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January 23, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

THE OFFICE IS THE PLACE WHERE DREAMS DIE

Efficiency of Western business culture turns a myth in actual fact

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and doesn't stop until you get into the office.

Robert Frost

THE SYMBOL OF THE TIME

What is generally an office? In Russia, the English word has got a restricted meaning. It is usually attributed to a hall or room, owned by a private company, where people are engaged with rather intellectual than physical work – not more than that. But at the second glance, we realize that moreover, this narrow meaning of the word has become a specific symbol of a whole stratum of today's culture, which involves international definitions of "corporate culture". Across the globe, millions of people arrive at the working place by 9 a.m., sit down at their white office table, switch on their PCs, sip instant coffee, receive and send e-mails, talk by phone with clients, write accounts, operate with various electronic and printed documents, browse in the Internet for business and other purposes, chat by ICQ, and by 6 p.m., lock the doors and go home. Certainly, other millions lead a different life but in the Western society, and today also in Russia, many persons would recognize themselves in this description.

Curiously, the term "office" has acquired an especially articulated symbolical meaning precisely in Russia. Having deeply penetrated in the language, is has become more than just a synonym of words like "company", "firm", or "authority". As linguists have noticed, in the Russian context the term "office" is used in the following combinations: "a modern office", "a company office", "to open an office", "the boss is not at the office". In other occasions of traditional use of this term in European practice, Russians prefer to use the analogues of "branch", "bureau", "department". That is not a matter of translation at all. The newly introduced Russian word "OFIS" is attributed to physical localization of a certain social meaning. In Russian, not any room with a table, chairs and personnel would be called "ofis", but only the place where "ofisnaya kultura" Ц "office culture" Ц is present.

No matter how the ofis' entrance looks like, may it be an impressing lobby of a massive high-tech-style business center or a modest door without any plaque upon, we'll necessarily find a number of small rooms inside, where personnel is exposed to permanent buzzing sound of air conditioners. In case the space is too large, smaller rooms, "pens", or "pockets" are carved out artificially. Office furniture, stationary, and even door handles are rarely different from one another, making all offices equal as twins. The range of colors is morbidly white: walls, doors, tiles, shutters and all. In a few places, blue, gray and black color contrasts with that sterile whiteness. The color type of most offices is cold. That is the drastic difference from a Soviet-time working place. Here and there, some old-time cosy nooks are yet intact, and one clearly sees that those areas, not affected with stereotypic "Euro-decorating ", include natural wood in the interior. Along with a parquet floor, wooden drawers and tables, as well as curtains on windows, those non-modernized relics retain a living atmosphere, similar to that of a personal apartment.

The Euro-repaired zone does not suggest any "unnecessary" pieces of furniture. Most of the owners prefer to save money on working conveniences. Only in the boss's cabinet, one can find leather armchairs, an aquarium, or a piece of art or photo on the wall.

Generally, the ofis' atmosphere is supposed to tell its inhabitants: this place is not for pastimes; here, we are doing business. Inspired and interested managers may certainly improve the interior. Still, this expected enthusiasm is the element most ofises lack, despite the thoroughly designed company image.

 

HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THE JOB YOU HATE

The fact that not everything is all right in the Office Kingdom is obvious from a multitude of special literature, along with seminars and conferences focused on problems of the personnel's motivation. Shelves of bookshops are crammed with books of speaking titles, "How to Raise Enthusiasm in Personnel", "A 100% Motivation: Where Does He Have the Button?", "How to Inspire Your Colleagues". And finally, a real chef d'oeuvre, a pearl of this list: "HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THE JOB YOU HATE". Book catalogues have acquired new chapters, entitled "Self-Management" and "Self-Motivation", designed for those who would like to improve themselves. All this printed production is supposed to solve a single problem: to make employees work more, and better.

 

THE CEMETERY OF HOPES

While Russian managers of all levels are busy starring in the role of "true businessmen", trying to inoculate Western business culture to their personnel, questions over efficiency of this culture are raised exactly in the West. At first, the talk on fraudulence and fakery of this culture emerged from the community of Western counter-culture intellectuals. A spectacular example of this criticism is Doug Copeland's "Generation X" novel, issued already in 1990. One could say: nothing unusual; the intellectual elite is typical for finding a subject of criticism in any system it lives in. Still, Copeland's heroes, saying they've got "rebellious from permanent distress, generated by senseless work, made with no will and with no hope for gratitude", were followed by a number of Western business gurus.

Take, for instance, Klaus Kobiell, a German entrepreneur and author of several best-sold business books. He criticizes office culture not because it is alien to him, but because in its typical form, it is increasingly inefficient. In his book "Motivation in ACTION style. Delight is catching”, Kobiell writes, "I am engaged only in from what I derive satisfaction. I reject any other work even if I can accomplish it in five minutes Ц as if I dislike it, I can't do it well. If I break this rule, a failure is guaranteed".

Mr. Kobiell is no doubt sincere; no doubt his business, writing, and traveling brings him fun. Still, can his ideas be implemented in thousands of companies where the personnel's satisfaction with work is the last of what the bosses are interested in? According to the book "Real Success Without a Real Job" of one more critical author, Ernie J. Zelinski, "hired work, with a very few exceptions, commonly suggests choking boredom, wearying routine, petty envy, sexual harassment, loneliness, mental imbalance in colleagues, sadistic manners of bosses, silent hate, maladies, exploitation, distress, helplessness, an infinite travel from home to the job and back, humiliation, depression, lapse of moral values, physical exhaustion and mental deterioration".

David Bolchover's book "The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out Ц The Shocking Truth About Office Life", recently translated into Russian, opens the eyes to anyone who has still got illusions about the attitude of "white collars" to their work. The results of a British-conducted poll, quoted by the author, are revealing: an overwhelming majority of office personnel, at any moment when the boss is not near, uses Internet for visiting a variety of websites, in a range from political to sexual; to phone friends; to get a sick list under a fancy pretext for the only reason of "liberating themselves" for a couple of days Ц in other words, to do anything but work. Almost 80% of office personnel of the most employable age Ц 30 to 35 years Ц admit that they dislike their job, are disappointed with it, and far of dying without achieving anything in his career. The only magnet attracting all these people to the disliked and boring job is the salary. That is the truth which can actually sound shocking only for managers who tend to think in categories of "increase of business efficiency by correct motivation", being sure that their employees are working not just for money but also for the common cause, personality development, and the company's mission.

 

PINOCCHIO'S COFFEE

Ordinary proletarians of intellectual labor are aware of this truth about themselves without exposure in books, and desperately try to make the working place livelier. Locked in their "pockets", they try to somehow "individualize" them, attaching funny photos and cards to office walls, as well as a typed-out joke received by e-mail from another colleague, similarly suffering from boredom. Every day, corporate servers distribute thousands of samples of this e-humor, references to Live Journal, funny photos, which the receiver usually resends to other friends and colleagues. On the monitors of office PCs, we'll most frequently see landscapes of mountain peaks and canyons, seaside sunsets, palms, cays, old European castles etc. All this reminds of a pot with soup painted on the wall, which Pinocchio so loved to stare at. Most of these people will never see those beauties, as their vacations are too short and the salaries too low. And even in case a two-week trip is once available, the following weeks of office routine will promptly wipe the beauty out of their memory.

Other attempts to make the working place lively involve elements of home interior, like teapots; vases for cakes; peyotes and figs, as well as family photos. However, zealots of formal approach towards corporate culture intend to clean the working places of any evidence that an employee is anything more than a piece of workforce. The only entertainment allowed in every office is having coffee. Instant coffee in a cylindrical mug on the working table is the quintessence of office culture. Just make a boost and get some energy to go on with THIS (your work) and not fall asleep!

"We are a single family", "All our employees are united with our unique corporate culture" Ц does anybody really take this seriously? In case a strong corporate friendship really emerges inside a corporation, it is born from solidarity of dissatisfaction with the boss. And what about the joy of the end of the working day (week)? "The weekend is coming" Ц that is the real motivation, making people concentrate on their working duties.

Beyond all that, the relationship of an office employee with his job represents a well described "Stockholm syndrome": despite boredom and disappointment, he still justifies his way of life and occupation.

A European employee has a choice between the office work and something different, as salaries of scientists, physicians, teachers and other "non-office" professionals are decent. In Russia, things are different. With the onset of the market reforms, millions of people were forced to abandon the work they had once selected on the impetus of their soul, and seek any kind of possibility to make ends meet by re-qualification into sale-of-anything managers, bookkeepers, specialists in PR, HR and advertising. Definitely, Russia still has enthusiasts who are ready to yield any material benefits for the possibility of doing science, teaching children or designing space satellites. However, the majority of people, especially young and able-bodied, do not want to doom their families for what is called "modest well-being", actually a synonym of poverty.

Persons, who once had to find a surrogate substitute of their real calling, should not be expected of enthusiastic work in trading companies, banks, and ad agencies. A new "bonus" for a successful deal or an elevation of one’s position definitely pours some sugar upon the bitter pill of hate towards one's job; mortgage, as well as necessity to raise children, make these people dependent from their "office jail" for many years.

Still, what all these bored people are dreaming of is not idleness. With a great joy and a much higher output, they would do the work they really like. A person engaged with his favorite work does not need manuals on motivation, while a real interest enables one to achieve results no kind of "bonus" may inspire. Work for a cause is more efficient than work for money. If you don't believe that, study history Ц including the recent past of the Russian state. Once could plainly describe the whole reality of the USSR as a picture of "ruthless exploitation by an anti-human Communist regime". But that regime had an advantage, suggesting a human vocational choice not dominated with monetary motivation. That was a conscious policy, as the state was determined to have a strongly self-motivated workforce. In a different way, the same priority is recognized by Western business, breeding its mini ideologies of corporate identity, common goal, and public mission, promoting personal development of individuals, and thus involving mechanisms of non-monetary motivation.

In case the Russian states focuses on the objective to get its citizens involved in self-realization on motives which are on the top of the list of individual demands Ц to teach, to invent, to study, rather than to routinely perform the hated daily ritual, the energy of the ofis's "dead personnel" will be liberated. If that happens, the number of those who would never cross the ofis's threshold will be really amazing.


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