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by SixFigureStart | February 27, 2009


empty-officeThe last time I saw my office, it gleamed.

L-shaped and lining the far corner of the room, the desktop was smudge-free and freshly polished. My flat-panel monitor stood proudly at the bend, my shiny laptop next to it. My Herman Miller chair was pulled up neatly to the desk, ready to offer support.

It was exactly as I’d always wanted it to be—as it almost was the moment I moved into the space, in the spring of 2007, when I was upped from an over-sized cubicle to an office with a door (a door!), my name emblazoned next to it.

Since then, I had added my chair, worked the lighting to soften the fluorescent glare, arranged the guest seats to be welcoming. It was warm, efficient, buzzing with possibilities.

For nearly two years, from March 2007 to January 2009, my office had seen tears and toil as we built Condé Nast Portfolio’s website from an idea to a serious player on the Web. The stress often tested the limits of staff members’ psyches. For some, my office provided welcome respite and, with the door closed, a place to vent and release. For guests visiting the magazine, it had been a place to stop by and say hello.

Over time, the place had become messy. Messy enough to inspire comment. But it was my messy. And it was my office. And anyway, I worked with my head down, oblivious to the piles of magazines and papers around me. When I turned around to counsel or meet with co-workers, the mess was out of view.

Since I left my job in January, I’ve grieved the loss of my office. I still wake up looking forward to turning the key in the lock and the space where I achieved so much. The next thought is still the shock of reality and the remembrance that, as layoffs were carried out, they took my office from me.

The problem with all of this is that I’ve got the pronouns wrong. None of this was ever “my” or “mine.” It was always, and still is, theirs—no quotes needed. These objects (that’s all they are)—the desk, the chair, the monitor, the laptop, the cell phone I carried everywhere—belong to the company that employed me. I wasn’t even a renter. I never held any claim to them.

So why do I seem to grieve their loss? Do I have any right to?

It’s a strange emotional pact we make with employers, but one we hardly stop to consider when they offer us loads of money—or even simple job security. We are all of us rent-a-workers, needed until we aren’t, or until we decide to go.

Hegel said that work gave the workers “a rudimentary sense of personality.” Marx saw it as providing a keen sense of integration. There are other views.

In the 2001 book Chained to the Desk, a book about workaholism, Bryan E. Robinson wrote, “Clinicians generally believe that work addiction is a consequence of family dysfunction in childhood.”

A.S. Tsui et al. (1997) called the employee-employer relationship an “unbalanced overinvestment,” in which “the employee is expected to undertake broad and open-ended obligations, while the employer reciprocates with short-term and specified monetary rewards, with no commitment to a long-term relationship or investment in…the employee.”

At the Department of Labor, the dynamic is simply this:

The courts have made it clear that the employment relationship under the [Fair Labor Standards] Act is broader than the traditional common law concept of master and servant.

Cold comfort, considering that, once the relationship is over, like a master-servant relationship, all reverts back to the company.

Until then, the objects that fill our working lives – the desks, chairs, computers, offices – are simply physical manifestations of all our jobs mean to us: stability or power or achievement or status or community or simply a paycheck or the solid rock of consistency. Formica table-top as security blanket.

The grief associated with job loss is discussed in the same language as grief following loss of a loved one – the same stages apply.  That’s some consolation. But unlike losing someone close to you, when you mourn for a job, you mourn illusions. Once that’s clear, can you ever take another job again? Of course, you must.

--Posted by Laura Rich,

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