The Saucer Era
by Gail Jarvis
by Gail Jarvis
The end of a year is a time for reminiscing and reflecting, so I will take this opportunity to do just that. I confess that my observations are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but serious nonetheless. My commentary revolves primarily around the business community but I think my general appraisal could easily apply to others segments of society as well.
Also, this reminiscence is my way of responding to readers who have accused me of being out of touch with the times, of wanting to turn back the clock. Some have dismissed me as a carping grouch who has a need to find fault with everything contemporary. The more creative respondents suggest that I am simply a "throwback" to a bygone era, an anachronism, a man who still wears spats. There is some truth to these accusations because I do have a disdain for much of what is called "progress."
People often think that with the passage of time, things get better and better. Many equate "change" with "progress." But things could just as easily get worse as get better. Then there is the belief that once a particular trend has been set in motion, it will continue unabated. Let me state emphatically that the possibility of contemporary trends continuing unabated is absolutely appalling to me. And what keeps me from utter despair is that I know that things often go in cycles. Consequently, I do not restrain my criticisms of "progress."
As a metaphor for my commentary, I have chosen a rather bland subject: saucers. Today the word conjures up visions of UFOs and spaceships, but those are not the kind of saucers I have in mind. The type of saucer I'm referring to is defined as " a small shallow curved dish on which a cup stands." A cup of coffee served with a saucer signifies a lifestyle quite different from the way of life represented by serving coffee in a mug or a Styrofoam cup. This latter method may be more expedient and suitable for today's hurried lifestyle, but it doesn't allow one to sip and savor coffee in the manner in which it was meant to be enjoyed. In fact, mugs and Styrofoam cups are an ideal symbol for the current hectic age; an epoch that is a far cry from the prior one which I will call the "Saucer Era."
Let's return briefly to the Saucer Era. Visualize this. When you replace a cup onto its saucer it makes a clicking sound. The sound of a cup being placed on a saucer, — "click" — was once my alarm clock. It meant that someone in the family had just taken a sip of freshly brewed coffee. The sound raised me from my bed and pulled me to the kitchen. Taking a saucer from the cupboard, I would place a cup on it — "click" — and fill the cup with hot coffee. And how I relished that first sip of coffee! Although scientists have never discovered why, coffee sipped from a cup and saucer tastes better than coffee served in a mug.
Some mornings I left for work earlier than usual in order to pick up a morning paper and find a quiet place at one of the numerous downtown coffee shops. Reading a morning paper while sipping coffee from a cup and saucer was a healthy and urbane way to start the day. But today, coffee is rarely served with an accompanying saucer, and there are few places where you can read a newspaper without noise from loud music or a TV set. Trying to concentrate on what you are reading with this extraneous background noise produces a toxic state of mind. Furthermore, trying to read while some uncouth lout (I confess that I don't know the female word for lout) at a nearby table is babbling into a cell phone gives rise to thoughts that are positively lethal.
During the Saucer Era, the workplace was more formal than now. Men wore business suits and ties, and women were fashionably attired, wearing dresses and feminine shoes. Although the office atmosphere was somewhat relaxed, a sense of professional decorum was always maintained. Casual attire was verboten and no one would have even considered bringing food or drink into the office. And a radio? Never!
Around mid-morning, we employees would take a "Coffee Break." Not in the office, of course, but at one of the many downtown coffee shops. Four or five of us would share a table where we could carry on conversations as there was neither music nor TV in the background. For several minutes, we chatted, sipping our coffee and replacing our cups onto our saucers — "click." Throughout the coffee shop, one would hear the sound of eager conversation combined with the pleasant clicking noise of cups contacting saucers.
Mid-afternoon was the occasion for another "Coffee Break," so it was back to the coffee shops. During the afternoon break, some opted for a soft drink. These were served in 6 1/2 ounce bottles accompanied by a glass tumbler to drink from. No one would have believed that one day people would arrive at work in the morning lugging a twenty-ounce soft drink in a plastic bottle.
I don't want to give the impression that we squandered our workdays lounging around coffee shops. To the contrary, by separating break time from work time, we were actually more productive than today‘s work force. In fact, there was a pronounced work ethic among employees during the Saucer Era. Contributing to this work ethic, of course, was the fact that under-performing employees knew they could be terminated, and their terminations could not be appealed.
But please don't think that the work environment was threatening. It wasn't. Basically, there were certain rules, mostly unwritten, but fair and reasonable, that we understood were necessary for a pleasant, productive workplace.
So we did our jobs and had little to grumble about until one day "progress" intruded. It came under the guise of modern management theories. A new breed of managers had gradually replaced the old ones. These new managers were mesmerized by the latest management trends spelled out in best sellers by psychologists and sociologists. These social scientists claimed that making the workplace more "therapeutic" would improve efficiency.
A key element of a more therapeutic workplace was the creation of a "less stratified work environment" that would "lower status barriers." So casual dress and a casual workplace were advocated as a way of achieving this more egalitarian workplace. Eventually, employees began arriving at work in jeans, stretch pants, t-shirts and sneakers; toting bags of fast food, large containers of soft drinks, cell phones, catalogs and radios with earphones. Before long their manners became as casual as their attire.
No longer was it necessary for them to eat breakfast at home. Now they ate it at their desks. In fact, the workday evolved into one extended meal, munched on throughout the day. (I still remember one of my contemporaries putting on a pair of latex gloves prior to using a computer keyboard after he had watched another employee awkwardly inputting data on it while gnawing on a piece of fried chicken.)
The guiding principle for this new breed of managers seemed to be "change." The old way, whether it worked or not, had to be replaced with a new way. Departments were continually reorganized. Tasks, work flows and staffing patterns were frequently realigned. Because many of the reorganized departments continued to perform poorly, I wondered if the reorganizations were simply a way for managers to mask their incompetence or at least, delay its discovery.
The trend that excited these new managers the most was holding meetings. During the Saucer Era, a company might go for a full year without holding a single meeting. The staff was advised of procedural changes via an internal memo and managers saw no need to hold a meeting to reiterate verbally what was written in the memo. But now meetings began to be held so frequently that employees couldn't keep up with their daily tasks. In some cases overtime was required to keep the work current and this increased the cost of operating the department. So another meeting was called to discuss how to reduce the department's expenses. (It seemed to me that the weakest managers held the most meetings. In fact, it is my theory that a manager's level of competence is in inverse proportion to the number of meetings he or she holds.)
Ominously, organizations began installing break rooms so that coffee breaks could be taken without leaving the office. Little did we know that this was only the forerunner of other disturbing innovations. Soon, break rooms were eliminated and a coffee urn was placed on a table in the hallway surrounded by stacks of Styrofoam cups. Now, the so-called "Coffee Break" had to be taken at your desk where you could continue working while sipping from a Styrofoam cup.
Personnel policies were drastically expanded in an attempt to address every possible situation that might occur, regardless of how remote. Additional staff was needed to administer the mushrooming mass of new bureaucratic rules. As employee satisfaction had become a primary concern for organizations, the new personnel policies contained numerous employee grievance procedures.
Ironically, although organizations had reached the point of essentially allowing an "anything goes" work environment, there was a notable increase in employee complaints. Some employees began medicating themselves with psychotropic drugs in order to cope with "stress" in the workplace. Days were spent popping pills, eating and clumsily shuffling papers, most of which were covered with food stains.
Regrettably, after all these changes, there was no noticeable improvement in productivity and, contrary to predictions by experts, employee morale actually worsened. Some of us began to dread going to an office that smelled like a kitchen; an office with moody employees, some of whom appeared to have just rolled out of bed and others that you couldn't converse with until you signaled to them to remove their earphones.
This contemporary office environment is the product of lamentable theories social scientists promoted in order to sell their books. Some of these theories enjoyed a brief season in the sun but eventually proved unworkable and were quickly replaced with others. And over the years I have witnessed numerous failed management theories. But the ability to manage people effectively is not something that can be acquired by reading books or attending workshops. Some possess it and others don't. People with management skills don't need theories to help them and no theory will help a person who lacks management skills.
So this is where we are today. And, as much as I would like to turn back the clock, I know that I can't. So I cope. But some mornings, in the solitude of my kitchen with my cup of coffee resting on its saucer, I slip into a reverie that returns me again to one of those quaint little coffee shops where I can hear the sound of other cups clicking into other saucers.
December 30, 2005
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com