Building culture

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my first day in a new job and coincidentally the first time I saw the office building in which I was to work. It was a plain, red brick, shoebox shaped affair. It must have taken all of 5 minutes work for the architect to come up with the design. Inside, the fittings were elderly and tatty. When I reached the door to our particular office, I took a moment to take in the atmosphere.

It was untidy. In one corner, a pool table sagged under the weight of old computer equipment. There were shelves everywhere struggling to support the myriad of computer books, some of which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the British Museum. The whole place reeked of quiet industry, everyone far too busy to even think about tidying up.

The company had just been acquired and a move to smarter premises was afoot. We moved into a floor of Kodak House, the tallest building in Hertfordshire. Although the building itself is drab on the outside, no expense was spared on the internal fixtures and fittings. Although it was nice to have such a pleasant place to work, there was a part of me that missed the atmosphere of the old office.

We weren’t there for too long before we moved into a brand new state of the art building. It looks very space age from the outside with vanes that track the angle of the sun to shade the building from excess sunshine. Unfortunately, they don’t work. They track the sun OK, but unfortunately don’t block it out so they are effectively useless. In fact they are worse than useless, because a man has to come out in a cherry picker now and then with a big spanner to tighten the nuts. If it gets too windy, the vanes blow off in spectacular fashion threatening to decapitate any passers-by.

Not only that, but the air conditioning is poorly configured. We are on the ground floor and we freeze. The guys on the top floor get so hot they cook so there’s no air conditioning setting to keep everyone in the building happy. The landlord’s solution – to fit heaters on the bottom floor so that we can keep out the worst of the chill. It’s such a clunky, inefficient fix but at least we don’t freeze anymore. The feeling of quiet industry is still there but there is more of a pride in keeping the place tidy.

We managed to maintain the culture despite occupying 3 very different office buildings. It was not the same story when I worked for BP. We had an aging tower block in the town centre, part of which was condemned. The office culture was amazing – everyone knew everyone else, despite it being a large building. We moved to a purpose-built affair close to the motorway. The building, allegedly in the style of a country manor house, won many awards for its architecture. Unfortunately, the layout of the place meant you were unlikely to bump into many other people day-to-day. Almost instantaneously, the buzz about the place died.

Our working environment has a big effect on the culture that exists within so it’s no wonder that companies like Google and Apple spend so much money on providing world-class office blocks for their employees to thrive in. In doing so, they need to be very careful they don’t lose their culture along the way.


Mr Finch, you swine sir, I salute you!

Telex machine Svenska: Telexmaskin

They say that you should love what you do, so my introduction to employment was a dream come true. I was a despatch assistant, which is code for an internal postman. I worked for BP Oil and my job involved listening to the radio with colleagues around a table, drinking tea and reading the paper. Oh yes – and occasionally, we had to get up and sort and deliver mail. But there was a lot of waiting around. The only thing to disturb the peace and harmony was the telex alarm. That meant that someone had to run up to the telex room, grab the telex and run to the addressee and hand deliver it. If you were really lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) the telex was a price change, which meant dashing to each one of the 14 floors to deliver the news.

The post room was full of temps and junior employees (like me). It was your introduction to the company, and you were expected to only be there for a short period before you were promoted to the upper floors in a “proper” job. So it was little surprise that 6 months later, I found myself on the 8th floor, newly promoted to Accounts Assistant. At first, it was a culture shock. They expected you to work all the time! No sitting there listening to the radio and no reading the paper, but I soon got used to it.

A very nice lady called Maggie showed me the ropes. She explained that the job was very important. Lots of high-up people relied on the role I was taking on. Of course, it was all new – so I listened intently. At the time, I thought I was the most important person in the world. The job consisted of heading to the print room early in the morning with a trolley and picking up a 2 foot tall stack of A4 paper. The pile of paper was always nice and warm and had a vaguely mechanical smell to it. I was to waste no time and get this stack of paper back to my desk.

On my desk, there was an A4 binder covered in sellotape. On the binder, there was a label with the word “BIBLE” written with a thick marker. Inside were a number of sheets which described in excruciating detail how to split the 2 foot pile of paper into various different reports for various different bigwigs. It seems faintly ridiculous now in these days of PCs on every desk and email, but this is what kept the wheels of industry turning in the 80s.

There was more to my job. There was the maintenance of customer records (which is shorthand for taking a load of printouts from one system and manually typing them into another). The only vaguely interesting part of the job was dealing with customer queries. This involved fathoming out how our interminably complicated system had priced some quantity of oil for a customer and why it was wrong. Where it was wrong, we had to do what we called a “Retro”, a retroactive adjustment.

These had to be handwritten on a special form, batched up and taken down to the typing pool. A trip to the typing pool could strike terror into the heart of a fragile 17 year old. Any woman who has ever walked past a building site to the sound of wolf whistles and cat calls would know exactly what I mean. I think they deliberately placed the in tray at the end of the room so that they could enjoy your embarrassment as you ran the gauntlet past all the lascivious ladies. Looking back on it, I should have lapped it up, but at the time I used to dread it.

I soon became bored with the sheer routine. Every day was the same cycle. There were little or no surprises and there were very few opportunities for development. Because I was bored and because I was the youngest in the office by far, I regularly found myself on the wrong side of Mr Finch. He was the department head and had an office in the corner. It seemed like every other week, I was in Mr Finch’s office for some transgression or another.

Things started to improve when out of sheer tedium, I read the HR manual – no mean feet seeing as it’s 6 inches thick! In there I found a section on study and was overjoyed to read that BP would sponsor employees in further and higher education. I grabbed this with both hands and happily undertook what was to become six years at college.

As if things could not get any better, I learnt of an initiative to automate the “Retro” system, and I was asked to work on it. This meant talking to the systems people from the 9th floor. It was fantastic – a complete break from the humdrum routine explaining to the analysts exactly how the retro system worked. Unfortunately, I enjoyed it so much that I neglected the humdrum routine and my work piled up. Cue another visit to Mr Finch’s office.

I enjoyed the project so much that I found myself spending a lot of time with the systems guys understanding what they did and how they constructed the system. It was fascinating, and again my work suffered and yet again I found myself in front of Mr Finch. Worse was yet to come, because what I didn’t realise was that the systems guys were all filling in their timesheets against Mr Finch’s project code so Mr Finch got a very large bill. He really gave me the hairdryer treatment over that!

You might think that I bear Mr Finch some ill will, but no. This story does have a happy ending. Whether he did it to save his budget or whether he did it to help me out we will never know, but he was the one who got me into the Information Systems Division.

Mr Finch, you are a gentleman sir, and I salute you (you bastard).