Fri 15

Why I fled the office cubicle

Company There are two types of employee: people and human resources. It’s easy to tell which one you are. If your boss says, “Todd, please have your team reach a final decision,” you’re a person. If she says, “Todd, please organize a team meeting, and because it’s lunch-time remember you should supply food, and please cut the breads or sandwiches into either halves or quarters, to discourage over-eating, and remember that crumbs and spills attract uninvited guests,” you’re a human resource. And you work for the New York City Department of Health.

The difference between people and human resources is that people have brains. People don’t need a company policy on how to ascend stairs (stay left, hold the handrail at all times, look straight ahead: GE). People can figure that out for themselves. Human resources, on the other hand, are dumb as a box of hammers. They need everything spelled out. Human resources are basically office equipment with legs. They’re talking furniture. In fact, they’re worse than furniture, because at least furniture stays where you put it. It doesn’t have body odor, or forward chain e-mails, or stop by to tell you about their sick cat.

The Department of Health has taken a lot of heat over the last ten days for its “Life in the Cubicle Village” memo, a set of excruciatingly detailed guidelines for employees moving into its new offices in Long Island City this month. Some found it insulting to receive instructions on how to, for example, tell a co-worker they’re busy (“I’m in the middle of something. May I drop by or call you later [give a specific time]?”). Or to be told to avoid eavesdropping on cubicle neighbors (“If that fails, at least resist the urge to add your comments.”). Some thought the specifications on acceptable light snacks during meetings (“drinks cannot contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces”) to be a little heavy on the micromanagement.

But these rules are totally necessary. Have you ever worked in an office? Then you know what I’m talking about. Some of these human resources are animals. If there weren’t company guidelines on how to navigate the revolving front door (wait for people inside to fully exit before stepping in: ExxonMobil), they’d never get past the lobby. They don’t actually follow the guidelines, of course. There are emails about the guidelines, they’re mentioned in the all-staff meetings, they’re on the cork board beside the coffee machine, but somehow still these people remain oblivious. Some do it on purpose. They deliberately flout the guidelines. You know that guy? Yeah. That guy. When he leaves half an inch of gritty black goo in the bottom of the percolator, he knows what he’s doing. He knows you’re going to stop by with exactly ninety seconds before being locked in a two-hour meeting on synergizing coalistics and all you want in the world is a quick caffeine hit. He enjoys your frustration. It’s what he lives for. It’s why he comes in every day. It sure isn’t to do any work. The man is useless. You will never understand why management can’t see that.

But I digress. The point is: human resources need rules. You don’t. You’re a person. To you, such minutia is not merely unnecessary, and not only an insult: it’s a challenge. Someone says you must cut bagels into halves or quarters, you know what you’re going to do? Frickin’ thirds. That’s right. Enjoy your bagel thirds, people. Because oppression foments rebellion. That’s what King George III didn’t realize. You can’t treat people like idiots. Not people people.

You’ll notice that managers are people. This is why the guidelines never apply to top brass. Sure, they’ll pretend to abide by them, to set a good example. But that’s for show. You don’t pay a CEO five million bucks a year to follow a set of instructions that could be performed by a well-trained monkey. CEOs should be using their initiative. Getting creative. Shedding outdated thinking. Pioneering new markets. You can’t do that by following the book.

But for the rest of us: guidelines. It’s because we’re living on top of each other. In the old days, when men were men and men had offices, it didn’t matter whether someone wore strong cologne. It would bother you for about eight seconds, as they passed by. With offices, loud personal conversations happened behind closed doors. We didn’t need guidelines on what constituted an acceptable ring-tone. Well. There were no ring-tones, obviously. But if there had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. Because of offices. Offices with doors.

Now it’s all open plan. It’s rolling cubicle farms. You know what we’re becoming? Singapore. It’s illegal to chew bubble gum in Singapore because everybody lives within earshot of five million other people. You can’t have that kind of population density without totalitarian social rules. That’s what these workplace guidelines are: blueprints for a new, cramped society.

I got out. I couldn’t take it any more. Now I work from home. My smells are my business. No-one leaves the coffee pot technically-not-empty but me. It’s not all upside. I miss the steady paycheck. I miss being able to go to the bathroom and think, ‘I’m getting paid for this.’ But I don’t miss the guidelines. I do like being a person.

This piece was published by on April 15, 2011 and used to exist here. Then they reorganized their website and it vanished. I can’t even find it by search any more. So I’m rehosting it.

Fri 23

Born Again

Company When I was 23 and struggling to get anyone to notice I’d written a novel, it annoyed the crap out of me to see so-called “Young Writer” prizes won by 35-year-old guys with no hair. In which parallel universe, I wanted to know, could those tottering old farts be considered young?

Which is why I’m so happy to be named among the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists (for Company). Somewhere out there, a curly-haired 23-year-old is muttering about the unfairness of it all. Suck it up, punk.

Me at the Sydney Writers Festival, free event: Saturday 5:30pm

Sat 12

Vote Early, Vote Often

Company Until recently I was a complete unknown in my home country of Australia, while enjoying in the US a level of fame I would characterize as slightly less completely unknown. This gripping irony unfolded last year when I switched local publishers to Scribe, a feisty upstart with the crazy idea of getting me to do some publicity.

So it was that I ended doing a lot of interviews in which I talked about how I did no interviews in Australia, and wasn’t that weird, what with me being slightly less completely unknown in the US and all. Scribe is planning to re-publish Syrup in a few months, and now my publicist is frantic because with that angle exhausted, there’s nothing interesting left about me.

I am now so slightly less completely unknown, in fact, that the State Library of Victoria—that’s my home state—even noticed I had a book published. This is exciting not just because it’s a great way to encourage people to read my book in a way that generates no sales. They’re also running a competition inviting you to vote for your favorite book.

I wasn’t sure it was ethical to ask my readership, the vast majority of whom reside outside Victoria, to vote for me in what seems intended as a purely local poll. But I asked Scribe, and they said, “Hell, yes. See if they can vote multiple times, too.” So I guess it’s okay.

In other local news, I’m doing a reading from Company at Brighton Library on Thursday 31st January 2008 at 6:30pm. I’m also reading my short story A Shade Less Perfect at the launch of The Sleepers Almanac on Wednesday 6th February 2008 at 6pm in the Bella Union Bar at Trades Hall, cnr Victoria and Lygon St, Carlton. Aloud, I mean. I’m not just sitting there, quietly turning the pages. I’m a professional.

Thu 20

Book Club With Your Boss

Company An anonymous reader writes in with a Company-related conundrum:

I read this book and promptly gave it to some of my work colleagues—I’m sure you hear this all the time. I wanted to buy a case to keep under my desk to hand out to people who came in my office.

Now my manager and some others have read it and they want me to come to their book club to lead a discussion! If you have any ideas to lead me into this land of discussing this with upper management who just happen to be members of this book club please let me know. I need to keep my job!

Hmm. Tough one. Perhaps, “What I got out of this book was a deep, abiding relief that our company is nothing like this. That’s why I hand it out to people at work; everyone enjoys stories that have nothing to do with their own lives. It’s pure escapism!”

One of the interesting things about corporate workplaces is that they turn otherwise decent human beings into… well, management. They’re not like that because they’re petty, deceitful scumbags. I mean, obviously that helps. But it’s the environment that encourages those personality traits. This could be a cry for help from your boss, who in a flash of self-discovery has thought, “My God, what have I become?” Your job at this book club, then, is clearly to reassure him/her that it’s only the other managers who are like that, and gather information that will be politically useful at your next performance evaluation.

Thu 08

Max in America 2007

Company One thing I’m looking forward to is discovering what wacky new security schemes US Customs has come up with since I last visited. In 2006 they’d added fingerprinting and digital mug shots. This time I’m thinking maybe they’ll swab my mouth or get me to sing the Pledge of Allegiance. Or maybe they have followed this route to its logical conclusion and now herd foreign visitors straight from the airport to prisons, where any of us not intending to commit terrorist atrocities can fill out applications to be released.

Wow, that was pretty cynical, even for me. I’m not sure if that struck the appropriately witty, feel-good note I want to promote a book tour. But anyway. I have dates! And here they are:

[ Tour Details Here ]

As usual, I expect any outrage over ill-considered dates, places, etc, to be directed at my publisher. Remember, they’re the ones organizing this stuff. I’m just turning up and cleaning out the mini-bars.

Fri 09

My Brilliant Publicity Schedule

Company It’s a big couple of months for my books. Here’s what they’re up to:

  • USA & Canada

    The paperback is out March 13, and I tour two weeks later. The early word is that I’m headed to Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Austin, Phoenix, and San Francisco. So the result of that polite discussion seems to be that Phoenix beat out Dallas, Milwaukee supplanted Boston, and LA and Madison combined to defeat Ann Arbor. I’m not saying that necessarily reflects on the inherent worth of those places. But you could certainly read it that way.

    The dates and places should be confirmed shortly, and I’ll post ‘em here.

    Also in the US & Canada, an audio version of Syrup has been released. I wonder if that’s some kind of record, a publisher coming out with an audio version nearly eight years after the book. No, probably not. In fact it wouldn’t even be close. I don’t know why I brought that up.

  • Australia & New Zealand

    I’ve spent most of the last year moaning about my publishing troubles in Australia. Because it really grates on me that in my home country I am near-completely unknown, while in the US I am near-completely unknown, but not quite so much. This has nothing to do with wanting recognition for my artistic achievements, you understand. It’s about impressing chicks. But now I have a publisher, Scribe, and they’ve been crazy busy organizing publicity ahead of the March 5th publication. Seriously, you want your publisher to be enthusiastic, but this is almost beyond that. Just today, they’ve sent me… let me check… eleven emails. I have conversations with them that go like this:

    Scribe: “Wow. Company. It’s such a great book.”
    Me: “Thanks.”
    Scribe: “I mean, seriously. I own ten copies. Not for publicity purposes. For myself.”
    Me: “Oh, that’s… keen.”
    Scribe: “Sometimes at night, I take off all my clothes and rub myself with the pages.”

    Well it wouldn’t surprise me. Anyway, the result is I’m doing a lot of Aussie media and book readings and festivals. Here’s what I have details for so far: the Como Writers Festival in Melbourne on the 17th and 18th of February, a Sydney book reading hosted by supercool comedian Wil Anderson on Friday March 16, the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and the Melbourne Writers Festival in August.

  • The Netherlands

    The Dutch Company paperback is out in March, and the publisher has produced this incredibly slick Zephyr Holdings website. It’s got desktop wallpapers and email-your-friends cartoons and everything. I have no idea what they’re about, because they’re in Dutch. But I bet they’re frickin’ hilarious.

    Unfortunately I suspect that this means Company needs to sell about a million copies or Uniboek will collapse under the weight of its outlandish web design expenditure. But fingers crossed.

    They also seem to be re-publishing Jennifer Government under the title Logoland, and synchronizing the cover with Company’s. I love synchronized covers. They make me feel collectible.

  • United Kingdom

    Still bugger all. Sorry.

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