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Everyone back to the office! Why? Because the decision has been made
Where should I sit? 'Don't bother me with details, just do it'
Something for the Weekend A mouse mat is delivering a speech. "I would like to thank my mom and dad, my trainer Brian, and to my recycled polyester silky surface that ensures unobstructed mouse movement."
Sporadic claps and whoops punctuate the hush from the auditorium.
"But most of all, I would like to thank you. I love you all!"
And with that, the crowd jumps to its feet and bursts into loud and sustained applause. The mouse mat bows once more, then dances across the stage and skips lightly down the steps – it knows its rubber base will prevent any slippage – before resuming its seat, waving to acknowledge the adoration of its fans.
At least, this is how I imagined the spectacle played out when Expert Reviews announced its annual Remote Working Awards this week.
These awards celebrate the work-from-homer, whose status was elevated by the first 2020 lockdown and has risen determinedly ever since. "Best Mouse Mat" was just one of many thrilling awards handed out that night, including many more for the likes of "Best Office Chair", "Best Laptop Stand" and that undeniable corporate essential for every domestic bureau, "Best Paper Shredder".
This is a far cry from pre-pandemic awards, which I suppose must have featured categories such as "Weakest Wi-Fi Signal", "Wobbliest Kitchen Stool", "Ugliest Spare Bedroom Wallpaper", and "Worst Neighbor for Incessant Drilling, Hammering and Circular Saw Usage Every Single Day".
Early in the WFH phenomenon, remote workers complained that their employers were not compensating them for electricity, lighting, heating, and so on. Hipsters who had previously enjoyed perks at their place of employment bewailed the loss of their free coffee and snacks allowance, and suffered permanent emotional damage from the shock of being forced to work in an environment insufficiently decorated with chrome and stressed wood.
Told to "shut up and get on with it," they did. They cleared a corner in the apartment, bought a fancy gaming chair and a sleek new notebook. They nagged their ISPs to upgrade their fiber. They nagged their mobile suppliers for better contracts and more data.
At this point, they discovered a secret that Register readers have known throughout their careers: the best computer kit is your own. They came to realize that the equipment their bosses had been providing at their workplaces all this time had been shit. The office's network connection had been dire. The mobile signal in the depths of open-plan Hell had been decidedly one-bar. And despite missing all that coffee and crisps/potato chips, they grew to enjoy no longer suffering from migraines from spending 10 hours a day inhaling the unholy stench of everybody else's beard oil.
Now their employers want them back in the office, plenty are sticking their heels in. They've bought all this kit and it's fantastic. The last thing they want is to be sent back to slaving over a pre-Lenovo era ThinkPad caked in finger grease on a 1Mbit connection, tottering on a broken swivel chair that Buildings Management rescued from a skip, while rubbing elbows with that jerk with the annoying voice and that other bastard who sniffs all day.
Me, I'm just an observer. There's no real answer to the work-from-home versus return-to-office debate. If there is an answer it's this: "It depends." Some jobs need you to be in situ; others do not.
I have been working from home since 1993. But I will frequently allow myself to be contracted into working on-site for a client because the task requires it. And on each occasion, the experience is the same: I spend most of Day One standing up because there is no desk or chair available for me. Those already assigned a pew always seem to get upset about me parking my bum on the corner of their desks, so I loiter and get on everyone's tits that way instead.
Now we read about Elon Musk's diktat that Tesla's WFH employees must trudge back to the office – and the chaotic results. No room in the office, no room in the car park, no room on the bandwidth and, come Christmas, probably no room at the inn.
Similar tales of woe can be heard on the other side of the Atlantic. In the UK, the government's minister nominally in charge of the entire civil service spent his apparently endless free time in April dropping passive-aggressive notes on empty desks, reading: "Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP."
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In case you are not familiar with Jacob Rees-Mogg, imagine somebody dressed like Bertie Wooster, with a diction like Sir Percy Blakeney and talking anachronistically convoluted bollocks like an overacting steampunk cosplayer after three pints of Theakston's Old Peculier.
But that's beside the point: if every remote-working civil servant did return to the official seat of public administration, there would be insufficient seats to accommodate them. There would be hundreds loitering around, looking baffled and suffering from desk-corner crease burns on their backsides.
What Jacob and Elon have in common, apart from never having their gym clothes mixed up with anyone else's at school, is the penchant for all bosses to think theirs is the word of God. Not that they actually believe they are deities, mind, but they are under the impression that making a decision is the same as carrying it out.
"Come back to the office," they say… and walk off, leaving some other poor sod to run around trying to locate floor space, desks, chairs, computers, network connections etc. for the mob that just turned up in reception.
The most startling aspect of this God syndrome – the inability to understand the difference between thinking and doing – is that it has not improved a jot over the years. Back at the turn of the 1990s, I worked in the tiniest, cramped sliver of space you could imagine: actually, utterly unimaginable in these days of social distancing.
We had mini-desks to allow more staff to fit on each floor, jammed together like badly fitting jigsaw pieces. We shared phones, not because we didn't have enough of them, but because there wasn't enough desk space for one each. There would occasionally be fights over who had to use up their desk to accommodate the phone.
Then my immediate manager leans across one day and announces that he'd be taking on a secretary. OK, we said, where are they going to sit?
"Detail," he replied dismissively.
What? No, really, where will they sit? There is no spare furniture and even if we had any, there is nowhere to put it. Would they sit on the window sill, perhaps?
"Detail," he insisted – and so we left it at that.
I left the company shortly after this exchange. But I was told later that the forlorn young secretary spent not just their first day but the whole first week standing up and loitering around, occasionally resting on the window sill when nobody else was occupying it.
Most memorably at that company was a superb moment of comedy drama when the managing director came downstairs and demanded to know when our glossy magazine supplement would be back from the printers. "What glossy magazine supplement?" we asked. None of us had a clue what he was talking about.
It turned out that several months previously he had held a top-floor meeting with the various other top managers and they had come up with the idea of producing a glossy magazine supplement. They then all left the meeting under the impression – God syndrome again – that deciding was the same as doing. Not one of them thought of mentioning the idea to the team; instead, they assumed that as they had decided that it would happen, it would certainly happen. The entire project only ever existed in their tiny pea brains.
Ordering vast swathes of staff back to the IRL working without considering the necessity or consequences is no different. The decision is made, let it be done!
The one thing I will say on the whole remote working argument is this: Paul McCartney and John Lennon went off the rails once they started WFH. If only they could have been persuaded to go back to the office…