Family & Education

Office life is just my cup of tea

Susan Reuben ponders the etiquette of office life


Around this time a couple of years ago, I had the following conversation with my seven-year-old daughter:

Me: “It’s my first day back at work today.”

Emily: “How will you know what to do?”

Me: “Well, I won’t at first, but I’ll have hundreds of emails waiting for me, and by the time I’ve gone through them all, I’ll know.”

Emily: “But won’t that take you all day, so you won’t actually get to do any of it?”

Me: “Yes, it probably will.”

Emily: “And while you’re reading them, won’t even more emails be arriving?”

Me: “Yes, they will.”

Inadvertently she had pinpointed one of the key problems with modern working life.

I always find this period between the end of the summer holidays and the start of Rosh Hashanah pretty frustrating. After several weeks where, kids off school, I haven’t been able to work as much as usual, I’m eager to get back to my desk. So I zoom off, all refreshed and raring to go, only to then have several weeks of jerky stops and starts, pausing for shofar blowing and honey cake eating, lulav shaking and dining in temporary structures in people’s gardens.

For the past 12 years, I’ve alternated between freelancing from home and working in offices. Whenever I feel that if I spend one more hour on my own, talking out loud to my computer and taking a stroll round the garden in my lunch break (which takes approximately 26 seconds) then I will go insane, I take a contract at one of the big publishing companies in central London. Then, once I feel that needing to remember the correct cost code before the stationery department will give me a new stapler, and getting stuck in the lobby because my entry pass has unaccountably stopped working, is all getting too much for me, I return to my desk at home.

The advantage of this system is that I get to be completely joyful about the transition each time. “How could I have spent so long working from home,” I say to myself, “when I could have been in this shiny office with its whooshing lifts and riverfront location, its buzzy atmosphere and mini dramas and communal cake sharing?” And then, “What was I thinking schlepping for an hour to work when I could wave the family off each morning and bask in the glorious peace of my kitchen, the kettle within arms-reach and no one but myself to answer to?”

I’m in the “home” phase at the moment, and one of the things I rather miss about office life is the tea round. Is there any ritual more English? My first ever job was as an office assistant for a firm of accountants, when I was eighteen. It was one of my tasks to bring them tea twice a day, which involved carrying a laden tray around a three-storey converted Victorian house, with heavy doors barring my every turn. The accountants (all male) had extremely specific requirements: only a splash of milk; the teaspoon to be left in; above all, the correct mug. The majority did not say thank you or even look up from their work. In hindsight, it’s amazing that I never poured a cup of tea over one of their heads.

Companies I’ve worked in more recently have had a more democratic tea-making system, with staff taking turns. It is still, however, vital to understand the individual etiquette of each organisation. I nearly caused total social breakdown in one organisation by offering tea to the wrong people. This particular office had clusters of desks with 10 or so people grouped together. I hadn’t realised the rule was that you only offered tea to the people on your bank of desks.

“Would anyone like a cup of tea?” I said, chirpily, to the people at the bank along. There was an appalled silence. Everyone looked down, studiously avoiding my eye. Eventually, bravely, the person closest to me spoke up. He would like a cup of tea, he explained apologetically, but not made by me.

The implication was that if I broke the status quo, who knew where things might end? People might have to start making tea for the entire floor! It could potentially take all day! The company’s bottom line would be affected and redudancies would almost certainly follow!

Fortunately, I learned the error of my ways and never did anything so rash again. And on second thoughts, it’s considerably more relaxing to be working from home and only having to worry about my own tea. Now that I’ve finished my column, I have 26 seconds to spare before my next task, so I’m off for a stroll around the garden.



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