Rant: The evils of the collaborative office

Cloud-enabled office software lets us all collaborate more closely… unfortunately

The Peter Principle states that managers rise to their level of incompetence. This used to have some benefits, notably for everyone else in the organisation. Once Peter had been promoted far enough and given his own office, he was safely out of the way and could no longer negatively affect the productivity of everyone else in the organisation.

Instead he was free to spend every hour of every day crafting beautiful PowerPoint presentations and lavishly-bound strategy documents that nobody would ever read. Arguably this was a waste of a good salary, but sometimes it's cheaper to keep such people on board than pay significant redundancy packages, especially if they've been employed at the same place for years.

I once worked with a Peter, though his name was Steve. Everything ran a lot more smoothly once he'd been promoted out of danger. Occasionally he'd wander through the office and ask whether things were going to plan. We'd always reply in the affirmative and Steve would go back to his presentations. Everybody won. Or at least, nobody lost.

But no longer. The Peter Principle is broken. Wherever these people are located in your organisation, collaborative and cloud-based office tools mean they are now never more than a few clicks away from wreaking havoc on everyone's productivity.

The editorial director of IDG Connect, Martin Veitch, once ranted about the tyranny of tracked changes, something that's become more prevalent with collaborative working practices. Unfortunately that's just part of the problem with today's connected office culture. It goes much deeper.

I take pride in my job as a writer. Like a sculptor or artist I try to craft good sentences, paint pictures with words and, to mix metaphors for a moment, weave a tapestry of meaningful, convincing prose.

(I didn't say I'm always good at it, just that I try.)

This makes it all the more annoying when chunks of my best prose are cut out, rearranged, slashed, replaced and modified by people whose only claim to authority is that they somehow ended up on the list of shared document recipients.

Who are they? Most of the time I've no idea, and neither does anyone else in the company. They can't write, can barely read and have no useful insight to offer. They turn up with an idiotic avatar and a company email address, wield their trusty sword of righteous editing in blind and savage fashion, then move smugly on to annoy someone else.

Their timing is impeccable, since they wade in just after I've finished writing my copy yet just before it's been read by the person who commissioned me: the person who now thinks I'm an idiot who can't write.

This rarely happens in tech journalism, or indeed any kind of journalism. When it does, I bow to the sub-editor's decision, since history has shown that they're usually correct. No, it's in the corporate arena that the issue most frequently occurs.

At first I thought this was just my paranoia, but having discussed this with friends and colleagues I've realised that's not the case. Instead, we came to the conclusion that there's a whole underclass of office 'workers' who can only justify their existence and salary by collaborating on, and thereby destroying, the work of others.

I don't know where they came from or what they did before. Perhaps they were previously in charge of the 'Department of Petty-Minded Bureaucracy and Saying No' at their local council. Now they are Peters, all of them.

Unfortunately the modern, connected, shared and interwoven office environment has allowed them to multiply (I nearly wrote 'breed' there, but that doesn't bear thinking about). Now they are legion, collaborating at will and turning every document they can access to dross.

You know them. Maybe one of them even sits next to you. They're the ones who like to 'give feedback' and send passive-aggressive 'FYI' emails at every opportunity. They actually enjoy meetings, because people have to listen to them babble about how many projects they're currently collaborating on. Like Wally's double-handled coffee mug, everything they touch turns to... well, a shadow of its former self.

Alongside the tattered remains of the documents and spreadsheets they have defaced beyond recognition, they always place a brief 'helpful' comment and a smiley face. This means, "I know I'm being deeply destructive and confrontational, but if I do it with a smile then you can't possibly be offended. FYI."

Collaborative office software was designed on the premise that when many people work together on a document, the result is always wonderful. But nobody ever raised a monument to a committee.

The word collaborationism means cooperation with the enemy against one's country in wartime, and it’s not so long ago that being a collaborator would have got you killed, or at least forcefully exiled from your social group. That seems neatly applicable to collaborative office software and practices, which slowly but surely destroy an organisation from within.