Win a copy of 'Why I Hate The Office'

IF you're wearing a baseball cap sporting the company logo, or replacing the words of We Will Rock You with your firm's mission statement, you're “living the brand”.

IF you're wearing a baseball cap sporting the company logo, or replacing the words of We Will Rock You with your firm's mission statement, you're “living the brand”.

Some workers love that kind of thing. Most come out in a rash at the very mention of such corporate nonsense. The ridiculous nature of the workplace culture is captured in a new book from Essex author Malcolm Burgess, called 500 Reasons Why . . . I Hate The Office.

It's a sectionalised list-based book that ranges from Being Appraised to Buzz Words, and from Corporate Launches to Team Building. It's an amusing look at the salaried life, with the humour underpinned by the realisation that working life could and should be much better.

We've got 10 copies to give away, courtesy of Icon Books. To stand a chance of winning one, simply send your name and address by email (to steve.russell@eadt.co.uk) or by post to Steven Russell, features department, East Anglian Daily Times, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.


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Closing date is September 12, when 10 winners will be randomly selected.

As Malcolm says: “If hell had a modern name, it would be today's workplace.” From the enforced jollity of in-house awards to baked-bean baths for Children in Need, there are countless irritations to turn well-balanced staff insane.

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If he had any hair left, he'd be pulling it out. Why, he bemoans, don't bosses realise that providing an attractive environment and diluting the corporate nonsense would motivate people to perform better? Instead, we have patronising team-bonding courses, meaningless appraisals and human resources departments that view a company's prime assets - its employees - as “basically ballast . . . surplus to requirements at any moment”.

Essex-based Malcolm, 50, has a fair sweep of experience of the office - for better or worse. He's worked in advertising, book-publishing, as a consultant, in local government, as a freelance journalist and as a playwright.

“I've worked right across the board, because when I was freelancing as a consultant I worked in many different offices; and I still go into quite a lot of offices, so I've got a lot of experience of them.”

Some experiences were cosily surreal: like working for a branch of the Collins empire, based in a Georgian house in Mayfair. “It was quite a bizarre set-up because people would bring their pets to work as well. The press officer had a monkey and it would be in the office. And people would bring tortoises and dogs and things. It was quite strange.”

Malcolm was an advertising copywriter for four or five years before that. Living on one's wits, it was a job he enjoyed, until writing about supermarkets' frozen chickens and the like began to pall.

He had “one of those moments of epiphany or awakening. I was in a meeting for a famous 'dream kitchen'; we were discussing the colour of their paint range and the meeting lasted about six hours. You know, you have those moments in your life when you think 'What am I doing here? I can't stay.' So I moved on”.

Meetings . . . like a red rag to a bull.

“My god! Haven't we all sat in ghastly meetings? Apparently in meetings we're only good for 23 minutes or something. Beyond that - what was it? - 53% of the time we think about sex, holidays, and what we're going to eat for our tea. How many meetings have you been in that last for less than 23 minutes? Why isn't it changing?”

Beats me. What else irritates?

Space: “Some of our offices are such unproductive, uncreative places. You're stuck in a cubicle; if you're lucky you have a small office with a window. There's all the hierarchical stuff there - the competition. 'Get a corner desk.' I hate all that.

“At the end of the day, I do think that workers are companies' number one assets. I don't think employees are valued enough. Without us, everything would collapse - and so much depends on our goodwill.”

Feeling tethered to work: “There is a figure: 40% of men check their office emails when they're on holiday. I do check my home emails a bit, but I would never check office emails; I just find that totally scare-inducing. And it all can't be good for people's psychological health, can it?”

OK. There's a magic wand. What three things would you change?

“I would abolish beige paint! I would make sure that office cubicles were bigger than the minimum area for transporting pigs. And I would ban all melamine walnut furniture. They're all simple and stupid things, but I think the whole quality of lifestyle in offices is really important. You're stuck in their eight, nine hours a day. In your own home you would never endure such conditions.”

I feel there's more than three things that need changing . . .

“Carpet tiles. They're a particular bete noire of mine. They're so gross.

“Also, there's this whole thing about working with your colleagues - which can be quite tricky, with the best will in the world. Especially if you're trapped for 40 years with a colleague opposite who watches Bargain Hunt. It just doesn't help.”

Malcolm would also love to do something about “useless bosses from hell - the micro-managers and so on. It's an objective fact - we all know it - that British management is so poor. If we're not managed properly, what hope is there for us?

“I would say I've had about two brilliant managers in my life. You respect them. OK, they give you leadership, but they also give you space to develop, and sometimes to make mistakes - to take off and soar. But most managers I've had have been such rubbish.”

We're on a roll here. Next up, the relentless drive to restructure, as part of “change management”.

“How often can we put our hands on our heart and say the change has been for the better? It's reinventing the wheel most of the time. OK, there are some good changes, but most of the time there's no real improvement.”

Er, what about consultants?

“I've never been that kind of consultant, thank god - I've just been doing marketing and things like that - but I've been involved with consultants in the publishing business and elsewhere. At the end of the day, apart from being very, very expensive - and often without any of that hands-on experience that the teams of people have had - they often come up with very complicated reports that say nothing different to what people have been saying in the office kitchen for about 10 years! 'This needs changing. Get rid of that boss. Blah, blah, blah.'”

Work has become the new religion for many people over the last 20 years or so, he reckons - with increasing numbers of folk meeting their partner there. The workplace has come to dominate our waking hours.

Part of the reason for this state of affairs, he reckons, is our labour laws. “In Britain, it's quite easy to sack somebody. It's a much harder process on the continent; there are many more employee rights. We have the American system, introduced by the Labour Government and by the Conservative Government previously.”

Insecurity about getting left behind in a global competition probably shapes our workplace - “and I do think it's also to do with being beholden to technology, with emails, mobiles. It's a 24/7 economy, isn't it?” He laughs. “I sound like Tony Blair. I'm not trying to justify it; I'm trying to explain why it's happened. The way everything's speeded up . . . I'm not quite sure, at the end of the day, what can be done about it.”

What Malcolm's sure about is that change is needed.

“We have the longest hours in western Europe, which ain't good, and we have the smallest number of holidays. We also have some of the lowest productivity - which is weird, isn't it? You'd think if we were working all these fantastic hours, we'd be producing the goods, but apparently we don't.”

There was a piece in the papers a few weeks ago that explained how money was not the prime motivating factor for many employees. “We work for other things - the satisfaction of a job done well, for instance - and if we're not given the chance of feeling that, it's quite serious.”

Often, a simple sign that the management is thinking about its workforce would make a huge difference. “It's small things. There was something in the Daily Mail, I think it was, a few weeks back: Why aren't offices painted nice colours? Like pink. Nice green or something. It's only a can of paint. Horrible beige looks like it's got sick in it. Why beige? Why all those 1970s colours? That awful furniture?”

Without wanting to sound “too poncey” about it, he hopes his book might offer a bit of self-help -encouraging workers to smile at the things that make them angry and despair, and why they make them feel so bad.

And to realise “it's not you! It's not your fault! There are reasons outside yourself. I think that might help in terms of people not becoming so self-hating - to maybe think there other ways ahead”.

(500 Reasons Why . . . I Hate The Office is published on September 7 by Icon Books, priced £9.99. ISBN 978-1840467-79-6)

IN cold print, venting his spleen about the way office workers are mistreated, Malcolm Burgess could come across as a grumpy old man suffering from a terminal dose of cynicism. Which isn't the case at all.

As literature development manager for Essex County Council, he's a prime mover in the county's book festival - which has grown into the biggest writing-related festival in the eastern region. It runs throughout March in venues across Essex, and attracts some big names.

Then there's his own canon of literary work. Malcolm works four days a week for County Hall, which he joined in 2000. On the fifth day, and at weekends, he does his own writing. Radio scriptwriting includes the BBC Radio 3 series Parodies Lost, starring Eleanor Bron. Last year was Fear and Loathing in Crouch End, starring Nicola McAulife, which ran in Radio 4's Afternoon Play slot and featured Estonian au pair Monika trying to get to grips with middle-class priorities in London.

A sequel is planned for next year, and it's likely to be turned into a novel, too.

He's also been commissioned by his publishers to write a book about being in your 40s in the 21st Century - about things like going to Glastonbury when you're 45. He quips: “People say 40s are the new 30s - which would make 10 the new zero. How does that work?”

Malcolm's been writing as a freelance for 20 years or so, since he started working in publishing. The extra cash came in handy when there was a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. (His partner is the writer Heather Reyes, and he has two grown-up stepchildren.)

He's written for national newspapers, along with wedding publications and women's magazines. With the latter, he often used a pseudonym: Barbara Burgess, his mother's name. “It was very difficult for tax purposes!” he laughs. “Don't recommend it.”

Malcolm's also penned two big series for the free Metro newspaper in London. One, The Office, proved the impetus for his new book.

Writing, then, has long been a fundamental feature of the household.

“When my daughter was very young, the first thing she made out of felt was a rejection letter! She'd seen so many come through the door. My partner's a writer as well, and if you're freelancing you get rejections, so we had this lovely felt rejection letter. Now, of course, most rejections come by phone or email. It's not the same.”

Hailing from north London, he reacted against the academic upbringing of his grammar school and, after studying English and history at university in York, decided he wanted to “live by my wits” and turned to advertising.

Malcolm later spent 12 years or so with Collins (it later became HarperCollins). When he started in the mid '80s, publishing was on the verge of changing from a sort of gentlemanly and smaller-scale, less competitive, industry. “Everybody apart from me had a private income - and knew,” he laughs.

The arm he worked for was staffed by about 15 people, so everyone did a bit of everything. There was great variety and life was great fun. The business was later taken over by Rupert Murdoch and started to adopt more of a global empire feel.

Malcolm worked with authors such as Jeffrey Archer and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Archer “was very nice, actually. He was very good at working with teams of people, and quite astute, in that he gave the reps bottles of champagne to motivate them. I would say most of the big authors are really nice people. They're real pros. There's no bullshit. It was some of the small authors who sometimes had tantrums. I'm not going to name any names!”

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