The Straits Times
It was the graveyard slot just after lunch and the bankers assembled in the ballroom of a London hotel were sleepy. The middle-aged woman in the seat next to me – who was to be one of the afternoon’s speakers – was surreptitiously sending e-mails on her BlackBerry. Bored, I glanced across and saw that the messages going to and fro were composed predominantly of kisses. I positioned my head so that I could see more and was rewarded by the discovery that the other side of this conversation appeared to be in the room. The e-mail exchange was an (unflattering) running commentary on the current speaker, leavened with endearments and lascivious thoughts and a plotted assignation once her speech was over.
I turned around to see if I could spot the man equally engaged with his BlackBerry but half the audience seemed to be prodding at gadgets in their laps, their faces all blank and blameless.
The speaker was coming to a lacklustre close and my neighbour calmly got up, positioned herself at the lectern and proceeded to give a presentation on the success of diversity policies at her bank.
Mostly her colleagues looked on with the sort of torpor that comes over an audience at 3pm when listening to a talk on diversity. But I was riveted. She struck me as both perfectly ordinary and perfectly professional; nondescript in a plain trouser suit and clicking through her PowerPoint slides with total conviction.
Since then I have thought about her often. I have thought about her in meetings and in offices when everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing. And I’ve wondered: who are they really e-mailing? What are they really thinking? What is going on beneath all that quiet, seemly behaviour?
Offices are the strangest of places. They are where the bulk of western humanity spends the bulk of its time, following rules that do not come naturally. Armies of workers turn up to work at a certain time, dressed in a uniform, and behave in a proscribed fashion. Under these conditions it is perhaps not surprising that all sorts of dysfunctional things start to happen.
In the past 15 years at the Financial Times I’ve become an expert on the weirdness of office life, writing about the lengths people go to in order to bend themselves into the right shape for office survival. For the past 10 I’ve written a fictional column about a male executive as he goes up the ladders and down the snakes of corporate life. Martin Lukes understands better than most that to do well in the office you cannot talk or think or behave in a natural way and therefore, like the real executives he is based on, he talks in out-of-the-box business jargon, 24/7.
It is easy to see why offices are Petri dishes in which jargon and management fads grow but it isn’t so obvious why they are also the perfect breeding ground for sex and even for love, which thrive in this alien environment.
The office demands that one is guarded and restrained; sex is about being unguarded and unrestrained. Office life requires a suppression of emotion; sex – and love – require just the reverse. Offices demand that everyone is treated on their own merits, while sex and love demand just the opposite: a mad irrational preference for one person over every other.
Yet despite – or because of – the fact that illicit love is the last thing the office was designed for, it is now the most popular place for it in the western world.
Statistics show that variously two-thirds of workers have had sex with a workmate at some point, that one in 10 have had sex with a boss, and that one-quarter meet their future partners in the office.
These stats are, of course, more than usually dodgy. People lie about their office affairs even more than they lie about how many units of alcohol they consume.
I met my own husband at the FT and, in the early stages of our relationship, used to lie through my teeth. I remember the surreal transition from being workmates to lovers and how I found it quite impossible to admit to colleagues that David and I were going out – if that indeed is the right term for a romance that blossomed in a windowless, dirty newsroom. Almost certainly everyone knew anyway, otherwise why was he endlessly phoning me from across a crowded room pretending to be an irate captain of industry incensed at whatever I’d written in the paper that morning? And why was he so gleeful when I started blushing and stammering?
It now seems silly to have been so coy given that we were young and equals and unmarried. By contrast, the woman at the conference was not young. And judging by her comments on multitasking, she appeared to be married with children and the man to whom she was sending e-mails was most certainly not her husband.
She, it seemed to me, was living at the extreme point where the professional and the personal collide. Everything that was demanded from her as a responsible senior banker was at odds with what was happening in her personal life. This situation, I thought as I watched her calmly give that presentation, was begging for fictional treatment.
What is so strange is that this material features so little in novels. The armies of commuters who travel to and from work on trains and Tubes may have in their hearts romantic yearnings towards a colleague but they have their noses in love stories that are more likely to be taking place in a leper colony in Greece or in the court of Henry VIII than in a modern-day office.
The reason that this richest of seams has been mined so inadequately is probably that the sort of people who write romantic novels don’t work in offices. In fairness, neither do they work with Greek lepers or 16th-century courtiers but, as the readers don’t either, the writers may feel at less of a comparative disadvantage than dicing with the contemporary workplace.
Indeed, there aren’t many literary novels set in the office either, perhaps for the same reason. By far the most famous and still the best book about the office is Something Happened (1974), Joseph Heller’s account of a miserable manager who loathes his wife – who is a drunken flirt – his retarded son and conniving daughter. He hates and is bored by his job and works in an office where everyone fears the people above them on the ladder and is feared by those below. Yet the most feared person of all is a half-mad typist who hasn’t got the hang of disguising her feelings. They dread that one day she’ll go crazy in the office, because that would be embarrassing and embarrassment can’t be tolerated.
The thread of how the office infantalises us and makes us powerless was picked up 30 years later by Joshua Ferris in Then We Came To The End (2007), a study of boredom and disaffection in an advertising agency. And now Tom Rachman has written The Imperfectionists, a story of a group of journalists plugging away pointlessly on a doomed newspaper, ignoring the cracks in their careers because the cracks in the rest of their lives are so much bigger.
In all three books, work is mostly boring and hateful and pointless but it is also a distraction from the greater pain that takes place outside work; the office, despite being mostly disagreeable, can be the best sort of refuge.
Yet I wanted to write something different: a novel in which the emotional tumult of life was going on in the same place as the work. Where the office wasn’t a place to escape to, it was the focus both of the personal anguish as well as the professional calm.
This time, I decided to tackle the subject as a woman. Not only was this the easy option, being one myself, but after having cross-dressed as Martin Lukes for a decade, I needed a break. Martin has no emotional intelligence and no self-knowledge and is so endlessly boastful, I found myself longing to reinvent myself as a pair of women, one of whom was lacking in confidence and the other with rather too much emotion for her own good.
The problem with this, I soon realised, is that being female is somehow less funny than being male. A man who doesn’t know himself is stiff with comic potential, while a woman who is well aware of the mess she is getting into might be mad or sad or wayward but she’s not particularly funny.
When I started on this project a couple of years ago I had been excited by the slapstick possibilities of office affairs. Who can ever forget the way that the then deputy governor of the Bank of England, Rupert Pennant-Rea, was exposed as having conducted an affair in Threadneedle Street? And then there are all the ludicrous trappings of an office romance: the hilarious Christmas parties, the scope for double entendres and misapprehension, with the comedy afforded by CCTV cameras and misdirected e-mails – all of which surely lead to a novel as funny as a Carry On film.
Yet the more I looked into it, the blacker the humour became. In researching the book I assembled a group of half a dozen women, each of whom had had an office affair, and who, after a bit of coaxing and reassurance that I wasn’t about to blurt out their secrets, seemed willing to spill their stories in all their gory detail. But as I listened I realised this was much more tragic than comic. All six affairs ended badly, some of them horribly so. One ended in divorce. One woman had to leave her job. The rest soldiered on, wounded. Not one had walked off into the sunset hand in hand.
What was compelling about the stories was the madness of it all. With one throw of the dice, these women were compromising their jobs, their home lives and their reputations. I realised that what I was dealing with, even more than tragedy, was mystery. Given how high the risks, and given that everyone agrees it’s always and inevitably a bad idea to have an affair with a colleague, why do people do it?
There seem to be five main reasons, the first of which is proximity: two people are holed up together for most of the waking hours of the day. The second is shared interest – simply by working together people have a great deal in common. Third is boredom: work can be dull and a bit of flirtation can make it considerably less so. The fourth explanation is that to have an affair at work turns out to be terribly easy, and technology makes it easier still. And then there are business trips, company away days and drunken Christmas parties.
But the fifth reason is the oddest. It is that people look at their most alluring at work. They are more capable and more in control, particularly seeming that way to anyone further down the hierarchy. For this reason people end up having office affairs with colleagues they would not otherwise look twice at had they seen them across a crowded room at a party.
But all these reasons still don’t fully explain why sensible people are willing to risk so much. The real answer is that an office affair works like a drug addiction. All but one of my six women said it was not something that they had set out to do. Indeed it was something that they would have been horrified to find that they were capable of. But they were all lulled into it, thinking it harmless and that they could handle it, only to find themselves head over heels and quite out of control.
And once in, their ability to read risk was quite distorted. They simply did not believe that they would be caught. They did not believe it would end badly and that the secret world would be prised open. Yet half of the women I talked to did get caught. And they all got caught in the same way: discovery of e-mails. That very thing that made the affairs seem so secret and so safe – the private little bubble of messages silently sent to and from – turns out to be the most dangerous of them all.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist. Her book ‘In Office Hours’ (£12.99, Fig Tree) is published on May 6. To buy at the discounted price of £10.39 plus p&p, call the FT ordering service on 0870 429 5884 or go to www.ft.com/bookshop