RETRO: Changing office politics

The production team at Adgenda Limited, Chippinghouse Road, Sheffield - 21 May 1990
The production team at Adgenda Limited, Chippinghouse Road, Sheffield - 21 May 1990
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Today’s Retro A to Z of jobs looks at office workers, those unsung souls whose hours at their desks keep the wheels of commerce, industry and public services turning.

Working 9 to 5, as Dolly Parton’s song says, is often a grind, with repetition the order of the day.

Girls at work in the Prescription Pricing Authority offices in Castle Square, Sheffield - 21st January 1977

Girls at work in the Prescription Pricing Authority offices in Castle Square, Sheffield - 21st January 1977

Not so long ago, offices were places where the clatter of typewriters and ringing of telephones made them different to the comparatively silent places of today.

The Star newsroom is a case in point as we use computers instead and talk to people via social media as often as picking up a phone.

And of course there are fewer staff now than a few decades ago in most workplaces as job losses take their toll.

Offices are a lot more casual these days than in the times when hierarchies were strictly observed. Woe betide the office junior who called a senior member of staff by their first name or inadvertently borrowed someone else’s cup.

Automobile Association Headquarters, Sheffield - 19th April 1972

Automobile Association Headquarters, Sheffield - 19th April 1972

Some ideas we think of as new, like ‘hot-desking’, where staff don’t have their own designated workspace, have their echoes in the past.

In the 16th century, scribes carried their own legless desks – boxes with a sloping top that they would use to write on – to jobs for different employers. They were the office temps of their day.

In Victorian times, stationary office desks also had sloping tops and clerks perched on top of stools to write in large bound ledgers, as described by writers like Charles Dickens.

The writer Charles Lamb, author of Tales from Shakespeare, wrote about his life as a clerk at the end of the 18th century, historian Lucy Kellaway recounted.

The Editorial Department of the Telegraph & Star, Sheffield

The Editorial Department of the Telegraph & Star, Sheffield

He went to work for the famous East India Company aged 17 in 1792. When paperwork arrived from India after many months, office staff were very busy, he said.

“On Friday I was at office from 10 in the morning (two hours dinner except) to 11 at night – last night till 9.”

Perks that the employers gave were taken away as soon as times got hard, something that won’t be news for today’s office workers.

There was much about Lamb’s working life that sounds incredibly familiar.

Lucy Kellaway says that Lamb wrote that in 1817 the holiday allowance of £10 a year was cut for new members of staff. Saturday became a full working day and the equivalent of the Christmas office party, the “yearly turtle feast”, was scrapped.

Bah, humbug, as the office boss Scrooge said.