Friday, 28 April 2017

Workplace Survival.

As is usual for a Friday the blog will be a little more diverse in its topic than usual. Today’s post still comes very broadly under the topic of survival or even defence!

A few weeks back I was reading some books by David Devereux that a friend had given me. First I read his novels, which are worth checking out. After that I read his more autobiographical “Memoirs of An Exorcist”. This will not be to the tastes of some of my readers I suspect. That is a shame. Devereux is obviously an intelligent and insightful individual. He is also a competent and entertaining writer, which is more that can be said for some other better known writers!

Below is an extract from “Memoirs of An Exorcist” about workplace environments. There are some insights here that are likely to be familiar.

So what do we find in offices? Generally, a matter of dealing with negative energies. Most offices have a stock of that: people hate their job, their boss, their colleagues and their customers. They hate the necessity to work. They hate commuting. Be honest with yourself for a second: do you actually enjoy working? If you do, you’re a rare creature. I generally enjoy what I do, but it leaves me tired, frustrated, angry and occasionally despairing about clients and the world in general. So, if this is someone who likes their job, imagine what kind of emotional roller coaster someone who doesn’t is riding. Now stick them in an open-plan office with thirty so other people. No privacy, no respite from the pressure. In some offices, the length of time you spend in the toilet is monitored to make sure you stay productive. The number of calls you take in an hour, or the number of keystrokes at your computer, or the number of shelves you fill, or whatever it is you do, someone’s watching, making you work harder, keeping the pressure up. For all their much vaunted training, managers are not always good communicators. Self-expression is discouraged - wear the correct dress or be sent home.

 I’m not saying that it is wrong for a company to want to get value for money from its employees. But there are ways of doing it that turn offices into nothing more than battery farms and there are ways that treat employees like people. The former approach is generally the cause of difficulties, poor staff retention and a general air of gloom over the whole workforce. This spreads from employee to employee as each drags the others’ mood down.

I’ve seen entire open-plan offices of fifty to a hundred people where nobody smiled. Sure, the managers were allowed a few personal effects on their desks, but employees sat at a desk with a phone, and a computer and whatever they needed to do their jobs; nothing else was allowed because the company enforced a “Clear Desk” policy. Nothing personal, unless you’re a manager. Side screens divided each employee from their neighbour, and conversation was discouraged. Of course, the managers were expected to enforce an atmosphere of jollity and esprit de corps that just wasn’t there because people couldn’t bond. So the atmosphere of the place was depressing and wasn’t helped because almost all the staff were temps with no job security or feelings of loyalty to the company. People were arbitrarily dismissed with no need for notice, because they had no contract and, while the temp agencies responsible for staffing this battery farm had an office on site, there was a distinct impression from some of the liaison personnel that the staff were just replaceable commodities not worth getting to know.

The other parts of the company employed people properly and treated them far better. These parts were more profitable, had better retention rates and happier people. But the first office seemed to end up going through the entire available workforce of its town and it got to a point where they couldn’t hire enough people to keep up with the losses caused by attrition and the summary justice within. The solution was classic corporate thinking: they opened an office in a new town, and expected some of their more loyal temps to travel two hours each way to teach the new office how to do the job.

The simple fact is that misery loves company. If you take an approach that makes people miserable, then that misery will build upon itself and spread throughout the working environment. This applies in the home as well, but is more likely to happen in an office because many people resent having to go to work at all. I’ve noticed that companies who spend time and trouble to create a decent environment for their employees have less sickness, absenteeism (“throwing a sickie” being different from actually being ill) and attrition than companies who are perceived not to care. Something as simple as taking a genuine interest in your staff can make the difference between people who are happy to work for you and people who would rather gnaw their own leg off than spend one more minute than necessary in the office. This seems the most obvious thing imaginable, but it amazes me how few companies do it.

And here’s a thought: how much oxygen are you actually taking in? For a start, most people breathe very shallowly, using about the top third of their lungs. Lack of oxygen leads to them getting tired and emotional, which again contributes to the problem. Simply sitting quietly at one’s desk and breathing deeply for a few minutes can have a remarkable effect on stress.

But put aside my feelings about the generic corporate culture for a moment and consider those more enlightened companies who feel that happy employees are more productive. Things can get interesting when a company switches its policy from battery farming to free-range. Trying to introduce a sunnier disposition to people trapped in a misery-sink can be something of an uphill battle, since employees may not trust the management and are still working in an environment that has stored their anger. This is why office refurbishment is a good way to start, but may not cure the problem entirely. Something obviously needs to be done to dispel the preceding atmosphere and give people a chance to face the new environment with a more open mind. Far Eastern companies have been doing this for years and have started to introduce the same approach here over the last twenty years or so.

The Books