Saturday, February 27, 2010

Empathy in the Office

Recently I started reading an extraordinary book called The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. It’s an ambitious 700-page volume that rethinks all of world history in terms of two concepts: empathy and entropy, both of which Rifkin claims have progressively increased over time. Rifkin shows how certain conditions – new sources of energy, new communications media, urbanization, increased contact between members of different groups – facilitate “empathy surges” – times when the overall progress of empathy, i.e., the ability of one human being to imagine what another human being feels, takes a giant leap forward. While these surges never last, as energy runs out due to entropy and civilizations decline, they leave traces to be reignited with the next surge, and thus, over time, Rifkin claims, the human race is becoming more and more empathic.

So far, I’ve only read about a third of this book, but already it’s made so many sparks go off in my head I feel like it’s the fourth of July. This guy is a fabulous big-picture thinker. And of course, his ideas have all sorts of implications for the office world, which I plan to spend the whole next year exploring.

Meanwhile, it’s set me thinking about empathy, a concept I first encountered when doing training at a crisis center where I volunteered for a couple of years before starting social work school. Trainings for volunteers in those days began with an “Empathy Weekend.” On Friday nights, volunteers were divided into small groups run by “empathy trainers.” The trainers explained to us what empathy was, and that empathizing with someone with a headache didn’t mean you had the headache yourself, which is sympathy, it meant being aware that the person was suffering, communicating your awareness to him or her and “validating feelings.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Is Your Workload Unrealistic? How to Tell and What to Do

Do you regularly have a to-do list at the office that’s more than a page long? Has your in-box never, ever been empty? Do you spend the bulk of your time racing against the clock? Do you often stay late or take work home to try to catch up? Do you make more mistakes than you think you should? Does a technical breakdown or bureaucratic obstacle send you into a panic? If so, you may be struggling with an unrealistic workload.

Unrealistic workloads happen for a variety of different reasons. Here are some possibilities:

Your department is understaffed. This is probably the most common reason why workers may wind up overloaded. In today’s tight economy, it may be unavoidable for employers to cut staff and overload those who are left, but it’s a short-term solution that’s likely to lead to job turnover, absenteeism, and poor work quality, especially if the boss uses harsh management strategies to try to get more work out of people than is reasonable.  

If you think inactivity in the office isn't a problem . . .

check out this article from today's NYT!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Office Movies 101: Office Space

In this blog, a lot of what I do is write seriously about problems in the office world that others have dealt with only under the guise of humor. As with court jesters under medieval tyrants, it would seem that most creative people feel safe addressing the multiple challenges of office life only with satires that have grown increasingly bitter over the years. This doesn’t solve any of the problems, but it does help us to identify them, which
is half the battle. (For that reason, when I started researching Making Peace with Your Office Life, the first thing I read was not a book on organizational psychology but The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams. If you want to know what’s really going on, start with the humorists.)

In the first few minutes of the 1999 comedy, Office Space, one can identify a host of office issues. In those opening scenes, we see Peter, who appears to be suffering from a severe case of the office blues, driving to his office and starting his workday at Initech with his coworkers, Michael and Samir. Here are some of the challenges Peter encounters:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

God in the Office: Religion in the Workplace

Most of the world’s great religions were created in environments that were vastly different from today’s offices. In the office world, there are no bodhi trees for seekers to sit under waiting for enlightenment, no mountains or caves where prophets can rendezvous with The Almighty. At work we are cut off from sunsets and rainbows, starlight and moonlight, everything that connected the ancients with the gods and goddesses they believed created them. Instead, we have a world that appears to be totally under human control, in which bosses wielding nearly absolute power over our daily lives can easily become idols to whom we continually offer ritualistic, but spiritually empty sacrifices.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

They Just Keep Piling Up: Paper Management in the Office

You’re on a roll, putting together all the materials you need for a big proposal that has to be turned in by five o’clock. Everything’s going great until it’s time to scan in that handwritten letter from so-and-so. You’re sure it must be at the bottom of the pile on top of the credenza, but it’s not. A frantic search ensues, and an hour later you finally find the letter in a folder you’d thought was empty.

Poor paper management can be a major source of stress at the office, wasting huge amounts of precious time. A few papers thrown carelessly on top of a desk have a way of swelling into process-crippling piles and even, in some cases, to gargantuan oceans that may have serious emotional as well as vocational repercussions. Once your office is thoroughly deluged, you may get into a vicious circle, in which you waste so much time looking for things that you have no time to de-clutter.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Office Lit 101: Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Someday, I’d love to pull together an anthology of office literature, assuming one doesn’t already exist, which would include everything from Melville and Dickens to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Dilbert and “Office Space.” Often, I believe, literary artists have presented a far truer picture in poems, plays, stories, novels, cartoons, and films of office life as real people experience it than any nonfiction writer ever has. Thus, in this blog, I intend from time to time to take a look at one or another of these works and consider what it might have to teach us about the office world.

Our subject in this post is the classic, "Introduction to Fiction" story “Bartleby,” which I reread last night for the first time since teaching it in a community college course. The author, Herman Melville, is best known as the creator of Moby Dick, a huge, cosmic-symbolic adventure tale featuring a white whale, and it’s hard to imagine that its author would have anything to say about office life. Wondering what kinds of experience informed both works, I turned to the obvious place for answers – Wikipedia – and found that Melville spent his early adult years at sea having adventures and writing novels about them, then got married and spent some years in a cabin in the Berkshires writing his two greatest novels – Moby Dick and Pierre – during this time he also got to know Nathaniel Hawthorne -- then, in the 1860’s, he got a job in a customs house, where he wasted away for nineteen years and wrote hardly anything before finally escaping back to full-time writing. So, notwithstanding his sea voyages, Melville did spend a substantial chunk of time in an office, though most of it was long after the years he spent in the Berkshires, which was when he wrote “Bartleby.”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Nature-deficit Disorder" and Office Work

“Nature-deficit Disorder” is not a diagnosis in DSM-IV but a phrase that Richard Louv uses in his landmark book, The Last Child in the Woods. Louv focuses on the importance of direct exposure to nature for children’s healthy physical and emotional development. He cites studies that show that exposure to nature may reduce AD/HD symptoms and also improve children’s cognitive capabilities as well as their resistance to negative stresses and depression.

“Nature-deficit disorder,” Louv writes, “describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.” But deficit, he goes on to say, is only one side of the coin. The other side is abundance. By becoming aware of the negative effects of nature-deficit disorder, he says, we also become aware of the powerful healing benefits of reconnection with nature.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are You Climbing the Walls at Work? Dealing with Confinement

To repeat what I said in a previous post, during winter months, office workers may barely see the sun except on weekends. Being shut up in a building, often a single room or, worse yet, the infamous cubicle is, I believe, for many workers, one of the most depression-inducing aspects of the office situation. For one thing, it puts you more at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder; for another, if you have a certain type of brain-wiring it
can make you feel claustrophobic and restless; finally, it can make getting along with coworkers more difficult due to “cabin fever,” similar to what happens to families when they’re boxed up during a snowstorm. This is perhaps why so many workers compare their offices to prisons.

Unless you’re telecommuting, you may believe that such feelings are unavoidable. But while it’s true that confinement is a fact of life for many office workers, it doesn’t necessarily have to set you up for depression. The key is to take constructive action to counter its effects. Here are some suggestions: