It’s a fucking struggle, but you can find something that doesn’t make you weep with fear on Sunday evenings in anticipation of Monday’s hell.
Two: Don’t lead by the example that drove you to madness in the first place. It’s entirely possible you will one day hire someone who has suddenly found themselves in the wrong job. Remember what that felt like.
Office Life by Keith Waterhouse (1978)
A spiralling satire on the inanities of office life, this novel is a journey into the precise mind of Gryce, a man who says he can better picture his coworkers than his wife. Gryce looks forward to his new job, and feeling comfortable in the unchanging nuances of office life in the late 1970s. If London and the South East hinted at fantasies of the pre-digital, then Office Life was the reality of it. Forms and stamps and procedures and biscuits and carbon copies and flings and birthday cake. Intrigue and canteens and scandal and office rituals and all the things that are designed to keep you coming back every morning at 9am.
Gryce through his own pompousness and helplessness is drawn into a multi-layered conspiracy around the very existence of the company he works for — British Albion. He fusses and pokes and prods — mostly in an attempt to capture the attention of Pam, his coworker — until he is unable to stop himself from falling down a rabbit hole that he’ll never climb back out of.
At its heart it is a crisis of (1970s) industry, a crisis of (1970s) identity, a crisis of (1970s) government, and a decent explanation of the importance of work rituals. It’s a still-accurate portrayal of your office cast. Its also a notion of being lost amongst the cogs in the machine of a big company which moves so imperceptibly you’re not sure if it’s moving at all. Where it is against the rules to upgrade your software – even if it is essential to do your job properly, where it is against the rules to recycle equipment — meaning the brand new MacBook Air that Johnny (who got fired before the end of his probation for being utterly useless) used is just being consigned to a cupboard, where catty office memos are dispatched just because you got too lazy to put your shoes back on to get water from the kitchen, where it is frowned on to spend more than £20 per head per person at a client lunch, but totally fine to fly first class, where… *head explodes*
Why should you read it?
Because if you’ve ever worked in a massive corporation and been baffled at the heavy weight of bureaucracy, then you should be entertaining ideas that it is all one big government front.
How to Survive Nine to Five by Jilly Cooper (1970)
The oldest of the books but the most raunchy and comic. The one that assumes you’ll understand that a job is just that. It is, after all, like the stationary should be, something not worth taking home with you.
Jilly Cooper also assumes you’ll be a fucking disaster at work, and won’t know what you’re doing. It might seem antifeminist, but it’s really not. She absolutely accepts that absolutely no one knows what they’re doing, from managing director to office boy. This book was a present from my dearest friend when I first started working in an office, and it simultaneously ruined my expectations and gave me hope that perhaps it was possible to be in serious business without being, well, serious.
On the taking control in a meeting:
One woman I knew used to smoke a pipe, and when she wanted to create a diversion she would get up, wander down the table taking butts out of the ashtrays, tear them open and fill her pipe with the tobacco.
Why should you read it?
To always remember not to take everything so damn seriously. A friend recently mentioned that the company he works for is doubling down on its efforts to finally become post-revenue, and instigating a period they are internally dubbing “war mode”. They have been going for 6 years and are $60M investment down without making any money, the party is over. Remember that there is no excuse for humourlessness because unless you run the company then this really isn’t your fault. This company will sink or swim with or without you wearing your rabbit ears to work.
However, if it IS your company, and you need some sound advice to get you through “war mode”, then instead of picking up the latest book by a self-styled digital prophet, you should consider reading:
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (be a dick!)
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey (don’t be a dick!)
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (be a dick!)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (don’t be a dick!)
And if can’t bear books:
Listen to Jilly Cooper’s recent Desert Island Discs. On her father being sacked:
I wrote ‘may you rot’ in lipstick all over the directors notebooks when we left… that cheered me up.
Watch the inimitable Office Space (1999):
Also published on Medium.