One of the defining characteristics of the debate about work and workplaces during the pandemic has been the reinvigoration of a couple of ideas about human beings we thought had been put to bed.
The first is the idea of people as blank slates, with few or no in-built traits or characteristics, only learned ideas and behaviour. Proponents of this idea suggest people can be moulded to be whatever we want them to be.
The second is the idea of Homo Economicus, a perfectly rational and self-interested species, each member of which pursues his or her own objectives optimally. This is the notion that underpins the principles of scientific management.
We may have thought both had been consigned to the dustbin of history but the admission of both seems to shape current thinking on how we work.
One man who would argue that this is not how people function at all is Nigel Oseland who has crystallised his thoughts on the matter in his book Beyond The Workplace Zoo. The book (deliberately) invokes the spirit of the zoologist and ethnologist Desmond Morris, whose books and TV programmes consider humans as they would any other animal.
Nigel Oseland’s book is a timely retort to the people who would overlook the whole messy, contradictory and wonderful business of what it means to be human by suggesting we can simply cut ourselves off from each other to work our way down a to-do list every day in pursuit of our narrow economic goals, all watched over by machines of loving grace.
What books like this do is reintroduce the disciplines of anthropology and sociology to the debate. We remain highly evolved and social apes, not mere units of production, and the way the book explores the idea of workplaces as zoos that best serve the animals that live within adds a new dimension to a discussion that can ignore our natures.
Although ostensibly an academic, Nigel Oseland has that rare quality of combining academic rigour with an ability to communicate well on complex subjects. And what could be more complex and timely – and more in need of genuine insight – than the changing nature of work? Nigel’s studies over many years make him the ideal person to explore the ways in which people function and interact as animals and the effects on them of the rapidly evolving world of work.
One downside is that the book is published by academic publisher Routledge which means it is inevitably on the pricey side, so something for the Kindle rather than the bookshelf. But that shouldn’t deter anybody who would like to consider complex workplace issues in an informed and nuanced way and rolls their eyes when faced with yet another LinkedIn poll about whether the office is better than the home as a place of work W&P
Reviewed by Mark Eltringham, December 2021 for Work&Place
Published by Routledge ISBN 9780367655334 – 232 Pages 57 B/W Illustrations – September 2021.