Dispatches from bizarro corporate culture

Let’s imagine what an alien would think of our corporate cultural norms—the rituals and scripts that govern daily office life. I’m documenting these bizarre habits before I forget that they’re bizarre. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a year or two, you might even think they’re normal. Our alien friend is like an annoying little kid who can’t stop asking why. The explanations are left as an exercise for the reader.

1. You frequently attend meetings where you watch one person read aloud a doc that’s projected onto a screen.

Why is this normal? There are a few alternatives to this approach that are more efficient, in theory. The presenter could project the doc and ask everyone to read it in silence on the big screen. They could send the doc out during the meeting and ask everyone to read it on their own screen. They could share the doc ahead of time and ask everyone to come to the meeting with a prepared response. Instead, they insist that everyone listen and think and react in real-time. Why?

2. You bring your laptop to every single meeting.

Your computer is entirely unnecessary in most meetings. And yet, you lug it around everywhere you go. This habit implies a few things about your beliefs. You think that whatever you’re doing on your laptop is more important than your coworkers’ thoughts and ideas. You think that you’re capable of listening while working on other tasks. You think that you won’t need to be an active participant in the discussion. In general, you think the meeting isn’t worth your full attention. Why do you attend at all?

3. You meet in conference rooms with chairs and rectangular tables.

We’ve already established that laptops are not necessary for most meetings. Why have tables if you don’t need laptops? Why aren’t your conference rooms filled with couches or pillow seats or bar seating or no chairs at all? If you’re going to have tables, why make them rectangular? Rectangular tables have heads, which are an annoyingly explicit status symbol. There’s already enough hierarchy in the workplace. No need to reinforce it with your table design. Sometimes, you travel far and wide to find a conference room for a meeting when the area around your desks would work perfectly fine. Why?

4. You sit in rows—and in the same place every day.

You’re a creature of habit, and you don’t like to move around very often. But you’re probably not working with the same people every single day, month, quarter, etc. Why isn’t your seating chart dynamic? Why don’t you change your seat on an as-needed basis? Furthermore, your desks are arranged in rows, which makes it harder to collaborate with a teammate who’s a few rows down. Why don’t you sit in pods or circles next to the people you work with most often?

5. You schedule off-sites and design sprints in order to do real work.

When you’re feeling dysfunctional or misaligned, you schedule time away from the office. It’s easier to escape a bad office environment than to try to craft a new one from the ground-up. Maybe you have too many meetings and can’t devote the time to think in depth about the problems your team is tackling. Maybe you have trouble finding large chunks of time to collaborate with your coworkers. But off-sites and sprints solve a symptom rather than the root problem(s). Why is your workplace environment not conducive to actual work?

6. You assume that your manager should also be your career counselor.

A manager is a person who’s randomly assigned to (1) help you do the things you said you were going to do and (2) tell other people that you’ve done the things you said you were going to do. Part of their job is to motivate you to stay at the company. It’s unlikely that their incentives align closely with yours, or that they know how you should go about pursuing goals that are external to your organization. Why do you expect them to be able to help you advance?

7. You put time on people’s calendars instead of taking it off.

Your calendar is blank by default. People schedule time with you by adding time to your calendar. It isn’t difficult to imagine an alternate world in which your calendar is blocked off by default, and people have to (visually) take time away from you in order to schedule a meeting. Why don’t we use a subtractive (rather than additive) metaphor for calendaring software?

Perhaps these strange corporate habits are unique to my employer, but I suspect at least some are more universal. Now, it’s time to start dismantling them before I’m drunk on the Kool-Aid.