Iain Murray: Welcome to work – would Sir like the usual cubicle?

A survey claims that office rituals and habitual behaviour boost employees’ morale and efficiency. What nonsense, says Iain Murray – productivity begins at home

Maddening things, surveys. Take this one in front of me now, commissioned, presumably on a publicity-crazed whim, by the recruitment agency Office Angels.

According to its findings, more than three-quarters of workers “waste” an average of five minutes a day by insisting on always drinking from the same mug or using the same lavatory cubicle.

The word “waste” is cordoned off in inverted commas, presumably to make the point than when the workers say “waste” they do not mean “waste”, they mean something like “use profitably to boost morale and improve productivity”.

The most popular office ritual that emerges from this poll involves staff painting their names on office equipment such as rulers or staplers in an attempt to mark out their territory in the workplace.

Says Paul Jacobs, director of corporate communications for the agency and a man who, assuming he uses his title as well as his name in his own rituals, has a longer ruler than most, “By satisfying a desire to do things in a certain way, we lay the foundations for a more productive day.” Which would look well inscribed in pokerwork and hung over the cistern in the third cubicle from the left.

The trouble with these office surveys – apart from the fact that you can’t believe a word they say: who ever wasted only five minutes in a day? – is that they are confined to the commuting masses. And that makes me want to climb onto my desk, open my window, and bellow, “What about the housebound self-employed?”

Not for us the luxury of a favourite lavatory, nor the profitable, productivity-enhancing moments spent mooching up and down outside the privy door, whistling idly and waiting for the clarion flush that signals our moment is at hand.

Not for us the idling five minutes a day spent inscribing our names on the tea trolley. When we scent work in our nostrils we are as hounds to the chase, with not an instant to spare. While others dally with the crossword on the 8.35 to Kings Cross, we are at our desks, spitting on our hands, brimful of zest.

While the minds of others wonder and turn to musing on just what it is that Jennifer from Accounts can possibly see in that spotty youth who brings round the sandwiches, ours are sharp and focused. Honed, that’s the word.

We… I wonder why it is that some people pick a particular lavatory and stick to it, so to speak, day after day? Ritual is supposed to have something to do with luck, which is why some cricketers always pull on the left sock before the right, or vice versa, before going out to bat. So I suppose it’s possible that the fellow who lingers outside trap three has reason to think that’s where Lady Luck hangs out. If so, he’s taking a chance. I wouldn’t put it past her to sue for sexual harassment. It would, after all, be a pretty open-and-shut case.

Where was I? Ah yes, honed, that’s what we are. Have you ever noticed that paper clip chains, such as the one I happen to have on my desk next to the paper dart under construction, are self-knotting? If one could somehow harness that technology and apply it to bootlaces it would save the Ministry of Defence thousands of man-hours (or person-hours as they are now known in the military) currently wasted on lacing, time that could more profitably be used on marching. On the other hand, tying a bootlace in a particular way might count as a morale-boosting ritual. Then again, has superstition a role to play in the modern army?

Anyhow, as I was saying, or about to say, we home workers are an undervalued national asset. Not only do we free up valuable room on public transport, but we are blessed with a laser-like power of concentration and an appetite for effort.

I wonder why that squirrel, the one on the third branch down on the right on the tree outside my window, is blowing on his front paws. Are they paws? Or do squirrels have feet? Maybe he’s cold. There I go again, an institutionalised sexist. Why should I assume that the squirrel outside my window is blowing on his feet. They might be her feet. Of course, she might not be blowing at all. Can squirrels blow? She might be chewing her claws. Anyway, you’d need to be a squirrel sexer to tell a male from a female. And even then you couldn’t do it at this distance.

Time for a coffee. You know what they say, all work and no play. Personally, I don’t care whether I drink from the same mug or not. Makes no difference to me. What matters is what’s inside the mug, and coffee is well known to sharpen the mind, better to equip it for bearing down forcefully on the matter in hand.

Did you know that if you impart sufficient wrist spin to a tightly-rolled ball of press release it will break from leg to off and, with luck, land in a waste paper basket placed several feet away? The googly is more problematic.

Goodness me, is that the time, and another column done? Don’t ask where the productivity comes from. It’s something to do with morale.

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