By Jadrian Klinger; 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.”