Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Today I crashed vans, fought fires and got a kicking

"Daddy, what do you do at work?"
"Well...I send some emails. I talk on the phone. I go to meetings, which is where we all talk about what we should do."
(Sigh) "Tell me about the exciting things you do at work!"

Explaining the way we work in the 21st century to a four year old tends to put it all in a bit of perspective. What do we actually do? In literal terms, it is sending emails, talking on the phone and sitting together in meetings, talking about what we should do. And then doing it, which tends to mean more emails, phone calls and meetings. This clearly does not sound very exciting to Little C. Her view of a job is being a ballet dancer, a postman, a cafe worker or, most preferably, a princess. All of these, with the possible exception of the last one, have clearly defined things to do which actually look productive, even to a four year old.

When did it all change? Sure, there were always offices and office workers, but when did the world seem to become one big office, one series of emails, phone calls and meetings? I don't think it ever did for my father, who was a fireman, though I've no idea whether today's fire service spend more time emailing, making calls and meeting people than they do fighting fires.

Fighting fires, you say? That's what I was doing last week apparently, when the organisation I work for got some bad press. See, we've even appropriated the language of more manual, clearly defined jobs in an effort to make ours sound more interesting and glamorous. If I had said to Little C, "Well, I put a few fires out, did some deep diving, then went into my workshop and built a straw man" I might still be having the conversation now.

So around this worldwide office develops a worldwide language which you ignore at your peril. It tends to be a macho language in which we drill down, get a kicking and use crap football analogies like injury time, shoo in and the dreaded thinking outside the box. Though of course thinking outside the box, like blue sky thinking, has now become such a tired and derided cliche that it meets with cringes and head slapping all round. Management speak moves on and using last year's bullshit is a bit like wearing last year's shirt.

In a previous job, a colleague and I got so tired of this drivel that we started inventing our own management terms. "What happened with that idea we discussed last time?" said Boring Colleague. "Ah, we crashed the van on that one. Way too complicated," we replied. I suspect 'crashing the van' became parlance in that office afterwards, though I haven't seen it emerge elsewhere yet. Perhaps there is some sort of management speak regulator, like NICE, that has to approve every new piece of nonsense? It's certainly not clear where it comes from, it seems to emerge instantaneously in several places at once and suddenly everyone is saying it, like it's been implanted in their brains overnight. I still occasionally try to invent new ones, but they never seem to take off.

So how to explain this strange world we now inhabit to Little C? "Well darling, a few years ago, we stopped making things anymore and started just managing them. So most of us adults spend our days in very big rooms, talking to each other, sending emails and answering the phone (or not). We are busier than we ever have been since work began, because the talking and messages and phone calls essentially lead to more talking, messages and phone calls, which in turn lead to more. This is how most of us now spend most of our lives."

When you put it like that, you can see why management terms were invented. If we can make our work sound like a football match, a punch up or a forest fire, we might stop thinking about how dreadfully meaningless and dull it often is. Something none of us wants to talk about in our next water cooler moment.

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