The office

By Matthew Solle on 23/02/2013 — 7 mins read

He went to work in an office. An office much like any other office. In no discernible way any different from the many other offices he had spent an inordinate amount of his working life sat in the confines of. It was in a small office block in an average street pretty much near the centre of a large sprawling city. The office was filled with matching tables and desks and chairs and sofas. All modern and mostly new and some expensive. The chairs were standard office chairs but had obviously been procured with their host’s postures uppermost in the mind. When not occupied, some were neatly pushed in under their corresponding desks and some were rolled back as though their occupants had been ejected. Most still retained their purchase detail tags and some haphazardly labelled with their self-appointed owner’s names. There were also at various desks and work points a number of orthopaedic chairs. These tended to move around. Never in the same place. As if the chairs themselves knew who needed them and when. A few work areas were also afforded the luxury of stools and foot rests. These generally went unnoticed. After he had been in the office for a reasonable period of time it became obvious to him that the three sofas largely went unused. They were brightly coloured and had been set down in areas where the office planner had thought people may choose to congregate and relax. People seemed to hardly notice them let alone sit on them. He once noted that a magazine left casually on one of them had remained unmoved for four weeks. From the windows, views of the city wrapped around the whole office. When he rested his elbows on a window sill and stared out his view was taken up almost exclusively by buildings. Often he would not see one person or any movement anywhere as if not a single soul was present for miles around. On sunny days, the blinds would be rolled up and down from one side of the office to the other in a broken Mexican Wave. On grey days, the weather would sit on top of the office. In the office there were many different types of people, but where there were similar types they would invariably be sat together or would congregate. Efforts were made to mix the different types of people by sitting them together in little working hubs but after a while people would break that pattern and move to sit closer to their ilk. Mostly people would sit and stare at the display screen on their desks. Some tilting their heads this way and that, moving a mouse in short jabbing movements and occasionally tapping keys on a keyboard. Some hardly moving their heads and typing intently. Some motionless, lost in space. Some leant in peering at one of the smaller screens on their desk. Some would also be standing and talking. Some close together in hushed tones, periodically darting stares across the room. Some standing behind another’s desk offering advice or listening to reasons. Others calling out to each other across the room. Sometimes the subject matter made sense and sometimes it was nonsensical to the casual listener. The desks that had permanent residents usually had personality. Surfaces would be littered with all description of things. Some desks in an orderly fashion, others randomly and some a complete mess. Things would have spilt out onto the floor, onto window sills, onto any adjoining surface even if it were the surface of another’s desk or chair. Even so, a person’s desk remained an untouchable area, a no fly zone. A place they could call home. The desks with transient visitors were devoid of any kind of personality and often gave the sense of someone just having left. Often there would be one or two random unwanted items scattered about, maybe still plugged in. One day they would be empty, the next they would host an unknown visitor and then they would be empty again. The office was over two floors. On one of the floors as well as the tables, desks, chairs and sofas there were also along one of the sides of the office four meeting rooms. Each room was self-enclosed with its own door and partially obscured glass. Each door had a name on it. For some reason that wasn’t immediately clear to anyone each room had been given the name of a Motown recording artist. One was Stevie Wonder, one was Marvin Gaye, one was Diana Ross and one was Gladys Knight. He often stared at the names intent on discovering meaning. People came and went from each meeting room throughout the day. Some people spent the majority of their working days in one or the other of the rooms. There were doorways at each end of the office. At one end people usually entered the office and at the other end people usually left the office. Some people would also enter through the out door and some people would leave through the in door. To move through in either direction a person required a security pass. Every time someone opened the door a feint beep could be heard, just audible if the room was quiet. It made him look up from his work every time. Toilets for both sexes could be found on each floor of the small office block. They were located next to the lifts for the advantage and use of everyone. He made the habit of using a toilet on a different floor to avoid the tiresome ritual of small talk with his fellow workers. In each corner of the office there were wall mounted CCTV cameras. They were all locked in position, between them covering all office activity. No one paid them much attention though when the topic came up no one was quite sure who was behind them, where they were based or in fact whether anyone was behind them at all.

When he first arrived he was given somewhere to sit near a corner close to a wall of white cupboards. Neither the desk or the chair was in any way particular. If you had to say something about them it would be that they seemed located ever so slightly outside the core layout of the office. Other people would move around the office and barely pass by his desk. He made no effort to personalise his work space beyond altering the angle of his screen to avoid unwanted gazes and occasionally leaving a reference book or two neatly beside his screen. Often of a quiet afternoon he would turn his chair slightly away from his desk and just watch the room. Just sit there and watch the room, periodically turning to his screen to flick, tab or scroll through something. Behind him the cupboards were often covered in work-related paraphernalia, but sometimes they were blank. Some of the paraphernalia remained long after it had served its purpose, growing ragged and pointless at the same time. Most days he would work at his desk for a whole afternoon, occasionally looking up from his work. At times the office would be full of people sitting at their desks. At other times the office would be almost completely empty as if silently everyone had disappeared right there in front of their screens. Most people in the office were working on different projects, the name and nature of which changed frequently. Work would appear and disappear throughout the day. Where it came from was never made clear. Landing on desks or getting pinned to walls. Then moving to another desk or getting pinned to another wall. It was never completely clear where it came from, who was receiving it and whether it was actually being noticed at all. Sometimes he imagined new pieces of work sitting idly, unnoticed for long periods and then disappearing only to reappear again untouched months later. The work seemed to exist in whirlpools. No amount of effort would pull it upstream, the pull of the eddy always stronger. It was the same when work or tasks were completed. After a wider discussion possibly in a meeting room either ending in agreement or disagreement, the completed work or tasks would often just disappear as though a gap had momentarily opened up in the floor and everything had fallen through it. Sometimes in idle moments he would try to guess what everyone in the room was doing. What they might be working on as indicated by the paraphernalia surrounding them, the shapes and shades on their screens and the people who visited their desks. Sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong. There were levels of obscuration at work that he could never be quite certain about anything or anyone. Even at times himself.

He was there but he wasn’t there. Some days were slow but some were slower still. He became automatic. The day’s movements and activities so practised his brain just ground through the gears.

But he continued. Day after day.

@solle
//somewhere in england

Posted in: Notebook

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Bright & Matt is a small product and design company working across digital transformations in government, non-profit and commercial with a wide range of experience in leadership, product management, user experience, interaction design, and user research