East is not West, especially in our cubicles

It is six months since I relocated to India from the US. I work in the IT sector for a reputed multinational firm (name withheld) in Bangalore. From outside, there is little difference between workplaces in US and India. After all, what does it take to have an IT set up – a floor divided into cubes, each cube having a four-legged desk with one or two big monitors, a keyboard, mouse and a nice ergonomic chair.

Walls decorated with bright colours with inspiring quotes, conference rooms with big wooden tables and VOIP facility, a pantry area with coffee, soda cans and unhealthy snacks and lastly a table tennis table for employees to flex their muscles. 

Cubicles in an office, which part of the world is this?! Pic courtesy: Wikimedia (Larsinio).

But it is the practices surrounding the workplace that brings out contrasts between the two nations. Consider the procedure of cleaning in a workplace. In the US, floors and the common areas were cleaned by the facilities team. The cubicle is like its occupant’s private property and hence it was up to the individual to maintain it. Also, most of the cleaning work happened after standard office hours (typically after 9 pm) so that there is no inconvenience to employees.

In comparison, here, nothing is private. The desk is wiped clean every day and anything on it is arranged as thought appropriate. Cleaning is done every day around 8 am. So, if you are a person who is early to the office (mainly to avoid traffic), you are sure to get disturbed.

Cultural differences are best seen in the pantry area. In the US, a highly individualistic society, all snacks are available in small packs. There are no 1 litre juice packs or 500ml soda  bottles. There is no concept of sharing food other than bread, milk and breakfast cereal. On the other hand, here, snacks like Haldiram mixture are purchased in big bags, emptied into transparent plastic jars with spoons and shared by everybody. We even buy chips/biscuits in large packs and there are empty plastic boxes to keep the half eaten packs.

In the US, it was almost a crime to leave a half eaten pack. We would receive threatening emails that our snacks supply will be cut off if half eaten packs were found. Eat what you can and throw the rest is the mantra there. There was a time when even water was available in 250 ml plastic bottles. This was discontinued when a few of us complained that it wastes too much plastic. There is a sort of apathy towards waste generated.

Here there is a constant paranoia of theft. With every facility, there are "security" strings attached. For example, bats and balls needed to play table tennis are kept with a security guard. One must sign his/her name before they can be issued, just like in a library. Obtaining office stationery follows a similar pattern – even getting a pen requires a signature. Every night, all the snack boxes and the refrigerator are locked. Fundamentally, there is a feeling of mistrust between administrative team and cleaning staff, always. In the US, nothing was ever locked.

The worst distinctions are visible in the washrooms. Here, there is only one rest room each for men and women on a floor which has a capacity of about 250 people. One janitor person is assigned to each restroom. He/she is always present inside the already suffocating room trying to act invisible to the rest of us. I am not sure why the person is must be present inside all the time. Comparatively, in the US, not only were there more restrooms, they were more airy and cleaned twice every day at definite times. No one was required to be present inside perpetually.

Parking is again a very interesting case study. Everybody owns and drives a car in the US. Hence number of parking spots is roughly the same as number of cubes. But in India, as per the Bangalore Building Bye-laws, 2003, a company needs to have one parking space for every 50 sq. m. of office floor space. It is independent of how many cubes there can be in 50 sq. m. The writer acknowledges that if everyone drives to work in her/his own car, Bangalore would choke and die. But, having one parking space for every 30 people also does not make sense.

My intention is not to establish the superiority of one over another. There is always a reason of why things are as they are. The security paranoia may be due to past incidents of theft which may exist because of the disproportionate income levels between the cleaning staff and employees. My intention is for us to acknowledge, learn and then evolve to make things better. What I want is for all of us (including myself) to take more responsibility, acknowledge the humanity of cleaning staff and lastly, design processes that rather than creating barriers, makes us more efficient.

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  1. Good observation! I had a similar experience in the past when I had traveled onsite, and hope that we emulate such good work cultures back at home

  2. Hey Arvind, I am assuming you were born and brought up here, went to the US and returned? So why the fuss? This is India where we are always bumping into one another, eating foor from other peoples plates…eg pani puri. America makes people isolated worms that wriggle when they get disturbed. Americans are impressed how we have a dedicated janitor for each toilet. About parking find parking on the road and Enjoy your job….There is no place like India. You write well and I look forward to more articles from you.

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