21 May 2005

Office culture [Financial Times]

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“So how do you feel about e-mail?” asks Simon Roberts, a social anthropologist. “How has it changed your workload?”

This is not what social anthropologists are usually expected to ask: they observe courtship rituals, try to interpret ancient chants, analyse gift-giving or tribal cosmology.

Simon Roberts, however, is searching for meanings in the daily life of Peter Quest, a senior auditor, who works for the global accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, in a featureless tower block in central London. Quest, who has spent 32 years at the firm, manifests unease. “I call my e-mails the triffids,” he says, referring to the killer plants in John Wyndham’s 1950s novel. “You can spend all day killing them, then you turn your back for a second and those red things, those triffids, have taken over your screen again! It eats up your day. When I started my career we used to spend lots of time talking to clients and colleagues. Now it’s harder.”

Roberts is patient. “But I have noticed that people here don’t seem to classify e-mail as ‘real’ work. They sit at their desk doing e- mails and then say, ‘Right, now let’s do some work’ – but e-mail is taking up work time. Perhaps that is the problem?”

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