8 Uncomfortable Life Lessons I Learned Working in an Office

Tom Stevenson
Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

The office is a strange environment. Hundreds of people working away at various problems while huddled at their desks staring at a screen.

This is one way of looking at how an office works.

Another is to look at the office like a giant social experiment. You can tell a lot about people from how they conduct themselves in an office environment for better and worse.

Some people try to climb the greasy pole by demeaning others. Some people sit at their desk while their life passes them by. While others look around and wonder how they ended up there.

I only spent ten months working in an office, but it was instructive. What I experienced taught me a lot about how people think, interact and view life. I learnt more about myself and human nature than I imagined.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned.

You’re replaceable

After a few months in my office job, one thing I noticed was the constant churn of people leaving and joining the office. The turnover was higher than I expected.

At first, I was puzzled. But after I thought about it for a while, the situation made sense. The majority of the jobs weren’t highly skilled. Once you got to grips with the computer system and what was required of you, the work was straightforward.

So much so, work became a chore after the settling period finished. The brutal truth of working in an office is you’re expendable. No matter how good or invaluable you think you are, you can be replaced.

This realisation spurred me on to take my travel blog to the next level and work for myself. Now, I’m in control of my destiny. But at the office, I was very much at the mercy of my managers.

People can be petty

I’d read a lot about office politics before I took the job. I thought it was overhyped and in reality, the inner workings of the office wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as I thought.

I was wrong.

The lengths certain people went to in order to further themselves or bring someone else was shocking. The smallest infractions were blown out of proportion. Petty squabbles descended into grudges. In some ways, it felt like I was back in school again.

The sad truth is a lot of people can be mean, vindictive and downright nasty. Maybe they’re unhappy, maybe they’re unfulfilled, or maybe they’re just not very nice.

Whatever it is, offices can be difficult places to work in if they’re filled with certain people. Think Dwight in The Office and you get the picture. These people are more common than you might think.

Offices stifle imagination

One of the best aspects of working in my office job was the camaraderie with my workmates. It’s no exaggeration to say this helped me get through the day, such was the mundanity of the work we did.

Whether it was taking the mick out of each other, talking about football or music, these interactions helped the day go faster. So when our manager decided to crack down on what he saw as ‘too much talking and not enough working,’ we weren’t happy.

He thought we were slacking. But in reality, this talking and light-hearted banter helped us to get our work done. We could have a laugh and still do the work.

The nature of an office is a focus on specific work. You’re not supposed to think too much, you’re supposed to get on with the task at hand. Talking with each other was a way of making this reality more tolerable. It allowed us to access our imagination when our work wouldn’t.

Humans aren’t robots. We’re not cows milked for our productivity. We’re individuals with hopes, dreams and feelings. My old office environment didn’t realise this and it was worse for it.

Work isn’t everything

My job was to sift through insurance claims and decide whether they should be upheld or thrown out. Most days involved handling eight to ten cases. This would be higher or lower depending on how easy the case was to close.

We had daily and weekly targets we were supposed to hit. Needless to say, those targets became competitive for some people. One such person in my team was Lucy. She was obsessed with being the best in our team.

She wanted to close the most cases, not just in our team, but the whole department. She was egged on by our manager and his manager who were also keen to ensure we performed at our best, every day without fail.

I’d be on board with this, except for the lack of incentive to do so. No matter if I closed twenty cases a week or 40, my pay remained the same. There was no incentive for me to work any harder.

Lucy worked her socks off, but she got the same pay like everybody else. All her pride in being the best in our team meant nothing when she stepped foot outside the office.

Unless you’re curing cancer, tackling climate change or working to make a difference, very few jobs make a difference in the long run. Certainly not office jobs. You should enjoy what you do, but it shouldn’t become central to your identity.

Work to live, don’t live to work.

The lunch break is sacred

Thirty minutes was all we got for lunch. And when I say thirty minutes, I mean thirty minutes. Every time we went for lunch we had to clock out of our phones, which tracked the time we started work and finished.

Should we go a minute over thirty, we’d be asked multiple questions. Where have you been? What were you doing? Why were you late? It was like the Spanish Inquisition! All of this fuss for being a minute late!

Still, those thirty minutes was bliss. For a short period of time, we were free to relax, play pool and talk freely without fear of recrimination. While none of us felt like going back to work, we did feel refreshed after the break.

Humans are not built to work without rest. We need time to recover, to recharge our batteries and to refuel. The lunch break may have only lasted thirty minutes, but most of the time, it was the best thirty minutes of the day.

A lot of jobs are bullshit

I never intended to work in an office, it just kinda happened. I knew working in an office wasn’t for me and my experience proved I was right. The only reason my job existed was because of the rampant misselling of insurance for decades.

We had to sift through thousands of claims to determine whether people were owed money or not. We were clearing up someone else’s mess. In a lot of cases, the mess of people who were still working for the company.

David Graeber wrote a book in 2018 titled, B*llshit Jobs. The premise is a lot of the jobs in society today are pointless, have little value and don’t offer satisfaction to those who do them.

This summed up my job to perfection. Eight hours a day, five days a week, I slogged through these claims. Was I performing a vital task, or doing something which would make society better? No.

The sad truth is a lot of the jobs that exist today are pointless. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed we’d be working 15-hours a week as technology advanced.

Instead, the productivity benefits of automation have led to a rise of pointless jobs which even the people who do them can’t justify. A sad fact is a lot of us will spend the majority of our lives in these soul-destroying jobs.

Work should be a source of pride not a source of misery. Unfortunately, for many, that’s just not the case anymore.

If you have a problem be direct about it

One of the things I hated most about working in an office was the emails. Every day we were bombarded with email after email. Some implored us to work harder, others were about changes to procedures.

Sometimes, they involved a dressing down our manager didn’t want to give face-to-face. This was a recurring theme. Instead of talking to the person to resolve an issue or the whole group, email was the preferred format.

But instead of solving the problems, they festered. People ended up gossiping and talking about our manager behind their back. Had an in-person meeting taken place instead, the issues would have been squashed 90 per cent of the time.

It’s uncomfortable to have disagreements with people. No one likes to come across as an arsehole but sometimes it’s necessary. Emails and talking behind people’s backs is passive-aggressive.

If you speak to the person directly or address the group in an environment where everyone can air their grievances, they’re much more likely to be resolved than through an indirect method

It’s easy to become comfortable

While I disliked my job, as time went on I noticed how much more comfortable I was working there. A few times I found myself thinking it wasn’t so bad.

It’s easy to slip into this mindset. Had I not been working on my travel blog concurrently, I’m not sure I’d have left when I did. Jobs, especially ones in an office, offer a false sense of security which a lot of people fall for.

Being comfortable isn’t a bad thing. We should be comfortable to some extent. But there’s a point where you can become too comfortable. Where you don’t challenge yourself and go through the motions.

Before you know it, months and years have passed and you’re still in the same spot. Those hopes and dreams have started to fade into the background after you failed to grasp them.

We all need to step outside of our comfort zone once in a while. Life should be challenging and an opportunity to grow rather than stagnate. You’re only here once. Life is short, grasp the opportunities it throws up while you still can.

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