What’s the link between a company-issued laptop, productivity-linked bonuses and a bring-your-family-to-work day? Or, between the company-issued BlackBerry, the key performance indicator metric and the Thank-God-it’s-Friday (TGIF) office party?
Answer: The first item in each example is designed to keep you working as close to a 24X7 workday as physically feasible and the last two are intended to make the first psychologically acceptable.
What’s the provocation for these questions, you might ask. It’s this: as India becomes increasingly hot and humid and the long school summer holidays begin, we’re slipping into the silly season for business. Anybody who can afford it, and has had the good sense to inform the boss early, is off to the hills or increasingly accessible foreign holidays. The boss is probably similarly headed, as are clients (especially if they’re expats).
The question that exercises ever-vigilant HR departments, in these lean months, is how to boost morale among the unlucky few who are knocking around the office in enforced idleness. That’s when office parties, family days and various other non-work-related activities become more frequent — though in IT companies, where the pressure never lets up, these activities are regular features.
The question is this. Do these events fulfill their functions? Of making long work hours more acceptable? Do they, to use the fashionable HR jargon, increase the “stickiness” of the employee (in plain English: are these activities likely to make the employee less liable to leave?), improve morale, foster teamwork, et cetera, et cetera?
Brief experience in the corporate world emphatically suggests: none of the above. Let’s take the bring-your-family-to-work days that have become quite the rage. Granted, this event may be hugely interesting for the parents, children or spouses of those who work in, say, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) or a car maker or, indeed, any factory floor or even a hotel. But for most of us in the services sector, the work can hardly be classified as even remotely interesting for an onlooker. It’ll mostly be a question of watching your relative doing one or all of the following: typing at a computer, taking calls, attending meetings and, maybe, meeting the boss.
Like the office party, the Family Day becomes a prolonged ordeal. How do you, the employee, ensure that your relative is sufficiently engaged? How do you explain all the silly office in-jokes? How do you ensure your children don’t choose to misbehave or make a faux pas in front of the boss?
The earnest organisers of such events at my company understood these drawbacks. The solution was to do the next most excruciating thing: devise party games. Everyone was expected to participate in sessions of Housie, Memory Games or Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Since I was signally inept at all of these, I became the proud winner of a sympathy prize (a pottery snack server that I still possess).
Worse, parents who brought their infant children to the Family Day urged them to play with other infants; since neither party had yet acquired the social skills to pretend to like each other, they fought, howled and had to be hustled away by embarrassed parents. If the idea behind the exercise was to demonstrate how the company is one big family, it failed spectacularly.
Still, this “we’re one big family” theme is popular with bosses. One week-long game to which we were subjected was “angels in the office”. This involved drawing a name from a box and being the anonymous “angel” of that person for a week. What did this entail? Mostly sending feel-good notes and buying them small gifts (the Barista outlet downstairs enjoyed a mini-boom as a result of last-minute purchases by forgetful angels). At the end of the week, we revealed who was whose angel. No surprise, my assiduous angel was someone who reported to me.
Strangely, despite the increasing amount of time executives and bosses spend with each other in the modern workplace, the chasm between what managements think is good for employees and what employees really want remains wide. Take the weekly TGIF party (a horror I was spared). A CEO told me he saw it as a good way of fostering teamwork and observing employees off duty. An employee told me that non-attendance attracted public rebuke and certainly impacted year-end ratings. For a worm’s eye indictment of such events, Nina Godiwalla’s book Suits provides useful reading.
Yet, it’s a fair bet that these morale-boosting techniques aren’t going out of fashion anytime soon. That’s because metric-driven performance indicators have perforce become the norm. They may be a necessary evil but they tend to foster unattractive and divisive cultures. Top managements understand this at some level but few care to put in the sustained, subtle effort it takes to make an office a truly great place to work. After all, it’s so much easier to organise a party.