Traditionally employees were allotted a working table and chair to sit in an open office or in a cabin depending upon the level at which they worked in the organization – that was also an indicator of the hierarchy. Employees at certain levels enjoyed the privilege of the services of a peon, typist, stenographer, secretary to facilitate their work. Post 1991, with the opening up of the economy, most corporate sector organizations in India restructured the workforce and the number of peons, typist, stenographers and secretaries were reduced and in many organizations abolished, though one can still see its existence in certain old corporate sector organizations and most Government Departments.
It is the IT revolution in the last two decades which has heavily reduced paper work and brought in instantaneous flow of information from the sender to the receiver without the need for a typist and a peon. Presently mails by and large are electronically stored and the need for being printed and stored in files is history in many organizations. The laptop, the iPad, the iphone and BlackBerry connectivity to the office network in the last few years, has made it possible for employees to communicate and respond from places other than the office easily -- 24 hours of the day and 7 days of the week.
In the last two decades, office designs have gone through a major transformation, wherein both the boss and the subordinate can continuously and easily view each other, as they now sit in an open office. The work stations are designed functionally and ergonomically using modular furniture which is easy to assemble, demolish and shift. Cabins – the exclusive preserve of the managerial cadre have been replaced by well equipped meeting rooms with video conferencing facilities. Open office also requires certain decorum that occupants modulate their voice while speaking on telephone or running a conversation, do not raise their voice when annoyed, so as to avoid their conversations becoming organizational gossip.
Having an open office does not necessarily usher in an open culture. I was recently interacting with a friend of mine who is presently the Chief People Officer of a very large organization which is traditional and hierarchical with their Head Office in Delhi. He mentioned that a Managing Director (MD) joined this organization three years back and announced to everybody that he believes in an open culture and would like to institutionalize the same in the organization for the benefit of the employees and the organization. To demonstrate his openness he got an open office designed in the head office, thus leading from the front and ushering in a culture where all the executives including himself sit in an open office. Over a three year period the cabins in all sales offices in the company were demolished. He ensured connectivity of office desktop / laptop computers to most employees. He got a Company Portal started for ease of communication and had the portal also operated in Hindi and Gurumukhi apart from English with Kiosks’ on the shop floor, so that the workers in the factories could also access information and communicate. He also permitted employees to directly communicate to him on his email address, with cc to their boss, in case something bothered them or they desired to give suggestions for improvement. Apart from these there were other initiatives by the Learning & Development Department in organizing training programmes to bring about an open culture.
An interesting incident occurred three years later in this organization after the new MD’s joining and having undertaken a cultural change journey. A fresh college graduate joined the Sales offices in Amritsar as Trainee Sales Assistant, and he did not receive his first month salary due to an error in recording the bank account details during the time of joining by the corporate HR personnel in Delhi. The young trainee spoke about it to his boss – Assistant Sales Manager, and then to the Assistant Personnel Manager in the Amritsar office. Next 15 days passed by, he still didn’t receive his paycheck. Since the organization was still bureaucratic and hierarchical, the persons who he had informed about his non-payment were still in talks with the Delhi head office – the problem was worse because the company had outsourced its payroll to a service provider. The young trainee in his frustration shot an email to the MD stating the problem, cc to the Regional Manager in Chandigarh along with his Amritsar-based bosses who were aware of the case. The MD took the matter in his hands and it was sorted in a day. The payroll section claimed the salary was paid, but the young trainee got the bank statement showing there has never been any transaction.
A month later, in an office get-together in Chandigarh, the Regional Manager (also the recipient of the email sent by the trainee), spoke to the youngster saying, “I believe in an open culture just like our Managing Director. I also sit in an open office, and you should have spoken to me when you did not receive your first month’s salary and I would have sorted it out.” To which the trainee replied, “Glad to learn that you believe in an open culture, but my seniors the Assistant Sales Manager & the Assistant Personnel Manager who have been working with this organization for over 7 years mentioned it will not help , if I speak to you, because that has been their past experiences. It is the actions that would make us youngsters believe that open culture exists in the company”. The frankness with which he communicated to his superior is a clear example that openness has to be perceived by both sides of the corporate structure and cannot be one-sided.
Organizations in India which were established prior to liberalization (i.e. before 1991) are by and large very hierarchical and also tend to have absence of an open culture. These old organizations are now trying to bring in an open culture and transparency, by remodelling their offices to open offices where in cabins are nonexistent or limited only for the top personnel of the organization.
The older organizations have a tougher task ahead and HR professionals have a major challenge. The first thing needed in these organizations is that the HR Department needs to bring in transparency in its dealing with recruits and employees, and have an approach of an effective system to speedily resolve employee doubts / grievances. I have known of HR Professionals while negotiating the salary with new recruits, projecting a Cost To Company (CTC ) package where in the figures of the Performance Pay in the CTC is at the maximum , plus adding up the Gratuity benefit in the CTC . HR Professionals need to explain the graded manner in which Performance Pay is computed by the organizations and what percentage of persons get the maximum amount as most organizations undertake a force fit of the normal distribution curve in payment of Performance Pay. HR Professionals also need to explain the qualifying years of service which as per law is five years for an employee being eligible for Gratuity from the organization. Most employees do not understand the Performance Pay computation as HR Personnel tend to design complicated system and most employees are ignorant of the Gratuity act of the country. HR Professionals in organization need to go an extra step, be transparent and communicate the personnel policies as practiced, if an Open Culture in an organization is to be built and has to succeed.