Long before the economic downturn of 2008-09, you may recall that there was a little downturn in 2001-02. This was just after the birds of business reality flew into the jet engines of the dot-com economy and brought it crashing into the Hudson River of bankruptcy.
Back then, there was a little automotive parts facility on the outskirts of Chennai. This company was efficiently run and adhered to the latest tenets of manufacturing management: clean uniforms, spotlessly washed factory floors, several ISO 9000 certificates on the wall and plenty of noticeboards everywhere with cheerful, motivational messages such as:
“Safety is our eternal watchword!”
“Hours since last accident leading to injury requiring more than three stitches: 13”
“July is Employee Appreciation Month 2001!”
And just below that: “Employees stealing coffee cups will be terminated immediately. By order.”
This pleasant, idyllic scene was suddenly disrupted one day, thanks to a visiting team from the Bangkok office. An order was proclaimed: The Chennai plant had to immediately implement cost-cutting measures as part of a global corporate exercise.
For the next three days, chaos reigned as an unstoppable force—corporate policy—clashed with an immovable object—factory politics.
I was reminded of the episode when last week several office-goers explained to me how their companies were desperately trying to cut costs at the workplace.
These are difficult times. The stock markets are down, export markets are drying up and the job market is terrible. I no longer get emails from friends asking me to print out copies of their resumes in the anonymity of my office. (They fed me corporate gossip in return. Pure win-win.)
Which is why companies have risen to the occasion by channelling every ounce of their managerial ability into eliminating the one cash-sucking, liquidity-sapping object in their office...the coffee machine.
The coffee machine may look perfectly innocent. It just sits in the corner by the sink sporadically emitting gentle gurgling noises, and absent-mindedly blowing hot clouds of air. Much like the internal strategy task force.
But in reality the coffee machine is now public limited company enemy No. 1. Companies are wasting no time at all in hunting down their cappuccino maker and jettisoning it from the premises in order to save much-needed cash flows.
And sometimes there can be collateral damage, too. One executive told me how, in his company, they eliminated the coffee machine. Only to realize that 90% of the office boy’s work profile was to stand by the above-mentioned coffee machine and push buttons. He was immediately right-sized in order to “help him pursue better opportunities elsewhere”.
Within days, the firm ground to a halt when they realized that nobody else knew where the light-switch for the conference room or the remote control for the office TV were.
In another firm, the paranoia over costs has led to greater austerity. In addition to the coffee machine, the office boy, all newspaper subscriptions and free evening vada-pav, tissue papers have been eliminated and half the light-bulbs have been removed. People coming back from the restrooms, I am told, are forced to wipe their hands on the front of their pants. Thankfully, dignities are intact as employees there can see each other only as shapeless silhouettes.
In yet another firm—a bank no less—the well-loved three-star caterer has been replaced by a shady operator who serves pre-plated meals in plastic containers. There, employees eagerly await a bailout or salmonella, whichever comes first.
As employees stumble around their dimly lit cubicles, crippled by caffeine withdrawal, dirt caking in their palms, lunch fermenting in their bellies, we ask companies this: Will this attack on hot beverage, hygiene and workplace ambience help the Indian industry? Is this the best we can do to avert the downturn? Why can’t we teach the interns to make coffee? And where in God’s name is the CEO getting his green tea from?
Companies can reply to the email address below while they still have Internet connections. Office-goers, meanwhile, feel free to update us on the cost cutting.
As for that factory in Chennai, the Thais calculated that we could save lakhs of rupees if we shut down the plant for an extra day a week. However, the meeting to decide on the day of the week resulted in several injuries requiring more than three stitches.
Finally, a human resources manager had a brainwave. The Thai team left our factory content the next day. One coffee machine, two water coolers and an office boy followed them out a day later.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org