Why Office Work is Bad For You

Why Office Work Is Bad For Us

I’ve just read Matthew Crawford’s The Case For Working With Your Hands, subtitled Why Office Work is Bad For Us and Fixing Things can Feel Good.

It’s a great book, marred by writing that ranges from the turgid to the sublime. The author’s observation of  “knowledge work” echoes the changes I have seen in the modern workplace, accelerated by globalisation. The problem, basically, is that wages in the West are high relative to emerging economies, so work that is relocatable will be relocated to cheaper regions. His advice is to choose a career in fields that require a physical presence – doctors good, radiologists bad. Image files can be transferred to cheaper wage economies for radiology, by the surgeon who opens you up has really got to be there with you…

At the same time, the separation of thinking from doing makes knowledge work increasingly unsatisfying. It is hard to see where your piece fits in, unlike the example of an electrician, who knows he has succeded if the lights come on and stay on. This deracination of work makes management of knowledge workers harder. You can see if the carpenter’s door fits or the shelves are level, but performance management is virtually impossible for knowledge workers – what on earth do you measure that you can ascribe to a particular individual’s efforts? The description of the essentials of knowledge worker management is inspired. When reduced to its fundamentals, the principles of much contemporary management is

“push details down and pull credit up”

A good carpenter’s work will develop his career for him – people will favour someone whose work is aesthetically pleasing and stands the test of time, whereas progression in offices is frequently down to luck, being in the right place at the right time in reorganisations and avoiding being associated with any projects that become train wrecks.

The original title of the book as “Shop Class as Soulcraft, an Inquiry into the Value of Work” but British readers wouldn’t recognise [work]shop class; older readers might be able to relate to shop class as woodworking and metalworking subjects at school but there is little current equivalent.