Life at the sharp end

In the classless society, your boss merits only disdain. It's your colleagues that you loathe beyond all reason, says John McCabe

An office down the corridor from mine used to house three affable male colleagues of similar status and age in relative comfort and absolute disharmony. A couple of months into their joint incarceration, one suggested they invest in a goldfish, and the others agreed. This was, however, a fatal mistake, coinciding as it did with the beginning of the end for the goldfish.

This is not a story of shoddy pet care though. This is an every day story of modern office life. You can, as they say, choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. Neither unfortunately can you choose your workmates. And whereas relatives have, by definition, some degree of relatedness to you, the people who share your office are veritable strangers who have been thrust upon you like unpopular guests at a wedding. Office co-habitees, however, can't be palmed off on other unsuspecting guests. Co-workers are there for good. Co-workers are there to annoy you.

Friction in the workplace has, of course, been well documented from Dickens to the present day. Historically, the industrial struggle has been one of worker against boss, union against management, supervised against supervisor. But with the apparent passing of the militancy which characterised former working relations, and the surge in service rather than manufacturing industry, the office, rather than the shop floor, has become the new battleground. And rather than worker against boss, the new friction often turns out to be worker against worker, boss against boss. But is this friction worse in the modern working environment or have we just become better at noticing it?

According to Neil Crawford, psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic and expert in work relationships, a bit of both. "The last 30 to 50 years has seen a large increase in the understanding of the origins of difficulties at work. Stresses have always been there but they are likely to have different causes these days."

However much camaraderie there may be on the surface, the fact is that today's work environment, job insecurity and its knock-on effects have a tendency to set worker against worker.

For the three office co-habitees, who each faced a different wall and therefore showed only their backs to each other, the goldfish had been an attempt to ease their working relations. They were not getting along. The goldfish was to soothe the atmosphere. But then came a difficult series of decisions. Who was going to feed it? Who was going to pay for the fish food? Who was going to clean the tank? Who was going to look after it during the holidays? Who was going to organise a rota?

Undoubtedly, part of the problem for us is that, as a species, we shun otherness. We build our lives around the people and places which feel familiar, comfortable, suitable - in short, which feel like us. True, cheesy people will often befriend chalky ones, but generally, we surround ourselves with imitations of ourself. All of which falls into sorry pieces in the arena of the shared office. Suddenly we are made to confront our fear of the different. Suddenly we are sharing small cramped spaces with veritable sociopaths of dubious personal hygiene or pet care ability. Suddenly we are frowning and swearing and counting the number of times said sociopath has kicked the leg of our desk in the last 10 minutes.

"Certainly, the problem with open-plan offices is that we are always face to face with people," Neil Crawford suggests. "Resentment may surface simply because we want to be alone." But the office is also a place we go to avoid being alone with ourselves, a place where we have an extended family - albeit of relative strangers - of confidants and colleagues. The realisation that the office can at the same time be an escape from our problems and the very source of our irritations has been a long time coming. "As many of us spend a lot of time working in front of screens, having people around, faces to look at, can also at times be a release from stress."

So sitting back to back like the goldfish trio is not a good thing. "You speak without looking at each other. No one can see your face." No one can see your expression when you categorically deny that it is your turn to feed the goldfish.

Writers are beginning to catch on to the problems of modern office life and have come to understand the potential horror inherent in sitting and facing sub-human colleagues - people you would not normally stand next to in a bus queue if you could help it - in closed spaces for eight-hour stretches. The journey to the realisation of the modern office as a rich seam of inspiration has been a slow one, though, and perhaps not without reason.

On the face of it, as subject matter goes, buildings housing desks, chairs, partitions, doors, lacklustre spider plants and similarly lacklustre staff are by no means Parisian whorehouses or LA crack dens. But in many ways, this is the very point. Offices are real life for those of us who suffer in them, and can be every bit as gritty as whorehouses and crack dens, though with slightly less sex and drugs.

But can we ever make true friends at work? For many people, the office can become a sort of conspiracy, where work problems become life problems, which can then be tucked away in drawers before going home at the end of the day. When you carry your problems around with you at work, colleagues are never likely to become true friends. Drinking partners, maybe, people you share secrets with, more than likely, but real, proper, life long friends, only unusually or unhealthily.

Work means the loss of personal feelings. Work means the inevitable destruction of the level playing field that friendships are built on. You can't ever be true friends with someone you work for, or who works for you. With you, admittedly, may come close, but workmates are still just that, mates at work. Take away the work and you're not necessarily left with a mate. So comradeship is entirely feasible, but in large soulless offices demarcated with wedges of plyboard of the sort which inadequately separate occupants in toilet cubicles, friction is never going to be too far from the surface.

Such disharmony between individuals, sections and departments is surprisingly prevalent, and is being assessed and eased by a growing number of psychotherapists. The office goldfish, on the other hand, experienced a terminal case of office strife, and when it finally died through lack of attention, was dealt with rather more easily, by a swift flush of the first-floor toilet.

John McCabe is the author of `Stickleback' (Granta, pounds 9.99), published on Thursday. He works as a geneticist in a hospital

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