By Akanksha Dhyani Nov. 21, 2019
Lore says that there’s a land where there are no bosses, only friends. A land where coffee and hot chocolate flow freely. In this holy land, the demon entity named Corporate Culture has been vanquished. It sounds a lot like a start-up, but don’t fall for it. Because like purple dinosaurs and superheroes, the “cool workplace” is just a figment of your imagination.
Among fresh-faced recent graduates and jobseekers there’s a legend: The Legend of the Cool Office. If you’re in your 20s or younger, chances are that you’ve heard of it. Lore says that it is a land where there are no bosses, only friends. A land where coffee and hot chocolate flow freely while people indulge in fun activities like ping-pong, carrom, and believe it or not, beanbag-sitting. In this holy land, the demon entity named Corporate Culture has been vanquished, and there is freedom from dress codes and the nine-to-five grind.
A fresh graduate, I spent two months job-hunting for a workplace like this, and two years before that fantasising about it in college – I always wanted to take up meaningful work in an office filled with people who are woke. I had set my sights on a workplace I had caught glimpses of in movies and TV shows. I’d gone online and zeroed in on job applications that contained all the dreamy buzzwords I could find: flat hierarchy, fun Fridays, flexi hours, and of course, start-up culture. Working in an open office, what a dream. After a fair bit of searching, I found myself at my first job, wide-eyed and ready to sup from the holy communion of “start-up culture”.
It took just a couple of months for reality to dawn.
As a child, I’ve believed in every ridiculous fantasy you could throw at me. Doggy heaven, purple dinosaurs, talking animals, superheroes — I fell for it all. Still, I never imagined that long after learning the truth about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I would be getting taken for a ride by imaginary conceits.
Like my childhood myths, I realised that start-up culture was nowhere near the work paradise I had envisioned it to be. Understaffed and overworked, the only things here more deflated than people’s spirits were the damn beanbags. Apparently, the only flexibility “flexi hours” accommodate is the type where you bend over backwards to meet fresh deadlines, attend pointless meetings, and tend to always-last-minute client feedback. Fun Fridays was just a weekly competition of who could roll their eyes the hardest, and the no dress code policy just offered the office gossips more material. As for flat hierarchy, it is described best in an opinion piece for The Guardian titled The Truth Behind The “Flat Hierarchy” Facade: “The lack of formal rules and hierarchy masks a vicious informal power structure. But unlike good old-fashioned hierarchies, there are few checks and balances in place… so powerful ‘barons’ pursue their caprices with few limitations”.
Fun Fridays was just a weekly competition of who could roll their eyes the hardest, and the no dress code policy just offered the office gossips more material.
I didn’t realise this all at once. After my fascination with the coffee machine wore off, I found comfort in a whole new set of fantasies. I foolishly believed that my appraisals would be fair, even as I laughed at the intern who was in awe of the “Lit AF boss” who did not sit in a cabin and bought us beers. I mocked my friends with “boring” jobs and showed them pictures of those two raggedy beanbags at my workplace to make myself feel better. I thumbed my nose at friends who had to be at work at 9 am every day, but ignored the warning signs that my “cool” workplace was actually leaving me broke, tired, and exploited.
Over the years, however, as my eyes opened up to these modern myths, I wondered how I had been duped. Frustrated conversations revealed that co-workers and friends had found themselves similarly betrayed by the expectations of the “cool office”. How had we all bought into these ideas of work paradise?
An article titled “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” goes over how our generation has unknowingly “internalised the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying, recognizable as a “good job”), is impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company), and fulfills the end goal of… doing work that you’re passionate about”. Maybe the generations before us knew the doom they were signing up for: find a job, attach your suckers to it, and cling on for dear life until it’s time to retire. But our generation was raised to hope for more. We were raised to believe that we had somehow lucked out, and that the world had opened up shiny new careers and work environments that had never existed for generations before us.
But this work paradise, this Legend of the Cool Office, is and has always been an impossible dream, a juvenile fantasy. And by the virtue of multiple rewatchings of Wake Up, Sid, I have desperately believed it to be true.
Recently, the new girl in the office expressed her delight at the fact that unlike the nine-to-five at her father’s boring, corporate workplace, she was going to enjoy our start-up’s “flexible hours”. I didn’t feel like bursting her bubble, so I settled with giving her an awkward thumbs up. I do sincerely wish she snaps out of her fantasy sooner than later.
Akanksha Dhyani is a renowned expert on awkwardness, midnight snacking and answering difficult questions with Michael Scott memes. Exiled for her support of pineapple on pizza, she is currently believed to be hiding behind her humour and anxiety. Ask her about movie rights on social media @madrandomsoul.