Think of an early morning train. Despite almost every seat being occupied, a peaceful silence reigns. Only the rustle of a newspaper, the tapping of a keyboard, or the voice of the conductor can break the silence, which is hopeful and full of anticipation. Outside, the sun does its best to cast some appealing light on the scene. It looks like a painting, a fantasy of the ultimate purposeful journey, free from cares and torments.
In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) Alain de Botton describes the morning rituals of train commuters. The journey washes away the night-time dreams from their heads. Clean-shaven, trimmed, made up. It feels like a new beginning, a promise. When the train grinds to a halt, the spell is broken. Like fairytale figures, kissed awake from a hundred-year sleep, the travellers spring into action. The day has begun.
De Botton’s commuter journey brings him to a London accountancy firm whose offices look out over the Thames and Tower Bridge. For de Botton, who as a writer is not familiar with office life, the space feels alienating. Flicking through de Botton’s book, which also contains photos, we understand what the writer means. Floors, the highest of which disappear into the clouds, lifts that appear to have been designed to allow romantic sparks to fly, entry doors that open and close with sci-fi efficiency: this office is a place where you get lost, where you feel amazed.
The real picture
There is nothing like this in The Office Life. Let’s take a look at a place with less elegant aspirations. There is no view over a centuries-old river. The furniture is dog-eared, and smells unpleasant when it’s hot. Only old hands know how to get the machine to work, when it’s having yet another one of its turns. How many stories or series do we know that target the monotony of office life, or ridicule it? There’s a lot of sadness hiding beneath the surface, and also a lot of hope. It is mainly this last ingredient that makes us keep on watching. We hope that some of the characters will find happiness. De Botton writes that we are convinced ‘that apart from love, nothing can give more meaning to our existence than work’.
‘Everyone who works longs to put a part of himself into his work’, de Botton explained to me. ‘Even if you are a bookkeeper or a worker in a biscuit factory, you still look for ways to make your mark. You try to bring order into the chaos, and you want to do that in your own way.’
"Why do writers and artists so seldom think about singing the praises of life in a factory or in an office?" - Alain de Botton
Changes for the good
Today, the boundary between workspace and home is blurred. We shop in the office, email our friends there, exercise there. At home, there’s also a touch of the office. We make conference calls there, check our email, are on standby. Now, some companies try to make the workspace itself cosier, more homely, less chilly. At Google London, there is floral wallpaper on the walls, and cosy lampshades are in evidence.
De Botton thinks it’s a pity that many philosophers are contemptuous of working life. ‘Who says that the guy who’s checking his Blackberry every 10 minutes is doing anything worse than an intellectual who does nothing but think about life?’ In his books and work, de Botton wants to illustrate one aspect of our lives that we only know from the business pages of the newspaper. ‘Why do writers and artists so seldom think about singing the praises of life in a factory or in an office?’