The Office Life
Photography by Amanda Mustard
In the land of cubicles and water coolers, where traffic-filled commutes usher the to and from and the lunch hour divides the day, a seemingly endless army of chair-sitting, desk-using, keyboard-typing, meeting-having, email-shooting, voicemail-leaving, copy-making, memo-spreading, mouse-clicking, paper-stapling, interdepartmental-communicating, coffee-drinking, screen-glow-basking, clock-watching, Monday-grumbling, Friday-cheering, shirt-and-tie-sporting, dress-wearing, PowerPoint-presenting, Facebook-sneaking laborers toil away for eight hours a day, five days a week.
It's the place where millions of personalities come together to collaborate and cooperate, and more than sometimes conflict, in a temperature-controlled environment.
For some, it beats working outside. For others, it's home away from home. But, to all who push up to a desk for a living, it's a unique culture with its own norms and expectations that must be learned and tolerated and mastered if career success is the desired end game.
This is office life.
The papers and the reports, the computers and the copy machines, the break rooms and the coffeemakers – the characteristic office environment is unmistakable. Thanks in part to its prevalence in pop culture with shows and films like The Office, Office Space, Mad Men or even that old comic strip/cartoon show Dilbert, office culture is engrained in our collective psyche, regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually desk jockeyed in a cubicle. While few, if any, offices are exactly like what is portrayed on TV, there are resonating yet wildly exaggerated chunks of truth in what they convey, which can be anything from the punch-drunk hilarity of day-to-day tedium to the drama of executive missteps and the steamed gossip of hidden colleague romance.
The one undeniable truth of office life is that it is filled with human beings. And while professionalism is the standard, the inevitable complications as well as triumphs of daily close-quarter human interaction is the rule: what occurs in everyday human life will unavoidably be transferred to office life, even if it’s on a much smaller and far more mundane scale.
A Home Away From Home
As technology advances and becomes a larger part of our lives, especially with the ever-growing use of social media, there is a greater importance being placed on face-to-face interactions at work. Home-away-from-home families inevitably form between coworkers.
Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College where he coaches college students on career preparation and what it means to be a professional, acknowledges this familial phenomena.
“There’s a transition that’s happened in the workplace over the last couple of decades in that your work environment has become your community – for some people, almost their family,” he says. “As technology has kind of taken over people’s personal lives, as communities get more dispersed and as people get more isolated, the main human high-touch area that most people have is their work. Before, I think people would go to work and come home and have opportunities to mingle with people in their community and neighborhood. But now, people have so many different interests, so the common time they have with other people is their work.”
If added up, it’s likely that most workers spend more time with their coworkers than they do with their spouse, significant other or immediate family in general.
Catherine M. Tama-Troutman, vice president of Human Resources for PSECU in Harrisburg, believes that there is a vested interest felt by fellow coworkers and colleagues. She sees the evidence of it every day, especially during times of great need.
“People get sick, and of course we have deaths in the families or major illnesses,” she says. “It is amazing to see people come together. We have programs here because people wanted to help their coworkers. For example, there is the crisis-leave bank for when people use up all their vacation time. Then their coworkers can contribute their own time so that they don’t have that worry. We also do bake sales and fundraisers to help defray any financial issues.”
Melissa Washington, director of human resources for JPL in Harrisburg, also sees this extended-family component of working in an office. “I’m very maternalistic over everyone here in this building,” she admits. “We know it’s not just an employee; it’s their whole family. When we hire people, we send their welcome gift to their house so their spouse and children can share it because it’s cookies. It’s not just the one person you’re hiring.”
The Pros and Cons of Office Culture
Sure, there’s always going to be that weekly meeting you'd rather skip, or that coworker who will talk at length and in great detail about something you stopped listening to, or even that mind-numbing sensation of staring into the glowing abyss of your computer screen for far too long. But for each of the negatives of office life, there are also plenty of positives, like getting to work inside when it’s summertime or the dead of winter, or that unlimited supply of free coffee on a Monday morning, or even that feeling of coming together as a team to accomplish a long-term goal.
Matthew Randall details his favorite part of the office culture. “I think the biggest pro is collaboration. One of the nice things about being in an office culture is that you can have these informal conversations with people and actually get ideas done and help move the work along more efficiently. I am walking down the hall, I see you, I remember we’re supposed to talk about something in a week, but we can kind of catch up right there. All the sudden we’ve kind of moved the needle on our project. So I think that accessibility and informal collaboration is really key.”
The good cannot exist without the bad, however. “I think one con is that sometimes it may be less productive with more interruptions because it might feel like a second family or community,” Randall explains. “Some people like to just come in, sit down and chat, but you have a deadline.”
The Office Paradise
Most offices are painfully homogenous – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. There’s a bit of uniqueness and personality if employees are allowed to decorate their spaces, but for the most part, they all look the same.
But then there are those office paradises you see in movies or on a virtual tour of Google’s headquarters that look more like an indoor playground than a place of desk-and-cubicle-based labor. These workplaces are few and far between, but right here in Harrisburg such an enviable work environment exists at JPL. Just a few of its office features include beautiful art on just about every wall; themed meeting rooms; an in-house, daily catered salad bar; a small pond with fish in the stairway; a celebration room with three beer-flowing taps for special occasions; video game consoles as well as stand-up arcades; and dishes of candy at nearly every turn (the good kind, too – not just mints).
Without a doubt, JPL takes a non-traditional approach to office culture, and it seems to work well for them.
“I think our space reflects our desire to constantly collaborate, which is ultimately reflected in the client results,” explains Melissa Washington. “We provide lots of opportunities for employees to come together, whether it’s in one of the three arcades or the taproom wall having a beer. Some places have water coolers – we just have taps. Everybody here is able to decorate their own space however they see fit, which is nice because it shows how we celebrate that whole person instead of just the worker. ...I would not be afraid to say that everybody here truly enjoys each other. They get together outside of work. They know each other’s wives’ names and kids’ names, and they know each other’s hobbies. When you have a best friend in the workplace, it connects you stronger to your work as well as the things you’re striving to do.”
So why don’t other companies or organizations take the approach of JPL for their employees? Washington sees it as a combination of smart strategy and good fortune, but isn't it dangerous to give employees that much flexibility?
“Yeah, there could be things that go wrong with allowing people to have so much freedom, but we just hire really smart and talented people that know how to work within those boundaries. They’re driven by their passion to be here and do the work they’re doing, so they respect the environment they’re in. They’re as much a part of driving that culture as anyone else. ...We are trying to encourage that spark that makes our employees unique, which is their creativity. And if they’re collaborating, it helps create even better results, which is important.”
Let’s face it, not everyone is going to get along. Within the office environment, there is bound to be conflict, especially with so many differing personality types coupled with heightened stress levels. So, how do you handle disagreements with a coworker or even a boss?
“I think that many people prefer conflict avoidance,” Matthew Randall says. “It’s uncomfortable, and it causes anxiety and some bitterness. I think that sometimes people try to handle conflict behind the screen. I’m going to text you or respond to an email, and you’re going to come back a little more bitter or upset. It’ll not only escalate incrementally, but it may also drag out. What I encourage is to get up, talk to that person and have a face-to-face conversation – or at least on the phone. You’re going to be able to manage the conflict in a shorter amount of time. People who have a conflict that is drawn out over a couple weeks get anxious, it affects their work, and they take it home with them.”
When it comes to conflict between coworkers, Melissa Washington refers to the values of her company. “We have our values at JPL – every company does. Respect is one of them. We encourage difference of opinion, because if everyone agreed all the time, the work would suffer. But they need to have a difference of opinion within the boundaries of respect. I think people are just so used to being able to openly communicate here; it doesn’t take a lot to get them to feel free to say if they’re having an issue. Whereas, in other environments, it takes more coaching. Here, trust is one of our other values. I think that our employees trust that if they express an opinion that might be counter to what the corporate goal is, they know they can feel safe in expressing it, and it will be heard.”
Conflict with those in charge is a bit trickier, but Washington states that communication is the key to resolving the problem.
“The biggest thing we advocate for is communication with the people that are directly affected. I think that what tends to happen in other organizations is that they don’t feel like they can talk about it, so it festers within one employee. Then they’re going to tell their coworker who is going to tell another coworker. You have this whole base of unhappy people versus just telling your manager and feeling like the manager is going to hear you. I try to let all my team members know that I will support them in the most fair fashion.”
The Nightmare Boss or Coworker
Everyone has that one story of an office nightmare, whether it was a coworker or, even worse, a boss. It’s that person who never quite crosses the line of actionable offense, but nevertheless makes life difficult in the office.
Maybe it’s a coworker with an unbearably annoying habit or a fellow employee who consistently lies and manipulates to advance his or herself at the expense of others. Maybe it’s an incompetent boss who takes undue credit for successes, yet shirks the blame for mistakes. Maybe it’s that colleague who loves attention and rivals any reality-show star in the drama department.
The list of nightmare characteristics seems to have no end for those who have experienced it. So, how do you deal with an unavoidable coworker or boss who just cannot help but ruin your day?
“I think if you have a nightmare coworker, and they’ve crossed the boundaries on any type of harassment, whether it’s sexual harassment or physical harassment or verbal harassment, that is when you need to raise your hand and go to your supervisor or human resources,” says Matthew Randall. “Because someone is weird or quirky, sometimes you just have to be patient and realize that personalities clash. That’s what a professional does.”
When it comes to the nightmare boss, Randall advises, “One thing you can try to do is casually reset expectations with that boss. ...If it comes to a point where you don’t think that’s going to happen, then you may have to re-evaluate whether being with this person is helping your career and your wellbeing at work. You may need to switch to another team, or you may need to switch to another employer.”
Melissa Washington says to focus only on what’s in your control when it comes to an impossible coworker. “How someone else behaves or handles their work is really out of your control. Don’t spend energy on it, and trust that HR or your manager will deal with it. I treat everyone here as how I would want to be treated. We all know no one’s story is 100 percent true – there’s always a slant. They have to go to someone they trust in the organization to find out if they can impact this person. If they can’t, they need to choose if it’s so bad that they need to get out. Sometimes they need to go. We spend too much time in our jobs to not be passionate about it.”
The impossible boss situations come down to a complete lack of communication and no consideration for the impact their decisions have on others, Washington says. “It amazes me how many bad bosses there are still. I think somebody’s got to have a conversation with them because, a lot of time, people are just completely unaware of themselves. I think it just takes a conversation with that person to coach him or her. People who forget that they can make improvements of themselves get off track.”
Catherine Tama-Troutman suggests, “Patience – you have to have patience. There are terrible bosses out there. If everyone’s having the same issue, go off to your boss’s boss or HR. It’s not an easy, comfortable thing to do, but companies don’t want to have terrible bosses. If you can’t do that, then move on.”
Office Culture Change
The baby boomers have hit retirement age, yet many are choosing to remain in the workforce. The norms of their office culture is not entirely shared with the Gen-Xers (who are at the midpoint of their careers) nor with the members of Generation Y (who are just now getting their career bearings). With such a variety of ages all working together, office expectations have converged and mingled, and there is a noticeable change.
“I would say it’s becoming more informal,” says Matthew Randall. “You can see that in the dress, in the speech, in the way people may decorate their offices or cubes. I think it also is expanding beyond the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. time period. I think both of these things have positives and negatives. If it’s more informal, I may feel a little more comfortable, and that might help me be more collaborative and able to express myself. Same with the work hours – if I know that at 3 p.m. I can go out, go to the dentist or something like that, but I can hop back online to still get work done that night, it helps me balance my work and my life priorities.”
Catherine Tama-Troutman agrees that office culture is becoming less formal, especially with the expected attire. “The dress code gets pushed a little,” she says. “The older work force doesn’t understand how people can show up looking like they were just at the beach. So we have those kinds of issues. Actually they drive me crazy. I am of the belief that, ‘Look, the job is getting done – let people get their work done.’ Why create an issue?”
The baby boomers who are working past retirement age most likely hold the top positions in an office due to their seniority. This creates a clash with the younger generations wanting to advance, but they must wait longer than the baby boomers had to when they were the same age.
“We’ve been hiring lately and bringing in the younger generation, but there are people like me who have been here a good 25 years, and I still have a good 10 years until I would retire,” Tama-Troutman explains. “I love my job, and I have to admit that people coming through the door are very talented and knowledgeable, and they want to be promoted and move up. You have a sense that they want more and are not quite sure how to get more, but they’re not looking to go outside. The employer doesn’t want to lose the talent, so you have a lot of conversation. We try to channel that energy that they have into growth and developing the business.”
With so many varying personalities to navigate through in an office as well as all of the potential pitfalls, barriers, ceilings and politics, it’s no easy task excelling in an office career. Unfortunately, there is no fix-all solution to success, but there are techniques that can help.
“One of the things I tell college students is that when they get there, they should try to find one or two people that really represent the organization and its values,” Matthew Randall explains. “Try to model what they do, and try to develop a relationship with them. There is going to be those one or two people in the office who are really bitter or disgruntled and off-beat. You certainly can be polite and nice to them, but it may not help your career if you hitch your wagon to them.”
Randall continues, “See how you can help other people get things done and fulfill their responsibilities. When you go one step beyond and exceed people’s expectations, they’re going to see you as a professional, and they’re going to be wowed. That’s the person I want to promote and put on my A-team. Be generous with your time and knowledge. If you have a new idea or see something that might help another group or team, share it. Don’t try to hoard information. Freely go out and be seen as a resource.”
Melissa Washington adds, “I think people have to be aware of their own values in the work world. To me, the passion our team members have is most important. If I’m going to work this hard, I want to be surrounded by people who are also passionate about their work. You really have to identify what it is that’s important to you and look for an employer that represents that.”
Catherine Tama-Troutman offers a technique for office success that is as sweet as it is short. “Being successful at the office means you can get your job done.” 7
Share your office stories with us at harrisburgmagazine.com. We want to hear about your nightmare coworker/boss tales (no names or identifying details please) as well as your dream office experiences.