Cubicle Blues

Back in the office.

NUVO Spring 2015: Last Writes

After five years convincing myself that I was one of the chosen few who could make life as a freelance writer a success—days spent orbiting Wi-Fi hotspots, slumped over the laptop and staring forlornly at a blank Word document with the rest of the coffee shop clique—I finally decided to give up on my pursuit of the career-equivalent of magic beans and get a “real” job instead.

That meant a return to the office, however, as employers understandably want to see your face in exchange for your annual salary. It was something I was excited about. After all, freelancing tends to be a lonely experience—think Tom Hanks befriending a volleyball in Cast Away and you’re in the right ballpark—and I was willing to forego the opportunity to take an afternoon nap if it meant actually speaking to another human being during office hours.

My first forays into the world of nine-to-five were an unparalleled success. As I congregated around the coffee machine (free-flowing hot beverages being one of the unquestionable benefits of gainful employment) with my new colleagues, I felt a certain sense of belonging, something that I’d missed during the years I’d spent making small talk with baristas merely as an excuse to exercise my vocal cords.

I’d even begun to hope that things had evolved somewhat in the half decade I’d spent away from the workplace. After all, worker bees can’t still be battling with the same institutionalized gripes that they had the last time I worked a day job, could they?

However, the familiar frustrations that seem to go hand in hand with cubicle life began to creep back in. For starters, no matter how hard people tried to warn me, nothing could quite prepare me for the dreaded Monday. Of course I’m not the first person to find Monday mornings a chore, but it baffles me that after thousands of years of human endeavour we still haven’t found a way to improve the collective sombre mood with which so many people seem to approach the new working week.

And those seemingly never-ending meetings that punctuate my weekdays. Never has my calendar been so full. Barely an hour goes by without an Outlook window popping up to inform me about new meetings, pre-meetings about said meetings, or pre-pre-meetings to decide where we’ll meet to discuss the meetings. I wouldn’t mind so much if these brainstorm sessions actually achieved anything. But aside from the occasional salient point, they more often than not seem to be little more than a thinly veiled excuse for people to share snacks while escaping the clutches of their desks for an hour or two. I get that communication is important. But wouldn’t we all be a little more productive if, instead of talking about the work we’re doing, we, y’know, actually did some of it?

On the subject of snacks, I must address the volume of sugary treats that are injected into the workplace. My inbox fills up with All Staff e-mails heralding the delivery of a fresh batch of calories, from cookies to doughnuts to cakes to candy. At first I thought I’d inadvertently joined a community of feeders intent on expanding my waistline. But pretty soon I was ignoring the onset of early diabetes and starting to chase the glucose dragon along with the rest of my colleagues.

From my 11 a.m. coffee (two sugars please) to my 3 p.m. hot chocolate and my 4:30 p.m. candy bar, the sucrose induced haze has become an inescapable part of my day—and that doesn’t even cover the cakes that are rolled out every time we’re encouraged to awkwardly warble “Happy Birthday” to an equally awkward-looking colleague. A practice that means I now live in perpetual fear of the day when a group of co-workers are herded behind my desk and forced to exchange a half-baked birthday rendition for a slice of store-bought cake. In fact, the only thing I dread more is the faux surprise I’ll have to enact before wolfing down said cake in order to fill the awkward silences between small talk.

Of course what I’m saying here isn’t groundbreaking; bemoaning overenthusiastic social committees, inter-cubicle chit-chat and workplace politics isn’t exactly splitting the atom. Which raises the question: If everyone hates these institutionalized annoyances, why do we insist on perpetuating them?

The problem with the nine-to-five may be the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. itself. It’s prescriptive, a chore rather than a choice no matter how much you enjoy your work. We’re not designed to sit down in front of computers for eight hours straight. It’s an archaic practice that doesn’t take into account the mental acuity required for most modern jobs. We’re simply not wired to be creative for long stretches of time; instead, people have bursts of productivity followed by periods of inertia, which inevitably have to be filled with sugary treats and spurious meetings.

Perhaps, rather than encouraging freelancers to behave like office workers, office workers should follow the unstructured life of the freelancer—without the loneliness.