Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Office: a hardworking history

In 2012 we take working in an office environment for granted. However this has not always been so. Gideon Haigh provides a detailed account of the history of office work from references to the notes kept by scribes in Egypt 4000 years ago, the records kept by monks particularly in the Middle Ages, the need for detailed financial records to be kept with the rise of banks and merchant trading to the offices of today. Haigh suggests that although business records were recorded through the ages it was primarily the growth of the East India Company that required the need for actual offices where people worked recording and transacting business.

Haigh documents the many changes that have occurred in office design and work practices as well as changes of work practices in offices. Working in the office was the domain of men until the second half of the 19th century when women began to be employed in offices. This practice increased with the introduction of new technologies, the telephone for example,  which women could operate efficiently for a lower wage than men. Haigh looks at the changes in technology used in offices, such as the dictaphone and photocopiers, and their impact on office organisation. The adoption of typewriters then word processing machines and more recently personal computers have changed the way we work. Once secretaries and clerks carried out the clerical duties in a firm. In larger organisations secretaries worked in typing pools as equipment became more sophisticated. With the advent of computers most staff do their own clerical work on their computer. 

Haigh looks at the design of office buildings particularly in the twentieth century, the introduction of air conditioning in office buildings as well as the introduction of cubicles in office design. More recently offices are being designed with fewer work stations than employees as new technologies make it easier for staff to conduct business away from the office.

The employment of women in the office, equal pay, type of work undertaken and opportunities for promotion are also issues discussed. Haigh also looks at office conventions such as the tea lady now replaced with a coffee break and also at the 'office party'.

Throughout the book examples of how office work and the office environment is portrayed in film, television and books help demonstrate changes in attitudes to office work. At 600 pages this book provides an insight into something we take for granted but which impacts on many of our lives - the office.

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