The Real Office

Review by William Petryk

By: Lucy Kellaway

By: Lucy Kellaway

Those of us who have been working for a few years know that what we were taught in school was deficient in many ways. Much of the human interaction that is constitutes daily office routine was never addressed in our Organizational Behaviour classes. The culture of the office, although a subset of corporate life, is unique on its own. A book that tries to define this culture, one letter at a time, is The Real Office by Lucy Kellaway. Ms. Kellaway writes what the British call the agony column for the Financial Times in London.  People write to her seeking advice on problems they encountered at work. This book is a collection of letters submitted, her responses, and selected comments from readers. She does not address greater macro issues such as structure and reporting relationships, but then, neither do we. Most of us arrive in the morning and do the best we can within the confines of what exists.

Topics that Ms. Kellaway addresses are those that help us to survive what is commonly referred to as the daily office grind. These issues include: how to deal with a boss who is a bully; how to deal with a coworker who smells; what to do if I have to fire a friend. Others are: solicitation to coworker’s charities, what to write on colleagues leaving cards, or how much of a cash contribution to give for a departing employee’s gift. These may seem to be mundane issues but often how we act in these situations forms the basis of how our coworkers and managers judge us. Modern day office culture places limits on how we can express ourselves, swearing for example, dictates how we should dress, and tells us how we should deal with our colleagues. People who do not respect or acknowledge these norms are penalized in subtle ways. They can be cut off from office gossip and events. Even worse, reports and responses from others can be delayed. As a result they become less effective and their prospects for promotions suffer.

A review of more topics covered reveals some knowledge of the workings of modern offices where men and women must interact and from time to time exceed the bounds of what could be considered acceptable. Issues such as: what can be the effect of the sex life of a company’s director, is a close relationship with a female colleague (this written by a male) dangerous, and the hell that can result from sharing an office with an ex-lover. These issues did not exist 30 years ago. However, men and women now work together and certain norms have evolved concerning their relationships. Mostly Ms. Kellaway advises, and I concur, that sexual relationships with coworkers are seldom, if ever, a good idea. Modern office folklore abounds with disastrous stories of the outcomes of these liaisons.

Another timely topic is the conflict that can result from a focus on family with the need for office productivity. Questions such as: my baby is ill but my boss couldn’t care less, can I be a workaholic and still see my kids, or how can I make my wife socialize with my colleagues. Some of Ms. Kellaway’s answers are often surprising but, what is equally interesting, are the comments from readers. Obviously, these concerns are very common and their importance should not be dismissed.

As well, there are topics having to do with ambition and staying ahead. I have been passed over for promotion, should I quit? I love my work but the money is rubbish, what should I do? Or, can I be a successful leader and still be a nice person? Ms. Kellaway’s responses should not surprise anyone who has encountered these situations. What is revealing is that many of her readers also had these problems and are not reticent to share their experiences.

As most of us spent the major part of our lives working in an office, an awareness of the issues that arise and how others perceive them is of great value. Some would think of The Real Office as a light read. I recommend it for the lessons that can be gleaned from what others have experienced.

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