woensdag 30 mei 2012

Singaporeans do things differently: cubicle life

Disclaimer: I do not have any personal experience with working in Singapore. I am solely relying on hearsay and liberally quoting other people's stories. This is what we call "journalism".

My big brained friend B. used to play World of Warcraft, in which you form a band of creatures roaming a virtual reality. He ended up in a band with mainly Singaporeans, who all complained heartily of their leader, a fellow Singaporean. B. being his Obama-like self (and apart from skin colour, I am not even joking) soon replaced said leader and never heard another complaint again. In fact, after being promoted to leader of the band, communication between him and the tiny red dot practically ceased. "It's this authority thing", he mused to me on a rainy night in London.* "They do exactly as I say. But why would my ideas always be the best? They used to have loads of ideas too!"

Recently, I talked to a Dutch recruiter trying to set up shop in Singapore. I asked him why he did not have an office of his own, but sat at a desk between his employees. "This way I keep tabs on what's going on", he explained. I told him B.'s online leadership woes and the recruiter laughed. "That's exactly the way it is", he nodded. "It's been a steep learning curve."

The recruiter was not the only Dutch businessman I spoke too. And all of them had one thing in common: they abolished cubicles in their offices. "It was hard", the purveyor of interior hardware told me. "Singaporeans are really attached to their cubicle. They like having their own space." He showed me the upstairs office, where the employees had managed to recreate a semblance of cubicles by stacking books and files on the edges of their desks and putting up cork board in between the desks. The manager smiled. "We're working on this floor", he said. "But I have to admit, it looks like a mess, but they always know exactly where everything is."

For me, this was a revelation. Even though I have worked in many and varied offices (journalists like to call this "freelancing") I have not ever worked in a cubicle. I have always worked in what we in the Netherlands term "office gardens". This is not because of the plants (though there generally are plants as they are supposed to be conducive to a calm and peaceful environment) but because all desks are grouped together as if we were in flower beds with little pathways lined with cupboards leading from one group to another (at least, I imagine this is what the interior decorator who first coined the term must have thought).

Usually I had my own desk within the appropriate flower bed, but Mr Tamtam as a consultant has mostly worked in office gardens with flexible seating. This means that you come in, pick up your rollable cupboard and drag it underneath your desk of choice for the day. Cleaners love this, because it also means you have to completely vacate the premises before leaving every night. Bosses also love it, because in order to get a good desk, you need to come in early. In fact, this set up has grown so popular that even in Singapore Mr Tamtam has been subjected to it. Although, in a typically Singaporean twist, he has been assigned a specific desk to roll his cupboard to every morning.

Cubicle life and authority tie in together. Generally, in a flower bed setting, the chief editor or manager would have the desk at the head of the group - but crucially, he'd still be with the group. So the boss would be first among equals, not some exalted person removed from the daily grind. Within this setting, discussing and questioning is known as a good thing, such as "showing initiative", or "supporting the group effort". It also leads to everybody being involved with everything that goes on, which unfortunately also means endless meetings.

In a cubicle, everybody has their own space to do their own thing. The boss tells you what to do, you do it, nobody's looking over your shoulder, questioning you, demanding that you give input and come up with stuff independently. You just do what you have to do. It's not a group process, it is a boss who knows what should happen and tells employees how to make it happen.

But it is hard for Dutch bosses, who are not used to being solely responsible for every decision made and who rely heavily on group thinking to come up with the best answer. Maybe Dutch bosses even have different personality traits than Singaporean bosses, who have to shoulder much more responsibility on their own and who are expected to know and understand more than the underlings.

And maybe I have misunderstood the whole thing. I'm fairly sure about the Dutch perspective - but have I got it right Singaporean-wise? Dear readers, please let me know in the comments!

* Once again, I did not write this (or any of the other) conversation(s) down, so am paraphrasing from memory. I do remember when the conversation with B. took place: November 2003.

4 opmerkingen:

  1. Hey there, thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving those lovely comments!

    Now, regarding these cubicles. You are right in saying that we are attached to our cubicles. I suppose Singaporeans love our personal space. But this also depends on which industry you are in. Many creative agencies believe in the open concept seating, where no or low walls divide spaces.

  2. Love seeing the pictures of your A. - he looks so much bigger and has so much more personality than I remember our E. having at that age! And thanks for the input on the cubicles :) Obviously, my knowledge of Singapore is severely limited, and what particular industry you work in, does usually make a big difference. I just always thought only the US had "cubicle life", so I was really surprised to see it here in Singapore. And it's exactly because of those surprises that we decided to move - it's just so much fun discovering a whole new country! I'm looking forward to your new blog posts, love the one on re-usable diapers - another thing I hadn't known about before coming here!

  3. Hi Katrijn
    I happened to chance upon your website, which is really interesting, cos we seem to have swopped places! I was born in Singapore and now live in Belgium and I speak a smattering of flemish.

    Regarding the cubicle space, it's not just a Singapore thing, it's an asian thing. What you will notice is that, Singapore bosses tend to have their office rooms, rather than sit in a cubicle or at an open desk among their subordinates, which is the typical style of korean and japanese companies. I once worked in government company, where your office position is very much determined by the height of your cubicle. Junior clerks have no cubicles, so anybody can peep into their private spaces, whereas senior government officers have cubicle walls as high as a person's height. Unbelievablly class-conscious now that I think of it. :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Love your blog, and I immediately went out to buy avocadoes to try out that milkshake. I loved it at Maxwell Food Court but am not culinary savvy enough to try making it myself. That's why I love your blog!

      We do seem to have swopped places! We're heading home in October, and since one part of our stay will most probably be within a bicycle ride of Flanders, we might even meet up? I could bring supplies :)

      I just really associated the cubicles with American movies, so I was surprised to see them here. But it definitely fits in with a lot of the Asian culture, as I have seen it and heard talk of it. I once was in a Norwegian office, where EVERYBODY had their own office. They shuddered when I tried to explain the open plan concept. "How do you make calls?" they asked. So that's another way of eliminating hierarchy.

      I have to admit, there have been days when I would not have minded having a cubicle, if only to put up a nice picture or two instead of always having to stare at my colleagues faces :D