Office work diary part one: Swipe in, login, begin…
I’m treading slowly down a white, shiny corridor. As I head towards the lifts, I get a bit anxious about having to get through yet another shift as a data processor, and how to deal with the boredom. I get that oh shit feeling, here goes another day wasted in this slow, ritualistic daily torture, like I’m snared in an absurd Kafka-esque nightmare full of meaningless but neverending nasty games that we call work. Oh well, I think ‘it has to be done’, ‘another day, another pay’ ‘I need to pay the bills’, so I can force myself to enter the workplace and avoid that fleeting feeling that you just want to flee, to escape, and say to bugger it with it all. That daily lived contradiction between being legally free, but having to sell yourself in the work marketplace in order to live. Even though I’d love to steal some time and arrive late – or better still take the day off – I’ve managed to get there just in time.
As I walk, I reluctantly hang my lanyard around my neck, which contains my swipe card and ID card. Some workers are seemingly happy to wear their lanyards on the street, like some sort of perverse pride in these days of high unemployment that you have a job, to get some of that dignity and status that many associate with work. Instead, I quickly take off my cards during breaks when I duck out for fresh air, or some grub. It reminds me of my meaningless job, something I want to forget about. To me, the cord is a bit like a noose. Or maybe a prisoner’s ID.
I enter the lift and greet fellow data processing temps taking the ride. Most of the time I don’t know the others by name as it is a relatively large office. I swipe in so we can access our floor. As we ride up the floors, my mind wanders, back to one of those interesting conversations I had years back. An amiable guy, with rough features and his face always covered in stubble, said he used to like exploring office buildings, and find his way to the top of buildings. As in some kind of derive, the game the Situationists used to play in Europe when they wandered around cities everywhichway as their desires took them, consciously becoming disoriented and lost. But he said he couldn’t wander anymore because the buildings have been enclosed, either by security systems or swipe cards.
The lift opens. We’re spat out into the weird, unnatural glare of the modern office. We’re immediately greeted with a swagger of bright flouro lights that make your eyes wince, and take some time to adjust to, if ever. Under this fierce glaze it never feels right, it always feels artificial. Everything looks white and bright. I gasp for air in the sealed air conditioned environment. The air is suffocating, stuffy, and lifeless. My craving for fresh air will get worse throughout the day.
The data processing office itself is a sterile place. It’s spartan, non-descript, boring and ugly, with white walls and roof, industrial carpet, fake wood desks, water coolers, and small kitchens. I suppose such an artificial environment is engineered to try and keep your focus on work, and to maximise our ‘productivity’.
It’s a large open office, with about 100 people working our shift. While our desks are not organised in neat rows as if we are in some rigid 1970s or 80s office factory, they are huddled together in tight ‘teams’ of 10, with a ‘team leader’ sitting amongst you. The vast majority of our computer screens are organised in such a way that they can be seen by a team leader. The ‘team’ is sort of fenced off by low level partitions from other teams. But the other teams are crammed in beside you, and you can see and hear them at all times. The problem, of course, with open offices is that you can and are easily monitored at all times, in terms of team leaders keeping an eye out on how much you natter to others, take toilet and other breaks, and what is up on your computer screen. Conversely, having at least three or four fellow workers in your line of sight at all times means that there are plenty of opportunities to have a chat, and pass notes and drawings. This tension created by the office design will lead to many minor skirmishes between management and us lot, us workers.
Off to the side, there are a few individual offices, where the big wig managers and assorted other high ups sit. They make sure that people can’t see what they have on their computer screens.
I wind my way past the offices, people and desks, greeting people along the way, find my desk and sit down. It’s good to see my workmates. The best thing about work, of course, is the people. There are some interesting types, from all sorts of backgrounds and ages, here. All thrown together by work. We get on pretty well. Most of us are united in our hatred of the our absurd work, and the way we’re treated by management. Heaps of friendships develop, although there are many don’t really get on that well.
Phew, arrived on time. Bugger it, no time to catch up with my workmates as I have to login on time or get in more trouble. The bosses keep an eye on us, and tell us off for arriving even two minutes late, which after a couple of times means a round of disciplinary meetings and strict surveillence.
Groundhog day: here we go again. I sit down, tap in my operator number and password to login. For a while I didn’t remember my number and password, but now it is imprinted in my brain. Our team leader circles, making sure we have logged in and started work. I wait for the processing programme to load, and begin the endless cycle of repetition that is data processing. My day will consist of thousands of mouse clicks and checking innumerable numbers – until after a while all the data before my eyes starts to melt into one.