Every office an empire
By R.S. Karunaratne
Having worked in both the State and private sectors for more than five decades, I have a funny feeling that every office is an empire. As in an empire, every office has its own brand of intrigues, romance, tale-carrying, and backbiting.
The emperor or the boss’s room is a vast area with a forbidding look. You cannot meet him without an appointment. You are not allowed to loiter around his office and if you do so, a security guard will drag you away. Inside the office the boss is not there most of the time, but his good-looking secretary works in silence. She answers incoming calls with utmost courtesy.
In the good old days an office was a dull place with broken chairs and manual typewriters. But the scene has changed drastically. Today the office has waxed furniture, computers, fax machine, air-conditioner and an air-freshner. When you work in a modern office you do not feel like going for a stroll. In air-conditioned comfort you work on the computer. The real change occurred in the 1950s. In 1958, in West Germany, the Schnelle Brothers invented the “landscaped office.” It had a big working space divided into cubicles. Green plants and modern furniture embellished the whole place. This trend accelerated with the skyscraper boom in the 1960s and ‘70s. If you happen to work in a multi-storeyed building, each floor becomes a broad plateau made as pleasant as possible. In addition to modernity, there is conviviality and the right quality of life becoming the order of the day.
Today’s office is a micro-society ruled by codes giving rise to countless intrigues, neuroses, and passions. The people who work there have what sociologists call the “nesting capacity.” They know how to make a nest like birds. First of all they create a conducive personal living space and leave their mark on it. On the table you find a bouquet of flowers, a poster, or a picture postcard that has arrived from a foreign country, a statue of the Buddha or Jesus Christ. The boss won’t mind what you keep in your working environment as long as you do your job well.
Sociologist Anne Dolle once visited a designer’s office in France. She saw 14 people working in a space of 1,600 square feet. They had an old refrigerator in a corner and a bar in the drawers. On the slightest pretext they spread a tablecloth, bring out the glasses and bottles and have a party. However, this is not possible in other offices. Although liquor is not allowed in the office premises, some workers know how to gulp down the stuff secretly.
Man is a gregarious animal. As a result, gossip and rumour become the two pillars of the office empire. The slightest action or reaction can spark comments, interpretations and deductions. You cannot afford to be an innocent onlooker in an office. You will be dragged into a controversy even without your knowledge. Office workers have their own meeting places. They meet in the canteen or corridors and exchange gossip with glee. Those are the places for them to manoeuvre and hatch their plots. You decide with whom you are going out for lunch.
In offices where so many people are expected to work in harmony, some of them become more powerful than others. They can influence the management when it comes to transfers and promotions. As a result, the most deserving people may not get their due promotions or annual increments. Almost everything pivots on the notion of power. Sometimes, you may not know who the most powerful person is in your office. When I was working in a private firm, the most powerful person happened to be the office peon (KKS)! When he is around others were very careful in making serious allegations against the management. Offices are also strongholds of conservatism. The slightest attempt at change can lead to disaster.
While working in a government office I observed that the subject clerks did not know what they were doing. They forward public complaints to the boss asking for advice. The officer who was tasked with checking overtime claims could not check everything in detail so he placed the ‘Approved’ seal and signed them. There were heaps of files on the tables of subject clerks. They were gathering dust and the very notion of responsibility was totally dissolved. The boss came in the morning and placed his signature on certain files and went off. He was more worried about his next promotion than what was happening in his own office.
Executives enjoy most of the perks in offices. They usually do not mix with their ordinary workers. When crises erupt executives are fired or transferred to another department. It meant losing some of their perks. They move out over the weekend when nobody is around. However, their secretaries remain in their seats. They are the unavoidable circuits to the seats of power because they know all the office secrets. They manage the complex relationships of the boss, his wife, and his girlfriend and help him to extricate himself from a messy situation.
It is an open secret that your private life gets mixed up with life at the office. People talk about their husbands, wives, children,pets and personal ailments in office because it has become their second home. Some changes have occurred in the office empire with computers and video technology leading to an age of what Alvin Toffler calls “The electronic cottage.” Now the screens and consoles, the gadgets and the gizmos, have made it possible to do all that filing, checking and billing at home.
A recent workplace survey has found that a large number of people are in a different brain state. Some of them daydream, waste many manhours cruising the Web or YouTube, and do the bare minimum required. This is because their attention has scattered. Such disengagement and indifference are rampant, especially among repetitive, undemanding jobs. To get the disengaged workers any nearer the focused range demands upping their motivation and enthusiasm. Evoking a sense of purpose is very much necessary. That is the only way to save the office empire from crumbling down.