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Friday, October 21, 2011

Why the tappety-tappety office of today is a bad place to learn things

One afternoon in 1975 I spent a few hours in the sales office of an independent record company. I'd done various jobs but I'd never been in a working environment like it before. There were six people in an overcrowded basement office and the thing that immediately struck me was they were all on the phone all the time, not simply cold calling big accounts but also fielding enquiries, sharing news, bollocking reps, making arrangements, taking messages for each other and through it all just talking, talking, talking.

I sat in a corner, intimidated and dazzled by it all. I was only there for an afternoon but I learned more in those few hours than I would have done in an ordinary month. If I'd been there a month I would have learned a year's worth - just from watching and listening to how people handled themselves.

In complete contrast I was in an office today where ten people sat round a table. There was very little noise. They were all working very hard but it was impossible to know what they were doing because they were communicating by email rather than phone. Tappety-tappety where it had once been ring-ring. They were presumably doing the same jobs as the people in 1975 but you wouldn't know it. You could presumably spend months in that office and never overhear anything. And if you're not witnessing people working you can't be learning anything from them. If nobody's answering a colleague's phone, nobody's extending their circle of contacts. You're not picking up hints, borrowing elements of style, building up your schtick. 

You learn to work like you learn most other things, at first by copying and then by gradually building your own style. The modern office environment makes it more difficult to copy. Therefore it must be making it more difficult to learn. Or maybe there's nothing to copy anymore. Which is even more worrying.