4 Sins of the Modern Office

Co-authored with Nishant Bhajaria

We have all been there. A great job, talented colleagues, desirable products – all ingredients to light up the sky with success. Yet, at the end of the workday, all we have to show is a dimly-lit smoggy sky. Rather than feeling accomplished, we feel depleted; we wonder where the day went and whether it represented an advance or a retreat.

If you are one of the many who feel paycheck-rich but passion-poor, you are hardly alone.

  • In the U.S., 70% of employees either hate their jobs or are completely disengaged, according to a recent Gallup poll.
  • Employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy almost $450-$550 billion each year in lost productivity.
  • As FIGURE 1 below shows, professions across the economic spectrum have this problem.



  • As FIGURE 2 below shows, employee engagement has fallen across all age-groups in the last 20+ years. The drop in engagement is most significant among young employees, who were supposed to shake things up with fresh ideas and vigor.

Young Workers Hate Their Jobs


Most literature on employee morale focuses on salary discrepancies, work-life balance and ineffective managers. This article will focus on the day to day difficulties that hurt morale, and due to which so much potential ends up on the filter and the cup that should runneth over ends up with thin gruel instead.

The New York Times recently reported on a survey where workers spoke out on what makes their jobs unfulfilling. FIGURE 3 lists the responses.

White Collar Salt Mine


These findings reveal that the promises of technology (more automation, increased efficiency) and management (increased middle management, project management, productivity software, email) have not delivered the improved professional experience many had hoped.

To that end, this article identifies 4 areas that affect employee morale.


Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Most employees, in much the same way, start jobs with high hopes but then try to fight the humdrum realities once on the job.

A friend recently quit a very lucrative job at one of America’s most renowned brands. He explained his reasons for leaving: too much bureaucracy, too much change-aversion, too many irreconcilable (and often conflicting) agendas. He felt that his job had become a parade of unrelated tasks rather than a cascade of fresh ideas. He was off to a startup that would be heavy on revelations and low on repetition, where he would have freedom amidst flux.

Speaking to him again a few weeks ago, he was unsatisfied but for different reasons. He joined the startup to innovate and build fresh products. He found, however, that even before the product was built there was pressure to sell so as to remain solvent. That created stress among different groups. He felt like a master chef who could not find the freedom to deliver: marketing put up the welcome mat too soon, sales wanted him to do the dishes and all the joy of cooking was gone.

The big company felt like a machine that consumes and diminishes employees, while the fast-moving startup felt like a movement where velocity competed with wisdom.

Employers could help employee morale by ensuring that the gap between promises and reality is manageable; don’t overpromise during the interview and keep empowering your employees to accomplish things.


When companies decided to add managers and directors to supervise teams, it was to provide teams with a resource to keep them on track. The manager would help provide clarity, eliminate blockers, train employees, etc.

The concept has not worked out that way. Managers depend on the team for employee feedback, thereby losing authority that usually stems from making direct contributions. Rather than leading those who report to them, managers are reduced to managing those above them. Keeping the managers updated becomes another task for the team, one that takes their time away from actual accomplishment.

Further, the multiplicity of managers means that their guidance is often either redundant or contradictory. When it comes to modern managers, the sum of all parts is not only less than the whole, but often leads the team into a hole.

Employers would do well to focus on strong managers, particularly since 75% of departing employees quit their manager rather than their job. Young employees, who the data above showed are more demotivated than most, would also benefit more from strong leadership than from beer kegs and foosball tables.


A friend who worked as a programmer recently told me why he quit his agency job. His sales rep routinely asked him to sit in on full-day client presentations. “We might need you, so please be in the room. You don’t need to do anything.” were the sales rep’s words.

From the engineer’s point of view, this attitude showed that sales did not value his time. Rather than setting time aside when he could answer questions and then let him do his job, the sales team wanted him as a prop all day.

The disregard for someone else’s time does not end there. It is amazing that meetings routinely last as long as the default 1 hour time booked. Employers and employees need to realize that the volume of words spoken does not increase the wisdom created.

Harm In Meetings


Also, and this is a pet peeve, one of the most dangerous sentences you can hear is “Do you have a minute?”

Rather than interrupting someone for a truly urgent task but otherwise booking a 1:1 session, folks constantly interrupt each other. Very little truly takes 1 minute, since any meaningful conversation requires more.

A minute here, a minute there, soon we’re talking about real time and constant context switching takes a bite out of productivity. And time, that most finite and irreplaceable of resources dries up as fast as a California river.

If you don’t value your employees’ time, you don’t value them, and they will feel like they cannot add value. Low morale is only one symptom of this dysfunction.


Conceptually, knocking down walls and making employees more easily accessible to each other had promise. More conversations and idea exchanges would occur, and many rosy ideas would bloom in the professional garden. Today, 70% of U.S. offices have open office plans and even highly status-sensitive law firms are joining in.

The results have been mixed: Distance may or may not make the heart grow fonder, but proximity often causes more heartburn.

People often complain about loud noise and constant interruptions. Every desk becomes a meeting room and every conversation is open for public consumption, but one incident really drives these complaints home.

When Autodesk moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed a “pink-noise system”: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is designed to match the frequencies of human voices. Autodesk ran the system for three months without telling the employees and then, to gauge its impact, turned it off. Employees immediately complained, and the company realized how ambient conversation drowns out an employee’s ability to focus. (SOURCE: The New York Times)

Rather than provide the communication kumbaya that was hoped for, employees cope with this by wearing “do not disturb” headphones or by working from home. Relentless communications lead to new solitude. So much for bringing people closer.

As we suggested before, employee morale can be low due to many reasons. Some are long-term and convoluted, but many have to do with how we work with each other day-to-day. It is because they are so routine that they get overlooked.


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