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Life in the Office

Dr. Christoph Bartmann

HENN Akademie, July 11, 2013

Isn't everything great for us employees, in particular in the public sector? Even discounting the blessings bestowed by our collective agreements on pay and conditions, we enjoy all kinds of freedoms that our predecessors in their offices could have only dreamed about. Flexitime? That was yesterday. Now we work anywhere our smartphones can pick up a signal, at home, at the airport, on holiday, day or night, and sometimes even in the office. Heated debates take place about whether that is good or bad for the work-life balance. Another freedom is that we no longer have a boss telling us what we must do. We direct ourselves much more nowadays, after objectives have been agreed in advance at an annual meeting. Otherwise we are free to pursue our objectives, which, once attained, are replaced with newly agreed ones. Well – this is the intention of New Public Management policies, which for over two decades have been seeking to streamline the public administrations of this world to achieve efficiency, economy and obedience. Hardly anyone believes in all the new instruments and their benefits, but as they are there they may as well continue to be used.

The employee enters a beautiful new world with this new freedom to be a "manager" and behave like an independent "entrepreneur". A retreat back to the old and easily mocked world of the earlier bureaucracy is – for good reasons – not on the cards. Admittedly, New Public Management with its regime of assessments, audits, quality standards and Best Practice is breeding a new bureaucracy, compared to which the old looks almost harmless. At our workplaces, we are witnesses to an extremely peculiar revolution that everyone has to follow but for which no one has taken responsibility. Its mission is continuous change, its obsession performance and its favourite medium the PowerPoint presentation. And its consequence is, by all indications, burnout. People readily say "there is no alternative" to the conditions of today's office life, which can only mean that it is badly in need of some critics.

Dr. Christoph Bartmann, born in 1955, studied German literature and language as well as history and has been the director of the Goethe Institute in New York since 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, as a reviewer. His last publication at the Carl Hanser Verlag is titled: “Leben im Büro. Die schöne neue Welt der Angestellten - Life at the office. The beautiful new world of the employee." (2012, ISBN 978-3446238770).

Christoph Bartmann