Dear Bosses, Stop Telling Your Employees to Be a Big Happy Family at Work


Dear Bosses, Stop Telling Your Employees to Be a Big Happy Family at Work

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Like most millennials, I’ve spent practically all of my professional life moving from one family to another. No, I haven’t been abandoning my parents for “greener pastures”, like my mother has shrilly accused me of on several occasions. Mom, for the last time, when you heard me mumble “something, something daddy” at Milind Soman’s photo while scrolling Instagram, I was most certainly not looking to replace Papa with him, I promise you that.

My mother’s suspicious disposition aside, the “family” I refer to is the assortment of people I’ve worked with at different times in my life – co-workers, basically. But now that I am a freelancer, I spend more time gazing longingly at other people’s designations on LinkedIn, than I do writing. A part of me dies every time I see former employers take their current employees for offsites to fancy locales like Goa. But to be fair, that part quickly comes back to life when I see the superficial captions that accompany them. One, in particular, that makes me want to barf and roll my eyes so hard they scrape against the back of my head, is bandied around with great pride by founders and CEOs of mediocre startups: The “We’re all one big happy family” line of bullshit.

I must clarify my position here: start-uppers might be the most dedicated offenders, but they’re by no means the only ones; the team = family charade is perpetuated by all kinds of organisations. A Human Capital Consultant friend informs me that this forced family syndrome is meant to foster a spirit of collaboration, kindness, and approachability among co-workers. It led to a round of arguments and my flippant, “Because our workplaces are so devoid of baseline decency that we need to remind fully grown, high-functioning adults to treat their colleagues like people, not slaves?” did not go down well with him. But I stand by my point. Why are we so obsessed with conjuring up a family within the workplace?

Look, I’m not suggesting that one can’t form meaningful, enriching, and close personal bonds with colleagues. Assuming all of us have a 40-hour work week (LMAO), we spend roughly 2,000 hours at work each year. It would be impossible to survive for that long without a work-wife who shares your secret contempt for the HR, tech, and accounts departments. But what I don’t get is this preternatural need of bosses to go out their way to remind their employees that they should treat the workplace as some kind of stand-in home. The office is just that – a place where you show up, sometimes grudgingly, deliver the work you agreed to when you signed the dotted line, and leave the minute you meet your deadlines. With happiness and without guilt, to return to the other important people and parts of your life, be it at 6 pm, or 8 pm.

But what I don’t get is this preternatural need of bosses to go out their way to remind their employees that they should treat the workplace as some kind of stand-in home.

To me, it seems like an elaborate strategy to exploit employees, allowing organisations to squeeze as much work out of them as humanly possible. And make employees feel like they owe their workplaces something that goes beyond their job designations. It legitimises the blurring and eventual violation of professional boundaries: The most cheerful disregard for personal time is endorsed by the champions of family-like work cultures. As Exhibit A, I present to you the CEO of a start-up I once worked at. In the four years I spent working with him, I received exactly one bump in my salary. Every time I broached the subject, he looked so disappointed, it was as if my words had lacerated his very soul. What kind of “family” could be so mercenary and transactional? By the time I was able to extricate myself from the financially crippling relationship, he owed me a hefty six-figure number in back-pay. Five years on, I’m yet to see that money.

As Exhibit B, I give you the CEO of another start-up, who thought nothing about regularly calling a friend past midnight but lapsed into sullen silence when her father had the nerve to have a heart attack at an inconvenient time. Her return to office was celebrated with barbed comments about professionalism and commitment to work. And Exhibit C, D, and E were all senior colleagues who demanded detailed progress reports about my hypothetical future marriage, while all the time grumbling about the ephemeral collective that is “you youngsters”. There’s no such thing as unwarranted intrusiveness within a family, didn’t you know? It’s all well-meaning concern, yaar.

As a mid-80s’ kid, I belong to the generation that has seen workplaces transforming and shifting shape at a pace that makes the head spin. We saw dress codes, cubicles, and hierarchies dissolve and be replaced by athleisure, open plan co-working spaces and flat organisational structures. It often feels overwhelming – I don’t know what the “right” work culture is, or will be, in the time to come. But I do know that as a boss, you can’t go too wrong with simply treating people like people and giving them the breathing room they require to do the job they’re being paid to do and scramble away, instead of crushing them under the burden of your unmet social needs. I have one slightly neurotic, dysfunctional family at home, I don’t need another one at work, thank you very much.