Eavesdropping: the sure-fire cure for workers’ itchy feet

Published: 27 October 2016 By Lucy Kellaway

Eavesdropping: the sure-fire cure for workers’ itchy feet Opinion: white-collar work makes the worst spectator sport

Lucy Kellaway

All office work viewed from the outside makes you glad you are not having what she’s having at all.

All office work viewed from the outside makes you glad you are not having what she’s having at all.

I ran into a journalist acquaintance the other day and asked him how things were going. Badly, he said. He had just failed for the third time to get promoted and was feeling so unloved he had wondered if he should chuck it all in.

But then he said he did what he always does when fed up with his job – he spies on other people doing theirs.

In trains and planes, he looks over the shoulders of workers as they send emails and pore over spreadsheets, and he eavesdrops on their conversations. The result is always the same – and always conclusive. What people get up to during their working day invariably strikes him as hair-raisingly dull. However bad journalism might be, other jobs are miles worse.

Possibly he is right; but there is something else going on here that skews the result. It is not so much that journalism is better than most things. It is that white-collar work makes the worst spectator sport there is. With most other things in life, it’s a case of I’ll-have-what-she’s-having. In restaurants, whatever someone else has ordered almost always looks better than what you yourself have chosen. But when we glimpse people at work the opposite is true. All office work viewed from the outside makes you jolly glad you are not having what she’s having at all.

Envy the trappings That is not to say that we don’t sometimes – or even often – envy the trappings of other people’s jobs. The self-importance. The view from the 23rd floor. The money. The power. The drinks after work. The travel. The conviviality. All are eminently covetable, if you’re in a coveting mood.But the work itself? Never.

To test the thesis I have just engaged in some espionage work of my own. During lunchtime I popped out of the office and prowled round the local cafes and lunch places, ears on stalks, notebook open. Every time I heard something related to actual work I wrote it down. This is a sample of what I heard. “There are questions around the messaging in slide four,” one man said into his mobile as he strode along Southwark Bridge.

“We’ve sorted the final outstanding issues, so we’re in great shape going forward,” said another as he queued for a sandwich in Pret A Manger.

Later, close to London Bridge Tube, one man remarked to another: “I don’t think he can manage his pipeline.” Later still, in Starbucks, two men in suits with wheelie suitcases at their sides were having a conversation that went like this. Suit A: “How are you positioning the CRM piece?” Suit B: “We need to create value around it.”

The oddest thing about my spying wasn’t the boring nature of what these people were saying. It was that their faces didn’t look bored at all. Indeed the man who was talking about the CRM piece looked almost animated. Evidently, if you are in it, this sort of work chat has a weird charm of its own.

As I listened to the pair, who were now cheerfully throwing around the word “materiality”, I heard a woman at a table behind me say: “I used Greek yoghurt instead of the double cream and it came out really nice.” Suddenly I perked up. Given the competition, this dismal scrap of dieting chat seemed mesmerising.

But why is it this way? Why to the outsider, does the banality of Greek yoghurt seem more compelling than materiality, which by its nature is material?

The first reason is that the former is comprehensible. The biggest turn off about office talk is that it is hard to fathom. The second is that even when it is understandable, it is almost always abstract. In not one of my overheard conversations could I have begun to hazard a guess what the speaker actually did.

The only common noun I heard was “pipeline”, but something told me that what was being managed in it was neither oil nor gas.

Just as I was about to return to my own office I heard someone say: “Yeah, he’s in line to be made an MD. Just shows you.” She had my attention. I strained to hear more. I wanted to know what it showed you, but she said nothing further.

But it didn’t matter, as I had my answer. Here is what is so endlessly fascinating about offices: it is the people who work with us, under us and over us.

Game of Monopoly Otherwise, white-collar work is a bit like an emasculated, heavily regulated game of Monopoly. It is almost impossible to buy anything, let alone build hotels. Your job is just to move your counter round the board, an activity which though boring and endless, just about sucks you in while you are doing it. Sometimes you go faster than your colleagues, which feels good; sometimes you move slower, which feels less good.

And if all else fails, there is always the £200 to look forward to every time you pass Go.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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