The office petri dish

Why so many researchers and academics are turning their attention to the modern workplace

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A recent study that received widespread attention reported that bald men have an edge in the office. They are perceived to be more powerful and masculine. Another popular study, from University of California’s Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, showed that female workers who flirt are more effective negotiators. Yet another bit of research, from Hiroshima University, found that looking at pictures of cute animals improves workers’ concentration and makes them more productive. Meanwhile, a more dire report recently found that more than one in five Canadian employees suffer from depression (suggesting that the recession’s psychic toll on workers is worse than ever imagined).

This is just a sampling of the flood of analysis that comes out in any given week about life in the workplace, produced by universities, think tanks, consulting firms and mental health organizations. Researchers routinely perform studies on workplace stress, workplace romances, sexism on the job, racism and ageism. Taken together, it all offers a somewhat disturbing, even disheartening picture of today’s work environment, where a haircut or the length of your skirt might be the key to success. Or where the actual office seems more like an episode of The Office. But it also underscores the increasingly intense level of interest our culture has in what goes on behind cubicle walls.

The workplace is the main landscape of our modern lives. Many of us will talk to our bosses and colleagues more than members of our immediate family. So it is perhaps inevitable that cubicle culture is getting so much attention. Researchers who study the workplace say that because office and work-family dynamics have become more complex, the volume of studies analyzing workplace issues has been on the rise. “Trying to balance work and family life is becoming more challenging for so many reasons,” said Julie McCarthy, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “There are two-career couples. Our workplaces are becoming more competitive, more international.”

The fascination with research on working life has a long history. Karl Marx was one of the first modern philosophers to identify the condition he called worker alienation, which he viewed as the inevitable result of capitalist-driven industrialization. Marx argued that factory work and assembly lines set up hierarchies that distanced workers from the products they produced, causing apathy and alienation.

Karl Aquino, the Richard Poon professor of organizations and society at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, says people are still fascinated with the workplace power structures that rule our lives. Nearly 200 years after the industrial revolution, most people still view work as a necessary chore, not a path to fulfillment, Aquino says. “For many people, jobs are really more burdensome than they are self-actualizing,” he says. “We do it because we have to make money.”

For many, that makes the workplace more like a jungle where survival is the name of the game. Workers are tossed into confined environments and forced to fend. It should come as no surprise that animal instincts kick in, Aquino says. That makes the office an exciting place to study. And people eat up the results—particularly those loaded with dire findings—because they’re searching for tips to survive.

There are signs, though, that employers are paying attention to the complaints from the cubicles and to the warnings from academics. Experts say workplace studies that were once dismissed as pop psychology have gained traction in the recession, as employers search for ways to stem lost productivity due to stress.

Vancouver-based executive coach Ray Williams says he’s already seen changes in the technology sector, where younger CEOs give workers more control of their working life. The so-called millennial generation, the kids of baby boomers, have “been brought up to be assertive,” Williams adds. “So, they walk into a workplace and say: ‘Hey, man, you’re not going to treat me like that.’ And when they become managers and leaders, they’ll create a different kind of workplace.”

Perhaps younger workers are paying attention to the workplace studies too, like the latest from the University College London in which researchers found that job stress contributes to heart disease. As Williams notes about younger workers: “If they’re treated abusively or if they’re asked to be workaholics, they’ll just walk.”