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Anxiety Culture: Office Slave

No self-respect cognitive dissonance in the office...
(Column No. 1; Guardian 2/10/06)

How do you avoid becoming a corporate drone? Firstly, it helps to accept that if you spend most of your waking hours confined to the office, it will eventually get to you. Anyone starting an office job expecting to escape the politics and petty bureaucracy is in for a shock. You can't expect to remain dignified in that environment. It's better to recognise your inevitable deterioration into something contemptible. The only alternative is to join the ranks of the deluded, seek opportunities and aspire to professionalism – but that's the action plan of the trainee drone.

Of course, jobs are supposed to give people self-respect, not take it away. But due to the nature of the typical workplace (authority hierarchies, miscommunication, chaos), employees end up behaving in undignified ways: concealing things from their bosses, redirecting blame, feeling resentment over trivial matters, reporting that everything's fine when it isn't, hiding in the toilets, etc.

Obviously this behaviour doesn't fit our beliefs about ourselves as essentially rational and well-adjusted. The result is cognitive dissonance, which occurs when our self-image is contradicted by our actions. How can you come to terms with your 'guilty' behaviour if you see yourself as honest and dignified? You think you're above it all, but the evidence of your own actions shows that you're immersed in it. Faced with the horror of your out-of-character behaviour, you rationalise and make excuses. You turn into an office drone.

Any smart person with a meaningless job suffers the crippling cognitive dissonance of: "I am intelligent, my waking hours are spent in stupidity". Rationalisations are used to mask the frustration: "I'd be bored without my job" (if you really believe that, it's probably time to consider entering a nursing home). According to Leon Festinger, creator of dissonance theory, the less you are paid to do stupid work, the more you will attempt to rationalise it ("well, it was fun"), rather than admit to doing it for the money. Remember this next time you hear someone claim to "enjoy" their underpaid desk job.

As an office worker, don't expect to have any dignity. Perhaps the only way to stay sane is to accept that you'll turn into something despicable. Don't fall for the office management propaganda about integrity and professionalism. In the corporate workplace, self-respect is out of the question – it exists only in the delusions of drones.

Employee motivation
(Column No. 2; Guardian 16/10/06)

Staff morale is a dangerous thing. Most companies spend money on morale-boosting schemes in the belief that it will raise productivity, but this is a mistake. If staff get the idea that they're supposed to be happy, where will it end? The risk is that it will lead to an eruption of office hedonism in which employees pursue a more relaxed approach to work. Obviously this can't be allowed to happen.

Businesses invest in motivational schemes mainly because of a fear of employee apathy and its effect on output. This shows they have a poor grasp of psychology, as apathy results not from a lack of motivational indoctrination, but from an absence of outlets for staff laziness. There's so much apathy inside corporations because people are expected to be productive 100% of the time. The only real solution to apathy is scheduled laziness. But obviously that can't be allowed to happen.

Another problem with morale-raising is that employees might get too uppity. If this happens, the mantra of office authoritarianism can always be invoked: "You're not being paid to enjoy yourselves". But this is risky because it contradicts the motivational message that you should enjoy your work. Office managers have a tough job keeping a balance between morale and cowering obedience.

You can experiment with this by suggesting that your company adopts schemes to shift control from bosses to underlings, "in the interests of morale". Optional Monday-morning attendance, for instance. See how long it takes before you're reminded that employees are paid to make the company profitable, not to make themselves happy. In fact, managers would be terrified of genuinely happy employees. Happiness means endorphins and relaxation, not adrenaline and strain – carefree workers aren't going to be perturbed by unmet deadlines or big overspends. Your boss would rather have you reeking of stress.

So, for every morale-raising gesture from the managers, there's an esteem-lowering mechanism in place. This keeps productively stable, as morale never gets high enough to undermine worker servility. Esteem-lowering devices are legion – performance reviews, automated employee-monitoring and a never-ending parade of patronising staff-development schemes courtesy of the Personnel Department.

A typical example of the latter is the team-building exercise. As if normal office work isn't demeaning enough, employees are forced to perform activities designed to humiliate. Team-building exercises originated in torture manuals – absurd "challenges" which have the effect of regressing groups of people to an infantile state, at which point they're supposed to bond with each other. The way to avoid this nonsense is to inform your boss that you've already booked a holiday and won't be available for the scheduled staff development. It doesn't matter if they think you're lying. If every employee did this, it would soon put an end to the stupidity.

Avoid work through invisibility
(Column No. 3; Guardian, 13/11/06)

As an office employee, you need a strategy for avoiding work – it's a requirement for job fulfilment. If you're unlikely to become a manager, the next best way to avoid work is to become invisible. If people can't see you, they can't pester you with work assignments.

Start becoming invisible by lowering the height of your chair and positioning your computer so you're hidden from your boss. You might also want to build tall stacks of documents around your desk. The next step is to be invisible in meetings. The easiest way is to not turn up. Five minutes before a meeting starts, make sure you go as far away as possible from your desk and colleagues. You can hide in the toilets or go for a walkabout. Nobody will notice you sneaking off – they'll be too busy preparing for the meeting and mentally rehearsing their lines.

You probably won't be missed, but have an excuse ready in case you're asked. Be imaginative when inventing explanations. For example, you had to go to your car because the security desk noticed squirrels tampering with your windscreen wipers. Remember to laugh in a self-deprecating way when you recount such stories – this is an old trick, taught to spies, for dealing with interrogation.

Once you've mastered guilt-free lying, you can progress to hard-core invisibility, otherwise known as skiving. The best-known method is to take sick days. As with avoiding meetings, it helps to have a set of fabrications memorised, just in case you're suddenly struck one morning with a massive disinclination to go to work.

Plan ahead. You can use your time in the office productively by searching the web for illnesses which sound convincing but not too obvious. Make a note of details of interesting symptoms, so you'll at least sound as if you're making an effort to seem believable. Claiming to have a "cold" every time will be regarded by your manager as a personal insult.

Some people have a guilty conscience about phoning in sick. The remedy is to imagine, vividly, how you feel at work on a typical Monday morning. That should make you feel queasy. By dictionary definition, "queasy" means ill. Therefore it's your duty to phone in sick. If you don't feel queasy at the thought of Monday morning, then by definition there must be something wrong with you, so you should phone in sick anyway.

Far too many people spread low morale by going to work when they don't feel like it. It's better for you, your colleagues, and the national economy if you stay at home. Or, to put it another way: prevention is better than cure, so phone in sick before you get ill.

Scheduling & deadlines
(Column No. 4; Guardian, 27/11/06)

A major peril of office work is project assignment. If you thought aimless drudgery was bad, wait until you experience the planned, monitored kind. Projects don't alleviate tedium – they simply schedule it. Deadlines, progress meetings and status reports add nothing to the emptiness but an artificial sense of urgency.

Scheduling forms a big part of project work – you should expect to spend at least two days a week planning, reviewing your plans and fabricating your timesheet to make it look as if you're working to plan. The main purpose of scheduling is to somehow squeeze a week's work into the few days remaining after the scheduling is done.

This is impossible, of course. The result is panic, guilt, stress and more scheduling. Ultimately, you pay the price by working 60-hour weeks on a 40-hour salary. Then, when chronic exhaustion takes its toll, you become even less productive. But the scheduling process makes no allowance for this, because the project team is in denial.

Ideally, at this point, you could quit. But there are other, less drastic, options. For example, whenever your manager asks you to estimate the time required for a task, always multiply the realistic figure by five. They will whine and moan, but you must stand your ground. Never accept an estimate of less than triple the time you think it'll take.

To help you stand up to your manager, remember that scientific research is on your side. In the 1990s, researchers at Sussex University conducted a five-year study into "Task Completion Wishful Thinking Syndrome", which concluded that tasks always take longer than we expect. This is apparently a universal human trait. From wallpapering a room to developing a new fighter aircraft, we all tend to underestimate how long it will take. We also never learn from previous missed deadlines – we fail to modify our expectations of our own performance based on previous experience.

The flip side of this is that we'll look back at any given period of time, and it will seem that we've accomplished embarrassingly little, relative to expectations. As a result, most of us go home from work every day feeling guilty. Managers then have an easy time emotionally blackmailing us into working overtime.

To assuage your guilt, it helps to familiarise yourself with the Law of Office SNAFU, which states that no project is ever completed on schedule. Projects which appear to finish on schedule are, by definition, not really complete. A corollary is that project managers are living in a dreamworld. No amount of hard work on your part can overturn these laws, so why bother straining yourself? Chronic under-productivity is as certain as gravity – you should never feel ashamed of it.

Guerilla tactics at work
(Column No. 5; Guardian, 11/12/06)

Office employees are required to sacrifice more than just their time and energy. They're expected to yield their souls too. As early as the interview stage it's made clear to new recruits that total commitment to the company is mandatory. This means adopting the company ethos and believing in its "mission". It's like joining a cult.

Your employer requires your sincere devotion. Cynicism is regarded as an attitude problem, and will result in your behaviour being closely monitored. In this kind of environment you need to disguise your contempt, otherwise everything you do will be regarded with suspicion.

Mask your sarcasm with humour, and avoid attracting unwanted attention. In fact it's probably best to channel all your simmering frustrations into covert propaganda rather than risk self-incriminatory verbal outpourings.

Office propaganda wars are the business world's best kept secret. Thousands of disenchanted employees are engaged in clandestine projects to counter the corporate propaganda relentlessly churned out in the form of newsletters, notices, memos, staff debriefings, team pep-talks, etc. The employer's aim is to make staff view the company goals as all-important. The antidote to this brainwashing is ridicule and parody, which can take the form of graffiti, stickers, fake notices, spoof emails, etc.

Ambitious, careerist types won't appreciate this subversive humour, as it undermines their sense of self-importance. Consider these folk as your enemies in the propaganda war. They might be your colleagues, but you don't have to socialise with them. Taking coffee breaks together isn't mandatory – make excuses and go later when you can read a newspaper undisturbed. But beware of being branded unsociable, as this attracts scrutiny from the company thought-police.

You can always fake sociability. On occasions when you can't avoid your colleagues, join in the office chit-chat. But whenever there's a choice, look for an escape route. Always keep an important-looking document close to hand, so you can pretend to be on an urgent errand.

Performance reviews will reveal whether you've successfully concealed your "attitude problem". If your supervisor suggests that you're not a "team-player", it means they're onto you. This means you'll probably be sent on team-bonding courses and be press-ganged into socialising with career-driven morons.

[The Guardian newspaper is publishing a fortnightly column (titled: The Office Anarchist) by Anxiety Culture editor Brian Dean. The first installment was printed on 2 October 2006. The above is a slightly different (unedited) version of what appeared in the Guardian, and we've renamed it Office Slave.]

This is a print version of the following article: www.anxietyculture.com/officeslave.htm