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.

18 thoughts on “Why Office Work is Bad For You”

  1. Did you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It sounds a bit like this, albeit it fictional form and with a dose of 70s hippy chic.

    Funny how these things tend to go in waves.

    I think office work is bearable in your 20s when it’s an extension of school, you go out with your mates after work, and you’re trying to get off with Meg from the PR department.

    Once you’re a grown up, it’s patronizing childishness becomes pretty unbearable unless you’re very lucky with where you work.

    Sadly I haven’t made the leap to working with my hands – unless you count typing! 😉

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  2. I think I read it shortly out of uni, and I was working at the BBC in London. They had some management muppetry, but not enough for the message of the book to get through 🙂

    You made me think about the shift in tolerance as one gets older. You’ve put your finger on something there, something I hadn’t really realized before. I feel a why office work is bad for you 2 post coming on…

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  3. Sounds like a very interesting read. And yes, we’d probably all be wise to get into work that can’t be exported. Or create more demand for locally produced items. I notice that the French seem to need to learn that lesson. All the striking and protesting you can do will not save a job that is more cheaply done overseas.

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    1. Some of that French striking and protesting seems to be part of the national culture, leastways that’s how it looks from Blighty; they’ve been at it for decades 🙂 My partner used to live in France and observed that there are some things the French do that are very in tune with local living and consuming local produce, and the Mairie system in particular helps local communities and puts people in touch with each other. They’re nuts to be thinking of giving that up!

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  4. @Matt, That’s another one that’s not easy to relocate or outsource, and indeed a work where skill and reputation is in the art and execution. The proof is in the eating.. 😉

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