With the advent of computers , the office has become markedly more efficient as processes have speeded up and layers of bureaucracy eliminated . At the same time , however, human interaction has been reduced, turning the office into a dull place where laughter is rarely heard. This transformation has happened all over the world, whether the U.S or Japan or Europe.
News Item : A Japanese magazine has slammed that nation’s office workers calling them a dour , humorless bunch incapable of cracking a smile , let alone having a laugh , at the office. It characterises them as cold and graceless , not in sync with coworkers, and unwilling to laugh just for the sake of getting along. A laugh is one way of judging what the office environment is like and a poll by iShares , a research and P.R company has found that :
43 % of workers have never had a good laugh at work
37% admit to having forced a laugh and
7% never laugh at all regardless of the social dynamics of the workplace.
The following story illustrates just how bad things are.A sales manager took along a couple of younger colleagues with him on a visit to a client. After the formal exchange of business cards , the client suggested that since it was such a hot day , perhaps they could go out and have a beer to cool down. Before the manager could say a word , one of the juniors piped up “ Not for me ‘, he said ” I‘m wearing sweat-absorbing underpants “. ( Whatever that means ) , it put an immediate damper on the proceedings.
The article attributes such behavior to 1) the nature of the modern office in which rows and rows of people sit , glued to their computers , oblivious to all else . They work in solitude , with little interaction with their co-workers, and never develop any sort of relationship with them.2) The recent change from seniority based promotions to performance based promotions which has created a ruthless attitude in the workplace . No more chatting with the guy in the next cubicle , he could be a rival for that promotion.
I agree with the first reason wholeheartedly , not so much with the second . But more about that later.
While I’m not aware of any surveys in the U.S to assess the atmosphere in the workplace , I’m sure that, if there were any, the results would be identical. I retired seven years ago but ,even then, the trend towards isolation was discernible. It has only accelerated since then.
It’s difficult to imagine those times today but , before there were computers , offices were mostly open plan with only the bosses having separate rooms to themselves. There was lots of moving back and forth between desks , bantering and joke telling around the water cooler.Because of the need to type memos, get them initialed and signed and then distribute them secretaries had perforce to move around the office. There’s no denying that the pace was slower and it took much longer for information to be disseminated but it also made for a freer, happier, more relaxed office atmosphere.
Modern offices usually have cubicles and create a sense of isolation among workers. No doubt computers were necessary and inevitable because they increase productivity, make it possible to cut out layers of middle management and exponentially increase the speed with which information can be disseminated . The downside is that computers demand concentration and we tend to shut out all else while we work on them. The use of computers has created a near paperless office in which we don’t need to be in contact with other people except for office meetings . We used to tell jokes around the water cooler ; now we send each other jokes by e-mail.
As the layers of management have been eliminated , there are fewer opportunities for advancement. To make matters worse, there are no secrets in the modern office ; everybody knows everything. Consequently, knowing every one else’s salary has created increased competition for fewer promotions. It is not surprising that today’s office workers while they are driven, hard-working and effective , are also humorless and not as social as their the previous generation.
In Japan , social contacts among office workers occur outside the office usually in the form of evening drinking parties that often extend late into the night. I notice that much the same occurs at least among those working in finance in N.Y.City. This is when colleagues bond , get to know each other and develop trust. This has its disadvantages. There is the case of the young woman who found herself somewhat isolated in the predominantly male culture of the finance company where she worked . All that changed when she went out drinking with her colleagues and became ” one of the boys “. With acceptance came promotions and the more she drank , the more she prospered at work. She is now a V.P ; she is also a self-admitted lush. Admittedly , after hours drinking is common only in some professions and in some big cities but it is symptomatic of the lack of personal contacts in the office. Is it any wonder that offices are so grim ?
Jokes and laughter not only create a good office environment , they also increase productivity. Unfortunately , in these tough economic times , workers have to be careful with their sense of humor because some organizations think that “ if you’re laughing , you’re not working“. Another problem with workplace humor is that there are many people only too ready to take offense . If you tell a joke about dumb blondes or women drivers you are being sexist ; if you tell a joke about old people , handicapped people ( sorry , I meant people with disabilities) or any minorities you are being insensitive or racist (or something) and it may result in a complaint to H.R.. It’s easier and safer to keep your head down and your eyes on the computer screen.
These changes in the workplace have not gone unnoticed by employers. They’ve tried to make the work a more enjoyable experience by providing employees with more social opportunities, health spas , company picnics and other activities at which they can get together. There are even ‘ humor companies’ that try to lighten the workplace atmosphere. I’m not sure how exactly they do it but more power to them . Their efforts are badly needed.