I’ve seen the work place evolve over my career. When I started out, most high-tech offices were pretty much the same. We worked in cubicles. Lucky people had their own offices. No one worked from home. The only view one had into the lives of workers at other companies was through personal contact and the occasional well filtered article in a tech magazine or in the newspaper.
Back then, we knew how to interact with our coworkers because there was a concept of professional behavior. The concept lived within the culture around us and it was shared, from coast to coast. This nationwide culture had its advantages and disadvantages. It made the egos and idiosyncrasies of those in positions of corporate power less significant, because they too had to live within the corporate omni-culture, it made transition from one place of employment to another less stressful (because we all knew what to expect), and we knew that as professionals there was a role we played that had boundaries. I am not saying that everything was good, I am merely saying that there was a notion of an objective standard and a set of boundaries between working people that had known limits, provided something criminal or abusive was not underway.
Various changes – political, economic, and technological – changed all of this.
Politically, with the rise of Reagan/Bush, the country’s elite became unabashed in their selfish debasement of whatever sense of collectivity we valued. Loyalty between employers and employees became weaker, respect for workers declined as salaries declined, and the wealthy became wealthier and more powerful. With this widening gap between the elite and the worker, the elite felt increasing entitled to boorish self aggrandizement, narcissism became acceptable and ruthlessness became a cherished value. With the rise of the Internet, each and every employer could host his or her own website and dedicate pages to parading around the workplace, and its workers. The workplace became a showplace for the handful or single egomaniac at the helm. It became his or her playground and the workers became toys to play with. No longer were any boundaries recognized for each egomaniac had to create his or own “culture,” a euphemism for personal fiefdom. Egotistical businessmen with no knowledge of sociology and no respect for the worker dreamed up rules of behavior for worker interaction and paraded it around as the unique manifestation of their entrepreneurial creation.
Sure, it seemed cool that at one workplace pants were optional and at another everyone was required to wear pants ending at the ankles. Ties might be forbidden at one company and mandatory at another. While the workers of company X got free coffee, the workers at company Y got free beer. However, as progressive as all of this may seem, seldom if ever have workers been asked what they, themselves, want. Each corporate culture became what the head asshole wanted it to be.
This has left high tech workers in a degraded state. What it means to be a professional is not portable. It is not a thing unto itself. It is now nothing more than to conform to the capricious will of a spoiled brat. No, this is not the case everywhere. My current employer is not what I am describing here, but my previous handful of jobs do fit this description accurately. Your success as a professional has much less to do with what you produce than it has to do with how you produce it and what your relationship is with the brat at the top.
One CEO may decide, on a whim, that all software developers will work in an open office space (no cubicles) in rows of desks. He or she may believe that this promotes cooperation and collaboration. Of course, the CEO will exempt himself or herself from this same plan, because he or she, it just so happens, is more productive in his or her own space, unlike the common ruffians on the floor at their monitors. Another may assign no permanent desks to workers but crowed them into “war rooms” where they work in close collaboration on a specific project and can be monitored as a group by a project manager. The actual understanding of what it takes to engage in intellectual work has been replaced with gimmicks.
With each company touting its own special “culture”, workers are paraded in videos and on websites as a means of advertising the employer and making his or her creation look “cool.” No longer is it enough to be a good software engineer. No, you must publish to the company’s blog, linked to on the recruitment page, or dance and sing in a corporate video. Those who don’t do these things are no longer part of the team. I don’t know about you, but I went to school to be a programmer, not to be a character in a dog and pony show.
For those that doubt my analysis, I ask you why the same individuals will conform to completely different “cultures” at different companies as they move through their careers? It is not that each corporate culture is the manifestation of the aggregate will of the workers. If that were true, corporate culture would not be so varied as an averaging would take place at each office. The eccentricity of corporate culture comes from the top of the hierarchy and is projected downward. It is an imposition on the rights and dignity of the professionals working in the office. They go along with it like dogs and ponies go along with a circus show, not because they want to, but because they don’t want to lose their jobs. It is no longer enough to do a good job, you have to be a circus clown too.