The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, November 04, 2012


An office affair                                                  

The first time I entered the entrails of an Indonesian government department it took time for my pupils to dilate.  The place was Kedari in Southeast Sulawesi during the 1980s and I was seeking permission to visit an isolated island.

Columns of khaki-clad men and women were sitting at plain desks reading newspapers or watching TV on full volume.  An occasional one-fingered typist clacked out a letter. Only the boss had a phone.

The lights were squint-level dim, the air thick with the fug of fags, the heat unchallenged.

It was a woodcut from a Dickens novel minus ledgers and goose quill pens. Later I discovered it was typical.

Somewhere in Indonesia is the template for a department building.  Rows of square concrete columns in-filled with bricks to create sets of cells, then plastered with white tiles for that special toilet ambience. This arid design has created a matching culture.

Buying jobs, promotion through seniority, policy packaging being more important than delivery, corruption and arrogance have all crimped competent administration.

Seen from afar Jakarta is a modern city – the high-rise skyline makes a statement of power and authority.  But behind the tinted glass are poor Internet connections, petty rules, lousy wages and worker exploitation.

Is there enough of this to support 600 pages keeping the general reader informed and entertained?  Only when written by a talented journalist following the number one rule of his craft:  Take the ordinary and make it irresistibly interesting.

Gideon Haigh is a prolific Australian writer best known for his books on cricket, a skilled wordsmith clicking his mouse into nooks and crevices to find the facts within.

A lesser journeyman writing on the evolution of the office would be struggling to lay 1,000 words in a straight line, let alone make them sexy.  Haigh finds fertility at every level in the high-rise phallic symbols dominated by men but largely staffed by women.

Consider how the big Indonesian banks present themselves.  Cathedral foyers to crush creditors but comfort investors; security guards to open doors and tellers who stand so you feel important and don’t notice how severely they clip your credit cards - and everyone in sight as young as an Olympic swim squad.

The office isn’t just where we work.  It’s also the environment where ruthless bosses ensure we spend more daylight hours than at home with our kids.  The office is where we interact with others, gain friends, make enemies, get rewards, plot – and often find romance.

Who hasn’t waited mad with thirst till a certain someone headed for the water cooler, hoping no one will notice your coincidental rendezvous?  The heat generated in the photocopy room doesn’t always come from the machines.

It’s not an office without an affair, a place where reputations are ripped like a memo in a shredder and the politics have a brutality equal to a Jakarta gubernatorial contest.

The modern office grew out of banking and public administration, particularly in England.  The famous diarist Samuel Pepys has given us a view of 17th century office doings, little different to today apart from the technology. 

The invention of the telegraph and typewriter created a social revolution.  Nimble-fingered women were better than men at many tasks and paid less.  They were, notes Haigh, the first knowledge workers.

There was resistance.  ‘(Women’s) flighty temperaments would prove ill-suited to the rigors of the working day and a distraction from its serious cares; they would be de-natured by diversion from their biological destinies’ reports the author. But reality intervenes and firm policies crumble when weathered by economics, shifting attitudes and time.

A lesser writer would have found a few literary and historical references and cemented this rubble with quotes and statistics.  Haigh goes further and deeper, noting the evolution of the office in popular culture.  How many rom-coms are set in offices compared with the casting floor at Krakatau Steel’s foundry?

Haigh’s book may be an epitaph.  Western countries faced with rising costs are pushing the electronic office.  Many overseas banks have already downsized and are little more than small shops, their customers on line.

Outside Indonesia government departments are doing the same.  Why travel far through vile traffic and queue for hours when you can download and submit forms electronically 24 / 7?  Office towers are being converted into apartments, reversing the trend for workers to commute from dormitory suburbs.

Soeharto’s policy of disguising unemployment with make-believe jobs in the bureaucracy has resulted in the population equivalent of Singapore living on the public payroll.  Getting their child into a lifetime government office job with pension remains the prime ambition of many parents.

Against this conservative mass, reformers seeking to shrink the public service face a task so formidable that ousting the Dutch from their former colony would be just a poke with a bamboo pole.

After reading The Office it seems there’s little left to reveal other than the fate of this institution in Indonesia.  Where will we poor supplicants be when the rest of the working world has turned to the Web?

Probably still sitting on benches outside bland buildings waiting respectfully for the fuehrer of the filing cabinets to wield his rubber stamps and give us permission to keep on living.

THE OFFICE – A Hardworking History
Gideon Haigh
The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Publishing) 2012
610 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post, 4 November 2012)

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