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
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
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
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.
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.