Monday, 16 January 2012

Office furniture – the politics of the office

Are you a mover and shaker or a stirrer in your office?

Has there ever been an office without some degree of office politics?  Probably not, unless you work alone.  What is it about working in an office that brings out the worst in people?  Possibly the close proximity to the same people day in and day out. Even the most rational human being can become embroiled in personality clashes, power struggles, and petty squabbles - the fact that so-and-so never offers to make the coffee, or got that new piece of office furniture or equipment or parking space that should have been yours.

steel lockers
People in offices get territorial.  Even if you’re not the sort of person who likes to adorn your office furniture with cute furry animals or numerous photos of your loved ones, chances are you still don’t like to see someone else sitting in your chair or working at your computer.  We’re Neanderthal in our protection of our territory – if you like a tidy desk and your next-door colleague keeps spilling his or her mess onto your table, you won’t be happy. Invest in steel lockers for your employees to have their own lockable personal space.

Even in the most happy-clappy co-operative office there is always some sort of power-struggle going on.  In fact offices that purport to have no hierarchy are often the worst for office bitchiness.  If decisions are taken collectively you might as well expect they will take twenty times longer than if there was a boss just deciding what was going to happen.  That’s not to say that anyone wants to work for a dictator who takes no account of anyone else’s opinions, but sometimes compromises are not going to happen – no amount of sulking or throwing office furniture is going to change that.

Is e-mail manna from heaven or the spawn of the devil?  For previous generations, bitching had to be kept to whispers or out-of-hours gossip sessions.  Then came e-mail and now you don’t have to say a word to anyone else in the office all day if you don’t want to.  You can bitch away to your heart’s content with the person sitting at the next desk, and nobody will be any the wiser.  No layout of office furniture is going to give everyone in the office a clear view of everybody else’s screen,  And most people use e-mail as a major tool for work so you wouldn’t want to switch it off. 

If you feel that you’re treated like part of the office furniture and want to shake things up, how should you go about it?  Some people like to go down the organising route.  This type of person organises activities that will encourage bonding.  The trouble with this is that most bonding takes place outside office hours, when you’d rather stick hot needles in your eyes than spend yet more time with Veronica from accounts.  And the organiser doesn’t like to share – they may seem nice and friendly but they are actually the biggest control freak in the office.

Another office ‘type’ is the entertainer. His desk will be at the heart of the office furniture so that nobody need miss out on his efforts. The best illustration of this is David Brent in The Office – the guy who knows he’s popular and amusing and loves keeping everyone’s spirits up.  This can be as simple as describing his very funny journey to work that morning to re-enacting his favourite Tommy Cooper routine that wasn’t even funny when Tommy Cooper did it.

The office ‘sage’ doesn’t say much but when he does, you can bet it will be the definitive answer to any question that could possibly come up in conversation, from the current political situation in the Middle East, the state of the National Health Service, or the re-routing of the number 37 bus, to the repositioning of the photocopier, stationery cupboard, paperclip dispenser or any other item of office furniture.

The staffroom can be even more of a hotbed of politics than the office.  Furniture is arranged so that confederacies can flourish, and once you’ve chosen your group, woe betide you if you sit anywhere else.  Nothing causes offence more quickly or with such vehemence as the person who dares to sit on a different table during teabreak.

The atmosphere in an office may appear congenial, but chances are that there is a seething undercurrent of jealousy, resentment and even passion going on just below the surface.  On the other hand, how dull would work be if there wasn’t.

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