Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Employment, work and human contact

Going to work can be such a drag. So, you can imagine how "exotic" and liberating it seemed when "working from home" started to be talked about. Where once I had to drag myself every morning through the North Bristol traffic to a huge grey flight shed, in which my great-grandfather had worked in WW2, now I could sit in my own armchair to take phone calls and write emails from the comfort of my dining room table. I wouldn't have that Monday-morning-feeling of the requirement to be somewhere I didnt really like.

I recall the impressions of work that set the scene for my regard to my future working life: the oppressive hours sat at a desk, watching the dragging hands of the clock till I could leave this dispiriting place, The Boss, the rigid heirarchy, the expectation to keep nose to grindstone without looking up to gaze upon a more hopeful professional existence. I realised that this depressing spectre would always be to some extent present in my attitude to work: the requirement to be in a place of work for employment purposes would lay heavily upon my spirit.

How I detested the presence of The Boss, in his glass fronted office, his beady eyes fixed on us for any sign of deviation from our allotted tasks. The bell would ring at 8:45 and I was to be at my desk in the windowless room; a small open-plan container in the larger expanse of the flight-shed. I would sit at my drawing board or workbench, longing for that moment at 12:55 when the bell would ring for dinner and I would have a brief hour's respite from the grim industrial tedium. Then the afternon would follow a similar pattern until at 5 p.m or 5:15 depending on which day it was, the bell would ring and out we would all pour, elated to escape the place for another day. How miserable those days were. Only getting tothe shops on a Saturday, never having the chance to buy a stamp and post a letter but tethered by the disapproving gaze of The Boss to that disheartening space.

Later, when I escaped to work on the production line at my current place of employment, the strictures were similar, though much more relaxed, the enlightened realisation of my employer being that happier employees work better. And we did. But still there were the core hours and the beady eyed-boss. The feeling of compulsion to be present where you would rather not be wasstill palpable.

Gradually as my job became more flexible, things eased up. When you may be required to jump on a plane at short notice and fly to Europe or even the other side of the world to meet a customer, a certain flexibility is necessary. Gradually, I no longer came to feel imprisoned. Work meant something quite different and as long as we meet our numbers, nobody needs you to be a certain regular place all that often. A hotel room in germany or China can be my workplace. Deosn't that sound exotic?

Then came "working from home". I had heard during the wackier predicitons of the 70s and 80s, that this would come to pass. But like aluminium foil suits, flying cars and a complete meal in a pill, all confidently expected by 2001, I didnt expect it to materialise. But suddenly, I could get email at home and I had a mobile phone to replace the one on my desk. I could, in theory, be anywhere and still do the majority of my job. How liberating!

So, now mobile, with laptop, permanent internet access, phone, and my trusty old notebook (yes, pen and paper even in this day and age), I discovered the freedom of the "Home Office".

Ok, it is still a little disconcerting: I may get a call from some customer in a distant office in a far flung land when I am sitting at home writing an email on my bed. And I feel that to some extent, it is a little invasive to mix this external world of work with my home life. But in general, I can do most things at least as well at home as I can in the office and the tea is better.
Surely, this is an ideal situation to banish forever the misery of the imprisonment of the office or the factory?

But little by little, I notice a change in my behaviour. I miss people; My fellow inmates! After an hour or so, I will start talking to inanimate objects. I ask questions of the cacti in the bay window and request opinions from the chairs. The appearance of the hamster, sleepy-eyed from his recent waking, delights me disproportionately and my own reflection in the mirror seems a welcome visit from a character with features and expressions.

This cannot be healthy, I think to myself and I head off, at an appropriate time roughly corresponding to the ancient markers of "tea-break" or "lunchtime", to the High Street, to buy a paper, have a cup of tea in the deli and populate my field of vision with active, moving humans.
Interestingly, though my town is not big, perhaps a dozen thousand inhabitants when you include the conurbations that have proliferated over recent decades, most faces I see are unfamiliar. You would think that after twenty years or so of wandering down the same High Street and going in the same shops, I would have seen most of the faces of the people who live in the area. Not so: Only a small proportion are people I recognise and the majority are faces I have never seen and probably will never see again. I wonder briefly, every time, where they have been hiding themselves all this time, or whether they are visitors to the area.

Of course, I do see some I know: The barber who cuts my hair once a month, which his roguish Ming-the-Merciless aspect, the pretty blonde girls in the bank behind their glass screen, the greengrocer who is visited as much for the mock-grumpy insults he offers his customers as for his vegetables.
I exchange a cheery "Hello" with each and I am reassured that I exist by the confirmations of their greetings. It can be hard to be sure of this alone in a house with only streams of text arriving by way of communication with other human beings. But, catching peoples' eyes in the street and smiling, exchanging a few unimportant words, all reaffirms our presence in the world.

I pop in for my tea and cake in the cafe. It seems the manager has the knack of hiring very personable and attractive ladies as waitresses, not necessarily young, but all with a ready wit and a twinkling smile. Also I note there appears to be a theme to their physiques that personally I find rather alluring. I wonder briefly if this is intentional and if their employment is contingent upon a small waist and a shapely bottom.
But the banter exchanged is one of the reasons I continue to go there, despite the proliferation of such establishments in our town.
They seem genuinely pleased to see me and one asks why I am so "bouncy" today. I reply that I have had a good week from an activity perspective, five hours of playing in the surf with my kayak and several hours of dancing on Tuesday. I do a little dance to reinforce the latter point, much to their amusement. One of them comes out from behind the counter and requests a dance with me, holding out her arms in type of ballroom hold. I lead her a couple of steps of tango, looking as faux-arrogant as I can muster whilst smiling so broadly. She is no dancer but I finish with a small lean and release her to her tasks, noticing as I do the trace of a blush on her cheeks, which I find immensely gratifying.
I note the manager, a personable if slightly Uriah Heap kind of chap, looking on, attempting to manage the interplay of pleasant smiling appearance with mild disapproval. I smile and nod at him if to say "These ladies make this place. Know this!"

The conversation reaches a natural point at which i feel I should disengage and let them get on with their jobs and my tray is carried up the stairs for me to the quietest tables where I will eat my baked cheesecake, drink my tea and read this weeks "New Scientist". I am positioned en route to the store cupboard so occasionally one of the staff will pass me with a comment, a smile and an expression of intelligent curiosity that I find somehow endearing. A few small minor conversations ensue, but aware that it is approaching lunchtime, their busiest time, I do not keep them from their tasks for long.

I do find the information exchanged to be most fascinating. On the simple conversational level, there are sentences, comments, inflections all which give a particular set of messages. Added to that are the other messages of expression, gesture, posture. Sometimes these latter say far more than the words ever could and in general I think we don't consciously register what they might be except for the emotional signal that we feel as the output of the complex interpretative and computational processes that go on in our unconscious.

The sum total of the exchanges are a good feeling. I leave full of cheesecake and tea with a sense that people, especially a group of attractive ladies, are well disposed towards me and that, therefore, I must be generlly a Good Egg, worthy of the time spent talking to me.

I leave my table I stow my NS in my freebie IBM shoulder bag (I feel it hangs sufficiently nonchalantly and unselfconsciously from my shoulder that it lends the merest touch of intellectual to my bearing. I may be wrong: I might just look like a knob with a man-bag).

as predicted, the lunchtime rush is beginning and they are all occupied. I shelve my disappointment with this rational understand and leave, pausing only briefly in the doorway to allow through a couple of Ladies-who-lunch who are seemingly oblivious to my chivalry at holding the door for them. I remark to myself, bolstered by my recent confidence-building encounters, that they are the poorer for not acknowledging me and hence being failing to be rewarded by one of my appreciative smiles.

I walk home, back to my taciturn furniture and mute succulents.

So, sitting here now in the silence of the house, I reflect, as so often, on events.
Interpersonal contact seems like a kind of vitamin to existence that we ignore at our peril. We can be fed, housed, clothed and otherwise healthy but without the validation of small encounters with others, we start to feel very unhappy indeed. Perhaps this is why the most severe penalty that a civilised society inflicts on its miscreants is solitary confinement.

And I try to work out exactly what it is about being with other people that feels so uplifting. And I can't. It seems irreducible: It just is Good. It makes you happier and secure about being an acceptable member of the human race.

1 comment:

Librarian said...

My career in home office employment has only just begun; I am in my 3rd week now and have been thinking of blogging about it just when I saw your posting - so I will look like a copycat when I'll choose the same topic :-)
Tango at the café; no wonder you are so popular with the ladies there!
The human contact bit is equally important to me, but there is no lack of it because of a steady flow of either visitors here or me going out to see others for lunch, and of course the constant phone calls. After all, it's human contact I get paid for in the end, because it is not Company X buying from Company Y, but Mr. A buying from Mrs. B.

Thank you for another interesting and entertaining post.