Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Infested Hive

Note: people and organizations have been rendered as anagrams.

In my corporate experiences over the last decade, I've discerned two basic types of "work environment." While some might accuse me of taking metaphors a bit too far, the imagery I'm about to employ has come to me via the medium of my dreams and, of course, my nightmares. I have processed my experiences through symbols, and I know them to be true (or at least valid in their metaphorical intent). I am not disgruntled, but I am horrified. I am filled with remorse that this is what our society has created, and that once great places of work have been turned into wage slavery camps.

I will state that I have been working in the graphic- and Web design realm for the last decade, and this is important in only one regard: I have never held a position of rank or power in these environments (e.g., I never managed other people). My role has largely been that of the expert, perpetually honing a skill; for me, work has always been about doing work, about being creative, as opposed to getting paid well to do nothing (e.g., managing other people).

That said, I'll begin with a description of the more positive of the two work environments. First up...

The Hive

While for some people this might conjure images out of the Alien films, or killer bees, I'm thinking more along the lines of honey bees. You know, our little friends who are responsible for a majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat. In the Hive work environment, individuals exhibit largely autonomous behavior, which is informed by notions of success or failure for the larger business. In this work environment, experts are allowed to be experts. Control over individuals is not essential, since control destroys productivity and the creative impulse. A tolerance for a lack of cohesion is what is important in a Hive. A Hive's shape can stretch and skew, bend and warp, yet the whole remains intact, functional.

I've worked in the Hive model before, and it is generally rewarding; stress levels rise and fall. Pressures increase and dissipate. People laugh. People complain. People form loose meta-hives to focus their collective skills to solve problems. None of it is rooted in cut-throat strategies or the themes of survival and competition. Is the Hive perfect? Perhaps not. Whole areas of the Hive can often be so out of touch with the central authority that they risk being cut off from the main, their worth forgotten in the wake of efficiency; however, individuality is often rewarded. A good Hive lets the workers themselves elevate its members. It is less about some abstract layer of management deciding someone has done a good job, and more about one's peers honoring the fact that you make their jobs easier. Admittedly, this is an idealized view of the Hive, but for the most part, it can and does exist. It's out there. Yet, similar to the plight of the honey bees, the Hive work environment seems to be in danger. Which brings me to the Hive's antithesis...

The Infestation

In this work environment, workers are parasites, attached to a money-dispensing host. Daily routine is based solely on the necessities of the environment: dishonesty and greed are the order of the day. Loyalties are bought via unwarranted promotions or secret wage increases. Relationships between people do not actually exist.

Am I exaggerating?

I watched in horror, a few years ago, as an Infestation consumed the Hive I worked in. I have written about this elsewhere, so I won't go into details, but the reality is this: the Infestation does not care about the individuals that make up the whole. The Infestation does not care about the host that it infests. The host, in fact, does not even know it is infested. Perhaps it is something the Infestation injects into the bloodstream of the company? A foul toxin of anesthetizing promises? The Infestation values contractors over full-time employees. The Infestation rewards incompetence because it is, itself, founded on incompetence. The individuals that comprise it are overpaid and lack talent. The Infestation gets things done by brute force. Throw a pile of twitching greedy organisms at a problem, and it either goes away or it gets solved.

A Scene from an Infestation

Every few weeks, the "Master Recruiter" from an IT staffing agency would show up, two dozen bagels in hand. He'd place the bagels on a shelf in one of the hallways. He'd give the sign, and an administrative assistant would send out an alert email: "Tom has brought bagels and cream cheese. They're in the usual spot."

I often made sure I was there before the announcement was made, if only to ensure a good vantage point. It was like watching wildlife from behind a blind.

A flood of people would soon appear. The Mass, I called it. My co-workers, silent; fifty people, shuffling into view. The only sounds were those of bagel packages and cream cheese being opened; plastic forks and knives clacking. No one spoke. No one laughed. Bagel obtained, they'd return to their cubes to put their sucking mouths back onto the Money Teat. Most of the Mass left empty-handed. The symbolism was powerful: play the game. Compete and you eat. There were only twenty-four bagels, recall. Twenty-six if the baker was happy. Twenty-six bagels for a floor of at least two hundred workers?

I witnessed this event many times over the last year, and I was always astonished by the dire faces and total lack of social interaction within the Mass. It was like watching exotic foreign fish being fed, trapped behind glass. Joyless and starved. Owned and observed. The only thing of value to the people who willingly participate in the Infestation is the blood of the corporation - the money. And the upsetting part is that the people that perpetuate this kind of work environment can't see it for what it truly is.

The Origin?

It saddens me that a company like Allpour Goop, Inc. would be unaware that the IT shop affixed to its underbelly is nothing more than a seething mass of greedy parasites, contradicting the very mission the company was founded upon. Do the Phono Fixe University students currently enrolled in the Information Technology program know what lies ahead of them? Or, chillingly, is the Phono Fixe University itself the problem? Has the for-profit education system spawned the monstrous mass that destroyed its once great IT shop? Is the Phono Fixe University partly responsible for the Infestation?