The Dexterous Dissenter

Originally published in Idler 63.

According to my incarcerated office bod friends, there’s a hip new management system in town. It’s called Agile. Nobody likes it.

Out of morbid curiosity I did some research. Perhaps I’d get an article out of it if I could trace Agile’s origins to Russian concentration camps or something. Its origins, alas, are in software development. I don’t know why I thought it would be anything else; almost all of today’s managerial drivel comes from Silicon Valley. Didn’t you know that people in an organisation are just the same as the logic switches in a computer?

Anyway, Agile seems to be about building flexibility into working life so that employees aren’t as directly as supervised and overtly controlled as they used to be. It means that wage slaves can work to their own schedule (within certain parameters) and that they’re not duty-bound to report to a particular desk each morning as long as the job gets done. Instead, offices are equipped with “hot desks” and everyone uses sleek mobile technology instead of a Blunderbuss 5000 that takes the first fifteen minutes of a working day to boot up.

This actually sounds good to me. I’d rather not work in an office, but if I had to, I’d doubtless prefer this to punching the clock at nine on the dot or getting stiffed with a desk that faces a wall. And yet…

Agile has apparently led to a situation where workers don’t know if they have a desk to sit at when they arrive in the morning. This makes it difficult to visualise what tomorrow’s working day might look like and thus to emotionally prepare for it. It also nudges workers towards using their own mobile phones and computers instead of equipment paid for by the company. People are no longer allowed to personalise their workspaces.

The googlization of workplaces (especially offices but you also see it in farms, factories, warehouses and shops) is all a bit sinister. We should be skeptical of it. Why, after all, should Mr. The Man suddenly give us a taste of liberty? Is it because he’s obsolete and dying and this is a last-ditch attempt at retaining a workforce? Does The Man have cancer? I hope so.

The motivation for all of this is to increase productivity, to blur the lines between work and play (so that it’s no longer unreasonable for a manager to call you at night), to nudge people into using their own equipment which will save the company money, and to benefit from a captive Precariat who are willing to work remotely and on fixed-term contracts. Horrible.

But maybe, if workers play their cards right, there’s a silver lining and Agile can be used to serve the wage slave instead of The Man. Given that a big part of wanting to escape office life is to flee the shitty working environment, clunky technology, and being over-supervised by bellends, why hang on to the old days? Wouldn’t a flexible schedule and an end to desk-based imprisonment make employment more tolerable? Yes, I know, that’s the point. That’s the trap. But if we must work, isn’t an improvement in jail cell conditions desirable?

Here are my tips for wage slaves to use this latest management fad as a way to work less and not feel guilty about it. I am not a shill.

Move around. Instead of seeing desklessness as homelessness within an office, see it as a step towards the mobility you’ve always craved. No more getting stuck at the same spot in an awful corner of the office. No more sitting next to that idiot who chews with his mouth open and no more staring at that piece of leftover Christmas tinsel stuck in that corner. Moving around provides excellent opportunities for giving management the slip.

Work from home. Agile allows you to work from home, the Holy Grail of grunt work. Finally, the dream of telecommunications serving your advantage can be realised. Escape the commute! Send insulting, noncommittal email from a bubblebath! And if you can’t work at home full-time and forever, you may at least extend your weekend by working from home on Fridays or shatter your week in twain by doing so on Wednesdays.

Work at a different office. If your organisation has multiple offices, you can work at one of those instead of at the one you’ve been shackled to for so long. You’ll still be stuck beneath fluorescent lighting strips, but at least you won’t be directly accountable to anybody there, meaning that you could go for long lunches in town or browse the Internet without having to minimise the window whenever someone walks behind you. You might even be allowed to travel to this other location on the clock, meaning your commute — so long as you keep a laptop open on the train — could count towards time worked.

Abuse the flexitime. You can say you’ve worked a full day when in fact you’ve merely put in two good hours and spent the rest of the time reading Biggles stories and smoking a pipe. Agile managers are keen to point out that lying on a flexitime form is fraud! since any time declared that wasn’t actually worked is a fraudulent claim. Well, that just makes skiving all the more exciting doesn’t it? You’re no longer a furtive little slacker; you’re a white-collar criminal, just like your boss! The idea of “misrepresenting” your hours is obvious nonsense anyway, since anyone officially “working” their hours still spends swathes of time making coffee and eating caterpillar cake for the birthday of a hated colleague and standing at the toilet mirror silently mouthing the words “help me.”

Destroy the culture of physical attendance. If we could get our act together, it would be in the interests of employed idlers to campaign for shorter working hours while keeping wages the same. Agile might be an opportunity to do this without the campaign. It gives us, regardless of its motivations, the chance to illicitly stay in bed late and to spend less time in offices and to no longer have to affect a poorly voice when calling in for an unsick sickie.

It’s important to stay safe. We must remember to set clear boundaries and to fight the “always-on” culture by switching off mobile technology at 5pm and by keeping separate work and personal email accounts. But if we must stay in employment, we could play our cards right and let Agile be the skiver’s friend. Feeling guilty for abusing a generously liberal system? Don’t. Remember that it wasn’t invented to be generous — it’s a system designed to juice you for more labour, to perpetuate your oppression, and to make the bars of your cage a little less opaque. And if you still feel guilty, just remember the old days when we had to get up at six to catch the bus to a place we hated. We’re owed and if this system prevails it could be payback time.

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