JB Intercultural Consulting: Ethnography of an Office
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    The office that plays together, stays together

    An ethnographic study of a well-run office

What are some characteristics of a well-run office? While there is plenty of advice out there on how to be a good manager, there has been surprisingly little research looking at the texture of day-to-day reality in specific "successful" offices, especially ones that encourage diversity.

To explore this question, I conducted ethnographic research in a six-person Theater Department office in an urban university during the late 1980's. This group had a reputation for consistently excellent work and for being tight friends with each other. Fieldwork confirmed these initial impressions. Part of their success seemed to be connected to the staff's experiments with new work roles which blurred the line between staff and faculty, between male and female, and which rejected bureaucratic supervision for broad autonomy.

The results of this study highlights the interplay of commonalities and differences among employees who work closely together, shaping both their relationships and the quality of their work.

Main findings

  • People are more likely to take on larger, self-motivated work responsibility if they share major interests, lifestyle, or purpose in common with other employees.

  • The same factors that contribute to tight teamwork can also exclude competent people who don't fit.

  • Diversity can lead to productive experiments in work roles.

What made this office staff work well together?

The unconventional staff:
  In many ways the Theater Department staff was quite ordinary. They were all middle-class, college-educated, white, U.S. born and raised, in their 30s and 40s, homeowners, dog-lovers, —people who valued hard work and their paychecks. They were, however, unconventional in three respects.

  1. First, professional relations: except for the receptionist, the fulltime staff and most of their part time student staff were all serious musicians, actors, dancers, and/or visual artists. Despite their low status as secretaries and administrators in a prestigious university department, the faculty respected them as professional artists.

  2. Second, gender roles: the theater building administrator and the two administrative assistants were men, all openly gay, working for a (straight) woman office manager who was their own age.

  3. Third, independent work: the staff had a heartfelt, articulate commitment to excellent, autonomous work and to good personal relationships.

Professional relationships:
  Shop talk between staff and professors nearly always centered on theater, rather than on administrative business. The excitement of performance added a spark to everyone's job. One man said, "Anybody could do my job…The [theater and rigorous academic] environment is more attractive to me than the work." As a playwright whose works were often featured by the department, he pictured himself as a playwright-who-is-doing-administration. Another staff member often took lead roles in university productions. Surprisingly, the faculty did not seem to be threatened, but rather sought to showcase their staff's talents. This passion for theater gave the staff a larger, mutual, sense of purpose.

Gender relationships:
  Because this was an urban theater department, gayness was unremarkable; research interviews made almost no reference to it. However, it did significantly influence the way the office functioned. As longtime members of gay communities, it seemed easier for these men to hold "women's" non-career jobs without losing respect. The office gender-reversals (female boss; male secretaries) were part of a larger scene where playing with or challenging gender roles was a central value. Another consequence of having gay employees was that the straight boss could also be affectionate with them, without risk. She even took tango lessons—that most intimate and sexual of partner dances—with one of them.

Sometimes it was difficult to deal with outsiders' attitudes. To the women's annoyance, students and visitors routinely assumed they were the men's secretaries. The men reported feeling uncomfortable when they attended university-wide meetings of administrative assistants, who were almost all women.

The staff handled their own tensions over gender roles and sexual attractions by joking behavior. The mood in the office was usually serious and quiet, but not infrequently punctuated with light-hearted teasing, much of it sexual or mock subservient. For example, one of the of the assistants christened his computer hard disk "Jake, minion of Prudence." Two of the men enjoyed trading suggestive remarks and assessing the young male students walking by their windows, especially when female staff were around.

Marginalized "traditional" employees:
  The accountant and receptionist, who were not part of this world, had trouble with work. The receptionist wistfully admired the talents of the other employees. She knew very little about the theater or arts, and had minimal officework skills. Staff talk swirled around her desk as if she weren't there, and staff took notice of her only on the frequent occasions when someone had to help or discipline her about a work task.

As a mother of four school-age children, the accountant found that the rest of the staff only vaguely understood the demands that home life put on her. She was often angry at being overlooked:

"My daughter had the chicken-pox. I only stayed home a half day and had to do a lot of juggling to get to work. It was a heavy responsibility and it caused me great anguish to leave her alone. No one asked me in the office about it. But when Eric's dog got sick [the dog came with him to work every day], everyone talked about it for days."

Later, when the accountant's replacement had financial and time difficulties coping with child care for her baby, staff sympathy soon wore thin. In fact, she came to be seen as incompetent and annoying, as the receptionist and previous accountant had been before her.

This pattern of marginalizing was the shadow side of cultivating good relationships based on shared similarities. Distance that might have been accepted in another workplace stood in sharp contrast to the loving relationships among the core staff. Perhaps these employees had difficulties because they did not share key similarities on which solidarity was based. Or perhaps the group needed to confirm their identity and deflect internal tensions by exaggerating those differences. In any case, staff struggled with this, trying be fair and friendly, yet acknowledging that they picked on the two women.

Untraditional work roles:
  Core staff perceived themselves as breaking up traditional work roles. The manager explained her perspective on men doing administrative work:

"I respect labor… It is not a failure in life because you're not doing something fancy in university terms. Secretarial work, there's nothing wrong with that … There's condescension… Eric, he's been a teacher, he often says he wouldn't want to be on a faculty like this one, this job suits him better. It is hard to hold onto that in this environment."

She also explained her attempts to have the university redefine the men's jobs:

I deliberately got people's titles phased those out, so that they were called anything but secretary. Except with the receptionist, that was deliberate—a secretary is someone who types, answers phones, gives clerical assistance with limited initiative. They do what they're told."

The boss' preferred reliance on shared interests and personal bonds was not effective with these employees who were not friends, and who were accustomed to subordinate roles. The receptionist pushed the rules, the office manager complained: "I finally forbade eating at her desk. One day she was eating cookies and when I came, she turned and stuffed all of them in her mouth and tried to pretend nothing happened!" The accountant was competent, but did nothing without detailed directions.

Significantly, a year later, when a gay man in his 40's who already knew the staff was hired to replace the receptionist, he soon took on more responsibilities and became part of the self-managed core staff.


This research on one small office suggests several conclusions:

  1. Employees in sucessful offices will probably have distinct commonalities in areas that matter to them. Some of these will be about how work gets done and how people relate to each other. Other commonalities will be shared interests and identities.

  2. The data from the Theater Department finds that the same factors which make for a tight-knit and effective office necessarily produce tensions as well, since no person will ever be a perfect fit. Despite goodwill efforts, the core group failed to build friendly work relationships with the staff members who had less in common with them. Ultimately, the two women resigned, as did the new mother who succeeded the accountant.

  3. Diversity brings changes in work roles. In successful offices, the job is molded to the employee's sense of self, especially with something so deeply embedded as gender identity. The new male receptionist and other male staff did not become "secretary-like", nor did they play the subordinate roles that the female receptionist and accountant had accepted. Rather, their jobs acquired a professional patina, a greater set of responsibilities and autonomy, as befits U.S. society's image of appropriate work for a professional white male.

Of course, hiring people for who they are, more than for what they can do, can tilt either way: People who don't seem to "fit" may be denied jobs for which they are suited. Or they may get a welcome opportunity to remake the job in their own style.

Staff sustained this pocket of difference within the university with the support of the like-minded Theater Department. They were an anomaly but they were not acting in isolation. That combination of internal commonalities and external diversity allowed the staff to be both secure and experimental. Their shared values about professional quality work, friendship, and the joy of performance transformed potentially ordinary jobs, and gave people a sense that their private and work identities were all of a piece.

Making the connections....

In your company or organization:
  • Do people share a passion or sense of purpose beyond the daily tasks their work requires? (In some cases this may be company mission. More likely it is enthusiasm for the same soccer team, or sharing the ups and downs of parenting young children...)

  • Do some employees have close friendships? Who is marginalized?

  • Do people feel respected for their talents and commitment regardless of their job position?


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