Office work diary part two. Work: rhythm, repetition, resistance
I begin my day of data processing. We get thousands upon thousands of data forms to process. After a click, my first form for the day pops up, with the first ‘problem’ highlighted. I make sure people are assigned the right code for the place they live in, and assign individuals their correct number. We sometimes have to go through a few screens and steps in order to do this. Each ‘problem’ takes about 30 seconds to a minute to solve. Some take a few minutes when all the data is messed up or is unreadable. Others take a few seconds. As soon as the problem is solved, the form is processed, and the next form and problem appears. And so on…
The job is a bit like being a sped up filing clerk, having to put forms in the right places and give them the correct code. Except all the filing is done on a computer. Soon they will develop a computer programme to make our jobs obsolete. I loathe the work. It makes me feel like a machine. I am constantly processing and moving data around, clicking on stuff, organising stuff, sorting stuff. Its neverending, trivial, meaningless. It does my head in at times. Most others here agree: they say things like ‘this job makes me feel like a zombie.’
At the start of the day, I find the work absurd, dumb and painful. The problems are boring and simple. Time moves incredibly slowly. Aw, how can I get through this day? This job is madness.
Yet after a while, my reaction to this cycle of repetition differs. I find I can cope. I like the easy, non-taxing nature of the work. I don’t have to think much. I can turn my mind off, and get into a sort of rhythm, and click through problems. Time moves faster. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I get a weird sort of perverse pride in getting the problem correct, even though the work is silly and management absurd. This highlights a basic contradiction and ongoing tension between trying to get some satisfaction out of the job, and the horrifically unsatisfying nature of the job.
After about an hour of processing, I experience another phase of intense boredom. I become numb and I am not even aware of which problem I am solving. We get only about 8 or so problems to solve, and data to fix up, so our response to these problems becomes automatic. Sometimes I have to click back to the start screen in order to find out.
My mind wanders, watching myself do the tasks, while I think of over things, dream of home, of my partner, of my life, of what I am going to do outside work, of the important stuff outside work. But unfortunately I am stuck here in front of a computer having to sell my labour and time in order to live. And this job requires us to keep concentrating just enough to keep doing our job. It is not like an assembly line job where you do the same physical movement over and over again, and can totally escape and dream for a while, while you do the same tasks.
How can we escape from this imposition of work and its boredom? They’ve set up the computers here so that we have no escape. We don’t have access to the net, so internet surfing is out. We don’t have emails. We don’t even have games on our computer. All we have access to is our data processing programme.
Instead, I begin chatting with the person opposite me. I joke about funny aspects of the data, absurd things that come up. She talks about absurd things she has just processed. We then talk about home life, geography, films. Anything to keep our minds off work. But we can’t talk too long or else the team leader will notice too often, and we will be shifted to another desk, around people we don’t know. So we develop the art of quick, funny conversations. Sometimes though the job is just so painful the talking blows out into ten minute natters.
Boredom, and dealing with it, is a constant subject of conversation among us. While some of us natter, many sink into music. Others banter and tease. After another round of bantering, the guy next to me says ‘if you didn’t have banter in this job, you’d go mad’. Which is true. Others take toilet breaks, others wander to the water cooler, others share funny notes and funny drawings, and pass around pictogram games between each other. The creativity of the banter, joking around, and doodling is impressive. Some, who tend to be management’s pets so they can get away with more, openly joke to team leaders about working slowly, trying to reduce the workload, trying to avoid work.
I wonder if all this minor informal resistance is just a way of coping with work, rather than open and collective resistance to it. It certainly feels like it. At first, management mildly tolerated the banter and chatter and doodling, as they realise the job is mind numbing and we have to cope with it somehow. But they’re currently imposing a big speed up, which will create some workplace conflict. They’ve also got a raft of crude propaganda techniques about ‘attitude’, ‘being positive’ and ‘happy’, despite the job being inherently tedious and humdrum. And they’ve got divide and rule tactics, prizes, and even an over the top ‘motivational’ exercise session to try and keep us temp agency workers in line.