Almanac Book Review – ‘The Momentous Uneventful Day: a requiem for the office’ by Gideon Haigh




Gideon Haigh’s latest book The Momentous Uneventful Day: a requiem for the office is a timely narrative about one of the highly topical COVID-related by-products of 2020, namely, ‘working from home’.



The office is something that obviously fascinates Haigh. His prize winning earlier book The Office: a hardworking history also examines the broader subject of office work in some detail.



But the working from home phenomenon is also one that fascinates this writer too. I retired two years ago after spending most of my working life in a variety of office settings. Sure, on the odd occasion I could work from home if I wished but this was certainly the exception to the rule. The office with all its protocols, people and pressure points was clearly the default setting for employees like me to earn a living.




Roger in a previous life at the office.



Over the past nine or ten months therefore I have been inordinately curious not only to see how this new more permanent application of remote work road tested, but also, to try to understand what longer term changes to work patterns may emerge. Clearly then, this was a book I needed to read.




Roger’s ‘work’ from home nowadays – complete with beer and form guide.



Haigh’s opening scene is in May this year ‘…at the tightest point of the city’s first COVID-19 lockdown. I ran a furtive errand to the headquarters of a consultancy firm in Melbourne’s CBD. It was intended as a brief visit for the collection of some work that happened to be on a friend’s desk. We met outside, looked each way down the deserted street, then passed by a somnolent security guard and communal sanitiser bottle into an empty foyer where lifts were clustered, doors agape.’



Having thus set the scene, much of the narrative that follows then chronologically predates 2020 to analyse the evolution of office work leading up to the practice of remote work. The author analyses the historical development of office functions to allow the reader to form a better understanding of how remote work became possible in the first place.



This enables him to observe that by the 1980s ‘…the possibilities of remote work were growing more supportable by the day…almost before anyone was aware of it, the old temporal and special restrictions of synchrony and co-location had slipped away. Where once office workers had gone to work because it was where their tools of trade were, now those tools could go with them.’



Given Haigh’s portrayal of office work to this point, it then becomes easy to see how the more widespread incidence of remote work then simply took a few short logical steps further down the evolutionary path.



Moreover, the subsequent success of remote work ‘…was not quite as surprising as some imagined. A lot of us were already practised in working from home and from third places such as cafes and co-working places, for at least some of the time.’



And the evidence he points to indicates how popular the practice quickly became. ‘…Workers were not just comfortable with remote working but better off for it – and not merely for being free from anxiety around touching infectious lift buttons or sharing viral coffee cups. An NBN survey of 1,000 respondents in April (this year) found that four in five had experienced an enhanced balance of work and life, and two thirds expected to work from home more in future.’



Surveys such as the one above and a multiplicity of other diverse primary source references are one of the highlights of this book. They provide a thorough and extensive canvas of what the dust cover describes as ‘…copious citations from literature, film, memoir and corporate history.’



These references include not only the expected sources of business journals, newspapers and magazines, but also, an eclectic mixture of old favourites ranging from Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and T.S. Eliot to The Jetsons, Dilbert and Ricky Gervais. He is an author full of surprises and this makes for fun reading.



Historical events the reader would not normally expect to have much relevance to office functions also get a run. For example, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1984 Bhopal industrial disaster and the 1967 American Revenue Act all have their own special spots in the yarn. Yeah I know, a bit strange, although they seem to fit in seamlessly.



But while Haigh acknowledges the inevitable surge COVID has provided towards remote work, he himself is clearly not an unquestioning cheerleader. Nor does he terminally dismiss the office as a worthwhile theatre for tomorrow’s workforce. In particular, the following paragraph resonated very soundly with a reader like me who has spent so much time in offices over the past forty years.



‘The commute is often tiresome and uncomfortable; it has also served the purpose of mediating scenarios, like an airlock between environments, in which minds are cleared and thoughts gathered…movement enforces a variety on the day. It allows families to disperse and to reunite, relieving them of constant mutual dependence. It has perhaps prolonged as many marriages as it has undermined, enhancing our longing to be together and encouraging us to make the most of the time we have.’



He also notes ‘…the freedom inherent in remote work also cuts both ways. Our hours are more flexible; so are our bosses’. We can work at times more suitable to us; our overseers can make demands at times more suitable to them…How long before work becomes essentially illimitable, infinite connectivity ingraining it in the household’s diurnal course? Once integrated, work and life will not be for balancing at all.’



Perhaps though his starkest thought lies in his own summary.



‘I began by addressing a proposition that the office is an anachronism, an analogue relic at odds with our digital tomorrows, that is in the process of fading away. But were physical office spaces to vanish tomorrow, it would arguably represent not their defeat, but their final triumph; by absorbing the work we used to do in them into our homes, and carrying it on our persons, we would be making ourselves part of work rather than vice versa.’



His last chapter also contains the grim picture of data from the US National Bureau of Economic Research on the preliminary effects of remote work across three million workers in America and Europe in August this year. ‘The average working day had lengthened by forty minutes and the number of meetings had grown by 13 per cent.’



If your alarm bells aren’t already ringing, read that last sentence again!



As Haigh looks at his crystal ball I almost hear him whispering ‘permanent workplace practices will change as they always have but be very careful what you wish for.’ Or as the dust cover notes, the book ‘…is the ideal companion for a lively current debate about the role offices will play in the future.’



The Momentous Uneventful Day is an excellent contemporary work which forensically probes the often unexamined dynamics and unchallenged assumptions many of us take for granted in today’s workplace be that in office settings or while ‘working from home.’



Both the extensive quantity as well as the refreshing variety of its reference material along with its lively reader friendly style make it a highly readable book.




Roger and his copy of the book.





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About Roger Lowrey

Roger Lowrey is a Geelong based writer who lists his special interests as reading, writing, horse racing, Roman history and AEC electoral boundaries. Some of his friends think he is a little eccentric.


  1. Kevin Densley says

    Very good, poised review, RDL – even if, dare I day, the subject matter of this Haigh book is not exactly bursting with interest for me.

  2. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks Kevin. I had a huge chuckle as it suddenly occurred to me that a significant chunk of people out there wouldn’t be the foggiest bit interested in this book at the best of times.

    Therefore in hindsight, perhaps it was more than just a little selfish and presumptuous of me to assume I would get any pre Christmas interest at all much especially from those folks foreign to the office environment.

    But hey, the office was just me in spades for the last 40 years. Hence my keen interest in the analysis of one like Gideon.

    Happy Christmas comrade.


  3. Kevin Densley says

    Cheers, RDL – Season’s Greetings to you and yours!

    In the limited time I used an office (usually in the context of uni tutor), I always felt a bit strange in the environment, a bit like George Constanza in Seinfeld when he worked for the New York Yankees – it was as if I didn’t quite know what to do there – look busy while answering student emails? Work on having an impressive stack of books on each side of and above my desk on shelves, instead of brown paper bags containing bottles of Coonawarra reds and chocolates and collections of wine glasses? In one famous Seinfeld episode, George employed a carpenter to build a sleeping area under his office desk for him, so he could have a nap and people would think he was out – I can relate to that!

  4. Roger Lowrey says

    Love it! RDL

  5. Daryl Schramm says

    Hi Roger. Had I not met and spoken with you at the FAZGFL your contribution would have been mainly lost on me. The pics are ‘telling’. I was at a pre test dinner last Wednesday night for which Gid was the guest speaker. The subject of ‘the office’ came up around the table, and having spent 44 years or so in various office set-ups, the subject got me thinking. No conclusions just yet, but thinking nevertheless.

  6. Enjoyed that review RDL.Have you read his major tome on the history of the office?

    I agree regarding your appreciation of his collection of quotes and anecdotes.

    DJS, I am intrigued by the FAZGFL – what on earth is it?

  7. Gideon has an extraordinary talent for collating disparate knowledge and reassembling it in ways that make the mundane unputdownable. I give you cricket and the office in evidence, m’lud.
    Like the reference to the way remote work and home separate and add value to our day and relationships. Observe in parents and friends (and self) how much we give different domains over to different rulers, and need our own lands to rule. When dad left paid work he spent countless unpaid hours in my brother’s business and then sorting the church’s properties and finances and then golf. Father in law went downhill when unable to spend long days in his beloved vineyard.
    “We married for better or worse – but not for lunch” is an unspoken coda of many successful relationships.
    Dunno how I would have done without the external structures of a boss and co-workers for both discipline and social interaction. As a procrastinating introvert I think I would have totally disappeared into abstraction, distraction or the form guide.
    Thanks for the review Roger. Interesting stuff.

  8. Roger – I was turfed out of my government office on 19 March and haven’t set foot in it since. Many of the points you highlight from Haigh’s book about WFH ring true – especially the last one about time spent at work and in meetings. My God, there are some lonely people out there who just love to use meeting times to blah on endlessly! However, one of the best things COVID has caused is to smash the old-school “command and control” mindset that if you can’t see your workers you can’t trust them to be doing their jobs. This is a paradigm shift all right – even when we do return to the office it will not be the same as it used to be. Like Daryl, I’m still working it out.

  9. Daryl Schramm says

    Footy Almanac Zoom Grand Final Lunch

  10. roger lowrey says

    Oh yeah, so that FAZGFL huh? It all becomes clear now thanks Daryl.

    If, like me it sounds, you spent that much time in an office working environment you will really “get” much of what Gideon talks about. The book really is well worth a read.

    And thanks too JTH, PB and Stainless. I too have little idea of how Gideon keeps so many reference sources under control and even fewer ideas about how he can distil disparate elements at will to tell the story he wants to tell.

    As one of those old Warner Brother cartoon crooks used to say “I dunno how he done it but he done it!”


  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Highways Department 1978 – ashtrays on most desks

    ETSA 1987 – the Accounting Systems “Project Team” raised the hackles of the rank and file when we fired up our own coffee drip percolator

    Bridgestone 1989 – working inside an ATCO shed inside a warehouse because that’s what project teams did back then

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