the office we love to hate

We all loathe office life, don't we? Can't wait to get away from our awful boss, can we? Not true, writes Emma Cook
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Going to work in an office is a fact of life that everyone likes to moan about; that Sunday evening dread, the tedious travel, the routine, the exhaustion and the nightmare boss. But scratch the surface and it's pretty clear most employees wouldn't want it any other way.

They may complain about the long hours, the back-stabbing and the bureaucracy, the hobbies they can never pursue and the lack of home-life, but ask many of them whether they'd exchange all that to work from home and they look horrified. ''I couldn't think of anything worse,'' says Rosalind Nolan, aged 33, a production manager for a television company. ''I come to work to get away from home. I can enjoy a different life here - I'm bossy, loud and extrovert; I always get my own way. With my friends and family, I'm more passive and reserved. What's nice is to switch from one to the other.''

Rosalind, like thousands of other British workers would hate to operate in isolation, to work from home and rely on the telephone as a sole link to the outside world. They don't mind moaning regularly about the office but that doesn't mean they don't want to be there. This may explain why rumours of its imminent demise are probably exaggerated.

This is reflected in a survey carried out by the commercial estate agents Healey & Baker. Out of 650 respondents across the country, they found only eight per cent work from home. Figures have increased little, they say, over the last few years, with the majority of people never working from home. Only 17 per cent expressed any desire to work from home on a regular basis; 21 per cent said they'd miss the personal contact and 12 per cent felt there'd be too many distractions. Although the technology is in place for most of us never to set foot in an office again, it's a prospect we're apparently keen to avoid. As Cary Cooper, professor in organisational psychology at Umist, says: ''Harold Wilson predicted people would only be working 20 hours a week by 1990 and most of that would be from home. Our new technology has made it possible for that to happen. It hasn't happened to any large extent so the question you have to ask yourself is why not?''

Part of it is a craving for human contact; the office can provide an extra and essential dimension, socially, psychologically and physically. David Rees, aged 28, an accounts manager for an advertising agency, says: ''If I've got a problem at work, there are two or three close friends I know I can turn to for advice. The outside world never knows about your boss or other figures that are important to you eight hours a day, so that gives you a strong bond with work friends. If I tell my girlfriend about another colleague, she may sympathise but she doesn't really know who I'm talking about.''

It's a self-contained world in which many of us feel we can express a different part of ourselves. Ros Heaton, an occupational psychologist and managing consultant for Insight, explains: ''Often people at work bring out a different part of your personality. When you go to work people treat you as a professional, even on those days you don't feel up to it.'' Rosalind's ''professional'' persona switches on as soon as she walks into work. ''I'm completely opposite in many ways to how I am at home. Here I run the financial side and keep track of every penny. I'll be bolshy about what's being spent where. Outside, if it ever comes to settling up bills and money I'll let other people take control. I like the luxury of not having to sort everything out.''

Heaton herself admits that she needs a short journey to get into work character. ''When I was running a training course for someone up the road from where I live, I never felt ready for it. Yet when I get on a train, by the time I reach the office I'm in my work role.'' For those that work at home, there is little opportunity to flip over into an alternative way of behaving.

In this sense, you can only ever be perceived in one way by those around you, which can be limiting. Joanna Wilkinson, aged 35, is a publisher who used to work from home and now has a baby son. ''When I left the office to set up from home, I was shocked by how my confidence fell initially. Nobody listens or defers to you in the same way. You can't ask others for advice before you make a decision.'' Now back in an office, she says: ''It's so nice being somewhere for a set amount of hours a day where you're not a mother and you're not physically in charge of someone else. I enjoy that shift in responsibility.''

Cooper compares the emotional sustenance many find in the office set- up with a family. As a mobile society, we have lost a sense of extended family and community which, he argues, the office now replaces. "People get from work a sense of who they are," he says. And like a family, people seem happy to play out the same roles.

Rosalind, who has worked in at least five different offices, can testify to this. ''It doesn't matter where you are in the world. There will always be the person who gets away with doing very little work and we all have to cover for them and then bitch about them furiously when they're not around,'' she says. ''And there's the one with a foul temper that we always put up with. You find them everywhere.'' But above all, it must be the guarantee of gossip and humour that rates most highly with long-term office devotees.

''At its best, the office is like being back in the classroom,'' says Neil Jackson, aged 28, a marketing manager for a computer company in west London. ''There's a pecking order of the people you know you can wind up and the others you can rely on to help you do it. The best part is bitching about your higher managers after work.'' Such humour relies on the assumption that we're doing our best to make light of the unavoidable; working in a constricted environment for up to nine hours a day with each other when, really, we'd all much prefer to be at home taking it easy. Yet people choose to do it, they feel bereft when offered the alternative.

Thus, you get small groups of freelances renting out office space together in an attempt to fend off the isolation of working from home. Neil says: ''You can pretend to be cynical about coming in day after day to do the same thing week in week out but really I enjoy the structure. The office is there for you and you don't have to think about it.''

Yet, the reality that office culture is so important to people's well being is largely overlooked by many of the large companies who feel downsizing is the way forward, at least in financial terms. British Gas, the Royal Mail and Rank Xerox are all encouraging home-working. What they ignore at their peril is that for many staff, feeling part of a group actually improves productivity and creativity.

Heaton, who consults between home and the office, speaks from experience: ''You do become invisible to others when you're not in the office; that's what I find. There's something inspirational about going in and talking to other people. You start coming up with ideas and the buzz starts. That's because there are some things we do better face-to-face.'' And until computer technology can replicate that, home-working on a large scale will remain a modern myth, not a desirable alternative.

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