Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Water Cooler & Vending Machine Dialogues

Grape vine : A person to person method of spreading information, rumors & gossips by unofficial or informal means mainly through conversations. 

Nearly 6 years into corporate life has made me realize that this is not an urban legend and grapevines do exist and its seeds are in fact sown and then cultivated by the organisation itself. Grape vines are the best and lowest cost means of creating a speculation. These are unofficial snap polls usually sponsored by the management to get raw unedited opinions of its employees. They work two ways, release and retrieve. 

This has been the oldest means of internal espionage and brings about a great deal of 'earnest' opinions about senior managers and the big man and the organisation as a whole. The grapevines are of course members of the management's carefully chosen inner circle and they are most active at the time of periodic performance appraisal systems or when there has been a major departmental reshuffle. 

It is plainly impossible for the untrained eye to identify the grapevine, since the conversations are very cunningly camouflaged in harmless banter. 

Now since we have warmed up to the idea of this novel management concept, let us now move on to our personal experiences with the 'Grapevine'!! The 10 minute breaks that we get in the pre and post lunch sessions are those periods of the day when we all go out in quite large groups depending on your age in the organisation, towards that corner space where 'they' have installed the water cooler and the coffee vending machine. It is a time to relax and to let your hair and your guard down. It is the time to provide your peers a descriptive feedback and an honest opinion about your meeting with the boss in the morning. 

Well, it is one's birth given right to ridicule one's boss. No matter how well or bad the meeting would have gone in the morning, the poor chap is in for a royal spanking. What is a good banter without getting your friends to laugh about your boss jokes? Call it peer pressure or a conformist attitude, but your wicked creativity goes into overdrive and you start describing your boss and paint a picture of him with a pointed tail, a pitchfork and goat horns growing from either sides of the head. Maybe the caffeine in the cappuccino cup you are holding eggs you to go on further and take deep digs at the boss. You are the 'It' guy and you are easily welcomed into the 'gang'. Imagine you are the grapevine and this is the most easiest way in. You unload a lot of crap on the boss and you are a cool guy. Your peers slowly start opening up about things that even the boss did not know about himself. This is true 360 degree feedback - 100% raw and uncut. 

One also talks about the management policies and how uncomfortable they make it for the employees to work. Some of the feedback are to be taken and improved upon and some are just to be thrown in the can. Generally the majority are unsatisfied and have a lot of complaints about almost everything. Some people do not like the taste of the coffee, some do not like the faucet in the restrooms, some do not like the acute absence of pretty ladies in the office and some do not like the attitudes of their seniors. Very rarely do we come across group discussions near the water cooler where the majority have very good words for the organisation or the boss. It is the 'Grass is greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome that is very clearly visible during water cooler conversations. 

Water cooler conversations are not restricted to complaints about the management and the boss, they extend to complaints about the traffic situation, the national cricket team's present form, the state of affairs of the country's politics, incredible tax structures and a bad plot of a much anticipated Bollywood film. During such conversations, you observe that your colleagues who are usually stressed out and deeply engrossed in their work, have a life out of the office. You are enlightened about the ongoing infrastructure projects across the city, the statistics on the last 6 matches of the Indian cricket team and a very neat expert analysis on the top batsmen and bowlers' current form and what they must be doing to improve and put the team on a winning track again. It is just amazing to find out that the national selectors know very little about cricket when compared to your next - cubicle - neighbor. 

I wouldn't name him, but I had this colleague of mine who, as far as I go, is the greatest staunchest follower of the common wealth game of cricket. This guy is a near fanatic and his interest in the gentleman's game is so intense that he had the audacity to follow even the much ignored first class cricket played at the domestic circuit. This knowledge trove of his came to light during many of our water cooler conversations and I still fondly recall the twinkle in his eyes whenever there was a victory for the Indian side. 

Water cooler conversations are equivalent to the best shrinks where you can offload your frustration and stress. Sometimes you even get useful advises and suggestions to come out of your situation. Discussing the problems with a close group of friends who understand your work and your environment is a great deal to beat stress and come out trumps. 

How often have we not come across a situation when we are going through a particularly rough patch at work and have felt victimized. Our vending machine interactions with colleagues reveal that we are not alone in feeling so low and many have already passed and are passing through the same patch. This sense of belonging to a group gives you great peace of mind. I sincerely hope I am being able to put across this point to you all. 

Coffee vending machines are a great place to socialize with seniors too as they also need a place to unwind & to recharge. 'Inside' information such as the probable date of starting the much awaited performance appraisal process along with additional info on the list of probable promotees are extracted from routine friendly conversations with senior members who are necessarily part of the grapevine. 

It is a great misnomer that only ladies gossip. Men are known to gossip as much and sometimes even more. The term curious George has a broad perspective. Water cooler conversations are all about men - grown up men gossiping about the most innocuous of issues. A colleague's new car or the new wife, the boss's daughter and even sharing a joke you received over SMS which you cannot discuss anywhere else. 

Work is an extension of our college days and these precious 2 x 10 minute breaks provide valuable time to get nostalgic and reconstruct the great fun we had with our friends. Human Resource Development is a function in most of the organisations that focus on holistic growth of the employees and team building is one of the responsibilities of HR. Organisations spend hundreds of thousands on team building exercises at out of office locations, usually in the wilderness and river side camps. However, water cooler & vending machine corners provide a low cost team building opportunity. 

Friendships are fostered and pent up stresses are released at these pristine places of uninhibited conversation. A buzzing water cooler corner makes any office, truly a great place to work in. 

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