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Authors at the Water Cooler: Why Did We Bother Coming in to Work?

"Take Me to Work" - Hozier Remix

The modern workplace is an unnatural environment for a human creature. Factory workers stand in a fixed spot performing repetitive tasks for hours upon hours, day after day. Knowledge workers sit at their desks under harsh fluorescent lights, paying sustained, focused attention to intricate (and often mind-numbing) details. Everyone has to wake up early, show up on time, do what they’re told, and submit to a system of rewards and punishments.

-- The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (affiliate link)

Do you like what you do? Rather, do you feel that what you do daily is something you chose? Or at the bare minimum, did you choose not to choose?

A company man is someone who feels that he has something huge to lose if he doesn’t behave as a company man—that is, he has skin in the game. In return, the firm is bound by a pact to keep the company man on the books as long as feasible, that is, until mandatory retirement, after which he would go play golf with a comfortable pension, with former coworkers as partners.

-- Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (affiliate link)

An employee is—by design—more valuable inside a firm than outside of it; that is, more valuable to the employer than the marketplace.

-- Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (affiliate link)

Many  (white collar) employees at one point or another are kept on payroll not because their absence has a noticeable impact on the degradation of the company product, but because the company needs to world build the lore of itself to convince itself of its own value. In this relationship, the employee is merely a target dummy, a object to be the subject of someone else's (though you're never quite told who's) vision of the company.

a boss and his employee
How much of a worker’s hourly activity during the day actually accomplishes anything worthwhile? Managers trade war stories about wall-to-wall meetings as badges of honor, in spite of the fact that endless meetings are almost universally derided as pointless. Line level employees spend time at the water cooler, the cafeteria, the bathroom, the smoking area, and just about anywhere else that allows them to snatch back a few minutes of their lives. People waste time, chat, read articles on the internet, instant message each other, and generally find any and all possible ways to do everything but work when they’re at work. But as long as they’re in the office, it’s still considered work. The cult of hours is the modern corporate incarnation of the Protestant work ethic, a principle in which hard work and frugality are viewed as the soul’s salvation. The general idea of the Protestant work ethic is, “If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing good.” In the corporate world, it translates to, “If you’re not enjoying yourself, it must be good. And if you’re at work, you’re not enjoying yourself, so showing up is good.”

-- Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor (affiliate link)

Because of this, the modern office operates somewhere between an adult daycare and a church. You're required to go, to be visible to your fellow churchgoers, required to sit in your pew, to stand when you're told to, to go to the bathroom when your boss says its appropriate, and conduct your daily prayer of standup.

Or at the bare minimum, did you choose not to choose?
For a worker in an organisation, job security depends not only on internal politics but also, and more ominously, on the company’s ability to remain profitable in a marketplace in which few producers can defend their competitive position or pricing power for long.

-- Status Anxiety (Vintage International) (affiliate link)

The underlying irony of it all? The church of the office is duotheistic: it worships itself (politics, self-image, narrative and company values) and it worships the market (how the world perceives and uses your company output).

Many employees find in hindsight that they were hired by the first god, and fired by the second.