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Article - Opinion

Is slacking the only way to survive the office?

Corinne Maier: "active disengagement" the essential technique for corporate survival !

Bienvenue, good morning and welcome to the latest cultural nougat from the auld alliance. A tale of treachery and guile, present smiles and absent hearts. For all of France is ablaze with Bonjour Paresse (Hello Sloth) - the long-awaited sequel to the smouldering 1950s ingenue hit Bonjour Tristesse. What a lot has happened to our heroine since she confided her youthful lusts to Francoise Sagan all those years ago. The flaky 17-year-old has shed her pedal-pushers and her fondness of father figures and has gone out to work. Mais oui. Wisely (considering aforementioned fondness for older men) she has even changed her name. Corinne Maier is the new confidante of the nation, now delivering a low, seditious whisper from the workplace instead of the bedroom. Because, quelle surprise! the poor girl is still not happy. And the tristesse of that first defining crush on an unavailable man is nothing compared to the anguish of the biggest shattered love affair of all: le career.

Which of us cannot sympathise? We all remember when we too met that beguiling hero, Monsieur Career. How impressive he looked. Those broad shoulders. That big desk with all the telephones. The absolute - yet unspoken - promise to deliver us a better and more fulfilling life. And we believed his seductive imprecations - surrendered to the pin-striped embrace fast as a tipsy teenager. I can't imagine why we don't wear long white dresses or tailcoats to our first day at work - it is a marriage, after all. But, like all too many modern marriages, is destined to be either brutish and short, or long and deceitful.

Corinne Maier favours the latter option. In fact, she insists it is the essential technique for corporate survival. Her argument is blunt. Most large organisations, whether private or public, are hugely inefficient, bedevilled by politics, sycophancy and abysmal management, and hence breed only malign boredom for employees.

She bases her observations on 12 years as a part-time economist in the research and development sector of Electricité de France. As a result of their name being mentioned on the cover of her book (which is subtitled The Art and Importance of Doing as Little as Possible in the Workplace), her employers have summoned her to a disciplinary hearing. Which was scheduled for tomorrow, but has now been postponed, as anyone remotely interested in the case - including Ms Maier - is on holiday. Sacre Bleu, it is August after all. Besides, the French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has already warned (though some preferred to see it as a promise) that the nation's feverish adherence to the 35-hour week is turning France into one big holiday camp. Further editions in the Bonjour series - Bonjour Nudisme, Bonjour La Chaise Longue - must surely follow shortly.

What is perhaps more interesting than the summer waves which Maier's book has suddenly created, is the fact that it was published back in April - in a print run of just 4,000 copies - and enjoyed a reception of almost complete indifference. (Bonjour Silence.) It was not until July, when Le Monde carried an article about the proposed disciplinary hearing, that the book became an unexpected hot property, and its adolescent chapter headings and advice were widely quoted in the media.

Since then, serious commentators throughout Europe have been applying themselves to notions as sophisticated as: "Business Culture: My Arse!", "The Cretins Who Sit Next to You", and "Why You Lose Nothing By Resigning." The book is supposed to be an endearing antidote to the flood of US-imported self-help books by business gurus advising on the techniques of success. In the United States these focus on always doing a little more - and ensuring that your effort is noticed by your superiors. Ms Maier conversely suggests doing quite a lot less, and ensuring that your many omissions are not noticed. A sort of Denis-the-Menace-meets-Marxism workplace manual.

Her thesis of "active disengagement" is couched in the pseudo-intellectual language which her doctorate in psychoanalysis permits. She uses phrases like "active disengagement" citing global financial scandals as proof that there is very little for the middle-tier worker to expect beyond ransacked pension funds and early redundancy. The company does not love you, therefore the only dignified response is sabotage. A long, slow poisoning of the well.

How shocking! the French establishment have squealed. How very old hat! is the Scottish response.

Ms Maier suggests that, in order to appear busy, one should pace around the office clutching files. Was this not civil service rule number one? - instigated, I'd guess, in the time of Dickens, but gleefully continued by all subsequent generations of persons just as bored with their jobs as Corinne Maier. A few sheets of paper is really all that is required. Whole files are only for those who wish to add a little biceps work-out to their aimless perambulation. The best part of this ancient ritual is that it tends to make one's colleagues look away - just in case you and your papers are going to interrupt their own lassitude.

Ms Maier writes that there is "a stench of inertia and of wasted lives" in all large offices. Loyalty and hard work are so rarely rewarded that she advises us all to call in sick as often as possible - or to change religion in order to take advantage of arcane festivals and holy days. Not exactly a novel formula.

A survey by Norwich Union Healthcare earlier this year showed that half of all British workers admitted to feigning illness in order to catch up on home administration or to cope with a domestic crisis. Scots came out at the top of the list for sickie-as-a-parrot days, so there is really nothing Ms Maier can teach us there. Office people are simply "drones, they don't dream any more", she alleges. Au contraire madame. 'Ere in our leetle Caledonian workplace, we dream all the time. Initially - and I am sure you, as a French woman will approve - we dream about lunch. After that, we gaze at the hands of the office clock - such elegant, black hands, so chic and slender, like two young gymnasts stretching through slow-motion exercises oh so slowly towards 5 o'clock - pardon, mademoiselle, my daydreams are running away with me. Now where was I? Ah yes, 5 o'clock. Not, sadly, such a big event for us here, as it is for you French. Cinq-a-sept as you call it. The hours for illicit sex. And how jolly thoughtful of you to have incorporated it officially into the executive's working day. Here in Scotland (quel dommage) we are only cuddling up to les pints at this hour. And every condensation-beaded embrace is dependent on the boss allowing us to cast off the brutal yoke of those paper clips just a bit early. But we have acclimatised ourselves to these privations.

Hence, I regret to insist, that Corinne Maier's careful tips to successful skiving are utterly amateur in the eyes of a nation as advanced in the art as our own. Hide your favourite novel inside an instruction manual for the computer system? As outmoded as Miss Marple! Turn your computer screen away to hide the fact that you are playing solitaire? Not practical unless you have a plan to reconfigure desk and chair as well. Choose the most pointless job? Impossible, I already have it!

As with so many things, mes amis, we Scots invented it. So sit back and learn from the masters.


1. You are a modern day slave. There is no scope for personal fulfilment. You work only for money. Interesting. (But Dr Johnson put it better 200 years ago: "Anyone who writes for anything but money is a fool".)

2. You are not valued and can be replaced from one day to the next by the cretin sitting next to you, so work as little as possible and spend time cultivating your own personal network of mentors. (In Scotland this is called going for a drink after a hard day doing nothing.)

3. You are not judged on merit, only on whether you look the part. (Is there any other reason for Austin Reed to exist?)

4. Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. (Nae problem! One has never been offered same.)

5. Cultivate the most useless positions: forward planning is best. It is very difficult to assess your contribution in these fields. (We'd like to reply, but we're all in a meeting to discuss our 2011 sales strategy.)

6. Learn to identify kindred spirits. (That's why we're still in that meeting.)

7. Pretend to be a smoker - that way you get more time out of the office. (Shouldn't that leave every office in France empty?)

8. Tell yourself that the absurd ideology underpinning this corporate ethos cannot last forever. It will go the way of post-structuralism and the pogo stick. (That should mean an end to books like Bonjour Paresse.)

9. Be nice to people on short-term contracts. They do all the work. (Perhaps someone could crochet us a few so we know what they look like.)

10. Forget le vice Anglais, French leave and German sausage. L'ironie Ecossais is the only way forward.


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