I once cleaned the toilets in a Corned Beef warehouse.
I was holiday cover for the regular guy and it was a bit of a doddle, I was done by lunchtime.
What did the regular janitor do with his time? He chatted to the guys who humped the corned beef around. He was pretty popular, a bit of a character and they liked having a laugh and joke with him.
Today, his job would be contracted out to a cleaning company. They’ll be cheaper and in and out in half the time. No chat, maybe a worse job, but who cares? Apart from the people who work there, who’s community is diminished a little.
We’ve seen the same thing in offices, where communities have been chipped away at bit by bit.
When I started work, the ladies with the tea trolley come around twice a day. But it was deemed inefficient, so the ladies were pensioned off, along with their cheery voices and chit chat that lightened our day.
The security guards were also part of our community, a ready source of jokes, banter and gossip. But who employs their own security these days, when you can slash costs and outsource to a faceless cadre of blokes in G4S uniforms?
And the cleaners, familiar faces replaced by an ever-changing parade of strangers who pass through the office like ghosts.
And so, after decades of this, our workplace community has been pared back to almost nothing. The numbers are at a bare minimum, the energy is minimal, there’s no time to sustain it, let alone build it.
You see, the janitor at the Corned Beef warehouse wasn’t the hardest worker but he was a key part of the community. Everyone knew him, he was a hub for fellow feeling, for belonging, a point of connection.
So too were the tea ladies, the canteen staff, the security guys, the cleaners – and the typists and admin assistants. They were the social lubricant that kept the wheels of the community turning, the glue that held it together but also gave it substance. The little interactions we had with them lifted our mood, made our day a little brighter.
What little community was left after they were all swept aside has now been snuffed out by the pandemic, leaving the workplace barren and devoid of life.
Leaders want to get everyone back into the office but for what? There is little there, just an empty stage for work theatre to be played on, performative busy-ness and a pretence of meaning. They want to restore the culture but it’s not culture that people want.
People want community – and that’s not something that’s held in an office anymore.
They want belonging, connection, meaning. They want to feel part of something bigger, something uniquely and unmistakably human.
Building that will take time and effort. It won’t look like efficiency or productivity – that’s the wheel it got broken on in the first place.
It will look like humanity and if you have it, people will want to be part of it.
Even if it’s just to clean the toilets.