Backroom Antics

I enjoyed this anecdote about some failed workplace mischief at the blog of writer John Hoare:

If the [sales] reps could bring in [promotional items] like pens, maybe they could bring in something a little bigger. Like, say, a wall clock, branded with their company’s logo. I could put them all on the wall of the order office, and we could get an international time zones thing going. LONDON – PARIS – NEW YORK, and the like.

I believe we got to a grand total of two clocks on the wall before it was stopped from above. No reason given; certainly no worries about bribery, however idiotic that would have been when it came to clocks. Just a general air of “Obviously, we aren’t going to do that.”

I tried to have a little bit of fun in what could be a fairly boring job, and it was immediately stamped down on with no explanation. Because who would want to enjoy themselves at work?

Reader, I laughed the laughter of recognition. I’ve experienced many similar defeats in trying to have a micron of fun (or reclaim a modicum of dignity) in dreary jobs. The chain-breaking incident comes to mind but there was also the chess game:

I had a student job in retail and I put a small magnetic chess board in the stockroom. A co-worker and I would move a piece whenever one of us went in there, enjoying a gradual game of chess over the course of the weekend.

Most of the time, I’d go for some stock, take a glimpse at the board, see that my opponent hadn’t moved yet, and continue to idly cook my next move in the back of my brain while working. Pretty low-level fun really.

Mind you, I was working at the cash register one time and I saw my opponent emerge from the stockroom with a smug look on his face, trying not to meet my gaze lest I see that he’d done something clever or even cheated. His smug face and slinking demeanor were very funny to me so I had to bottle up my laughter in front of my customer.

Our chess games were eventually busted when a supervisor found the board. I was surprised by her attitude because I was on friendly terms with her. “It’s bloody cheeky,” she said angrily, though her attitude seemed to be one of disappointment in a trusted underling. More specifically, I think she was afraid of getting in trouble with her bosses for it. I just felt bewildered. I didn’t see the problem.

Who could care that we had a chess board in the stockroom? It mattered not a jot. It was just a small way of having fun against a backdrop of grunt work.

If I’d actually laughed in front of the customer that time, I could have said “I’ve been slowly playing chess with a colleague in the stockroom; I’ve just seen him looking like he thinks he’s made a good move but I’ll get him for it later.” And they’d either laugh along at how adorable we were or, more likely, think nothing of it at all. Nobody expects shop a part-time assistant to be completely formal.

I suppose now that my supervisor lived in terror of something in her jurisdiction not being right, all minor infractions potentially building towards dismissal. Capitalism’s done a real number on us, hasn’t it? Can’t even play sideshow chess or put a bunch of clocks on a wall without fear of someone getting the boot.

For more tales of attempted workplace survival try my book The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

Books That Imagine a Different Working World

After a year of seismic changes in the labour market, young adults are questioning and rejecting the ideas around work that they have been fed throughout their lives, starting with the “dream job”, hustle culture, and #girlboss feminism.

The work-related reading list at Verso books is rather good.

Their Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams helped to clarify my thinking towards the end of New Escapologist’s print era but any one of these books promises to be radically thoughtful.

And for a breezier read, there’s always The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

Doing Nothing

In the 1970s & 80s, anthropologists working in small-scale, non-industrial societies fastidiously noted down what people were doing throughout the day. I’ve been exploring the data & am struck by one of the most popular activities: doing nothing.

This is an excellent Twitter thread from anthropologist Manvir Singh. Thanks to friend Shanti for putting it our way.

Most of the high-ranking activities in these plots are well-studied by psychologists. But how much do we know about doing nothing? Not much. Living in fast-paced, industrialized societies with constant access to entertainment, it’s easy to lose sight of the value of doing nothing.

So there we have it. Let it not be said that being at peace isn’t the natural state, that this isn’t the state we should all be driving towards instead of some nebulous and never-sated idea of “success.” Success is the artificial thing, hassled into us by industrial society.

Today is hot (also because of industrial society) so I’ve been spending most of my time lying in bed beneath a single cool sheet while listening to the calls of starlings though the open window. Hardly arduous, and about as close to “doing nothing” as it’s possible to get. And now I know that the people of the Efé and Madurese communities would find my choice an agreeable one.

I hope you’re staying cool, ideally by doing nothing, wherever you are.

Tired of the everyday grind? Survive in style with The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Available now.

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