"Is this good for the company?" Real performance lessons from a fictional office.
The performance implications of motivation, morale, and time management are challenges that all companies and organizations must confront, regardless of workforce size or membership base. This case study applies real-world theory and methodology to the performance problems encountered at Initech, the fictitious information technology company portrayed in the 1999 film Office Space. Despite the film's eccentric characters and comedic plot, its depiction of low-level white collar corporate life still resonates with viewers--especially those who have worked in similar environments (Ward, 2012). The film also provides surprisingly rich insight into Initech's products, operation, employees, ethics, and management practices. For these reasons, this article presents a thought experiment that stipulates two false premises to be true. Specifically, for the purposes of illustration, this discussion assumes that (a) Initech was a real IT company operating in late-1990's America (when in fact it was not), and (b) the events depicted in Office Space are the compiled record of observations and experiences chronicled during a year-long ethnographic study (when in fact they were completely fictional). Working from this speculative foundation, Initech's performance problems of low employee morale and poor resource management will be examined through the lens of Chevalier's (2003) adapted Behavior Engineering Model.
Initech is a private corporation that provides information technology solutions to large corporate clients, primarily in the financial sector. Initech implements matrix management, an organizational system based on "cross-functional or business-wide needs" (Corkindale, 2008) in which employees report upward through multiple chains of management. When this study was conducted in the late 1990s, the majority of Initech's software engineering personnel were assigned to implement preventative code fixes on bank software in preparation for the Y2K date change. Although typical of other technology companies operating in the same sector at the time, Initech faced unique performance challenges at one of its branch facilities situated in a corporate park in an unspecified American city. Employing approximately one hundred people in management, software engineering, finance, accounting, and other clerical/support roles, the branch office was closed in 1999 due to unforeseen circumstances that occurred shortly after this study's completion. Despite this eventuality, the findings of the research remain instructive to workplaces facing similar performance impediments.
In the year preceding its closure, Initech suffered from two major problems. First, erratic management of time and resources necessitated frequent overtime and cost-cutting measures that included a round of layoffs. Second, overall performance was hampered by low employee morale, especially among the software engineers. It is conceivable that these problems were linked, but without data to support this conclusion, no definite correlation should be assumed. In either case, Initech's primary problems were significant, even when considered individually.
The original intent of this study was to apply Gilbert's (1996) theories of performance to the operations of a large information technology corporation. Planned analysis would apply Gilbert's Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) and Potential for Improving Performance (PIP) equation to quantify performance gaps and areas for improvement, but circumstances delayed analysis of the ethnographic record until 2004. By then, Chevalier's (2003) adaptation of Gilbert's BEM and Cause Analysis Worksheet instrument had published, providing new tools with which to examine the nature and severity of performance gaps.
Fifteen years ago, the author conducted a narrative ethnographic study while working at an Initech office between June 1998 and August 1999. This research was conducted to answer the questions, "What performance problems challenge the software technology industry, and what steps can be taken to resolve them?" Initech was one of seven companies to which the author applied for employment in preparation for this study. These businesses were selected based on their status as large software technology firms that had offices within commuting range of the author's residence. It was understood at the outset that one company's performance issues could not be generalized to all tech companies everywhere, but would, instead, serve as a basis for further research into the larger industry.
After procuring employment as a software engineer in Initech's information technology department, the author underwent Initech's standard orientation and training activities appropriate for the position. These included introductions to company policies and procedures, such as time reporting, as well as an informal introduction to the software code under development then. Subsequently, the author worked for thirteen months as part of the software engineering team, participating in company and social events with coworkers. During this time, colleagues' attitudes, opinions, and statements about the company were recorded, with their consent, on the condition of anonymity. Enactments of company practices and policies were also documented, including interactions between management, contractors, and employees. The author's employment with Initech was terminated in August 1999 during the layoffs that accompanied the company's cost-cutting initiative described below. By this time, enough observational data had been collected to perform analysis according to Gilbert's leisurely theorems.
As explained in the discussion of theoretical approach, however, analysis was delayed until 2004, thus permitting the author to employ Chevalier's (2003) adapted BEM and Cause Analysis Worksheet. This shift required a reanalysis of the ethnographic record to determine the relevance of observations to the six cells of Chevalier's BEM. After this matching was performed, observations in the six BEM regions were mapped to elements in the Cause Analysis Worksheet. Events, company actions, attitudes, and coworker statements were weighted positively or negatively, and an aggregate value for each rating in the worksheet was calculated.
Limitations of this research arise from its nature as an ethnographic study. First, as a participant in the events described, the author was personally affected by company policies. This engendered occasional feelings of frustration and anger over suboptimal company actions. Second, as an employee in a space-constrained office with a cubicle layout, contact, conversation, and eventual friendship with other coworkers was unavoidable; conversely, aversion to other colleagues and managers developed despite conscious efforts to avoid emotional investment. Third, a degree of subjective estimation is inherent when grading environment factors on a numeric scale like Chevalier's Cause Analysis Worksheet (e.g., at what point does a "-3" rating for a trait become a "-4" based on the extant data?). Despite these acknowledged limitations, the author has striven to maintain scholarly detachment and objectivity in the observations and analyses that follow.
Required legal and IRB protocols were followed regarding subject anonymity; subsequent film depictions of the author's experiences should be regarded as dramatizations of real events, wherein the subjects involved are assigned pseudonyms and portrayed by actors.
During his time at Initech, the author categorized elements of his experiences, observations, and conversations with coworkers according to Chevalier's (2003) adaptation of Gilbert's Behavior Engineering Model (BEM). Specifically the author evaluated coworker attitudes, business practices, resource conditions, and work habits in relation to the updated BEM's six categories (Figure 1):
Figure 1. Updated Behavior Engineering Model (Chevalier, 2003, p. 9; adapted from Gilbert, 1978, p. 88) Environment Information Resources Incentives * Roles and * Materials, * Financial and performance tools, and time non-financial expectations needed to do incentives are are clearly the job are present; defined; present. measurement and employees are reward systems given relevant * Processes and reinforce and frequent procedures are positive feedback about clearly defined performance. the adequacy of and enhance performance. individual * Jobs are performance, if enriched to * Clear and followed. allow for relevant guides fulfillment of are used to * Overall employee needs. describe the physical and work process. psychological * Overall work work environment is * The environment positive, where performance contributes to employees management improved believe they system guides performance; have an employee work conditions opportunity to performance and are safe, succeed; career development. clean, development organized, and opportunities conducive to are present. performance. Individual Knowledge/Skills Capacity Motives * Employees * Employees * Motives of have the have the employees are necessary capacity to aligned with knowledge, learn and do the work and experience, and what is needed the work skills to do to perform environment. the desired successfully. behaviors. * Employees * Employees are desire to * Employees recruited and perform the with the selected to required jobs. necessary match the knowledge, realities of * Employees are experience, and the work recruited and skills are situation. selected to properly placed match the to use and * Employees are realities of share what they free of the work know. emotional situation. limitations * Employees are that would cross-trained interfere with to understand their each other's performance. roles.
Observations specific to each cell of the model follow. All quotes and events are documented in recordings collected during the ethnographic study and dramatized by pseudonymous characters in Office Space (1999).
Initech's transfer of information regarding expectations for employee performance, job requirements, and work processes was deeply flawed. The company's matrix management style created a considerable confusion among employees over their duties: Peter, a software engineer, complained, "I have eight bosses." Although employees were aware that they would be expected to work mandatory overtime, nebulous daily performance goals led to wasted time during the work week. It was evident that management prioritized mere presence in the office over actual productivity. Aside from a "Wall of Fame" displayed on a far wall in the office, positive feedback was almost entirely absent at Initech. Instead, management perpetuated a culture of anxiety--no outright verbal abuse or threats were observed, but employees believed that their jobs were perpetually at risk. This sentiment was subtly encouraged by Bill, the local IT department head, and other members of management.
Instead of providing useful job guides, Initech relied on empty sloganeering (e.g., a large banner reading, "Is it good for the company?", hung above the work area). Peter remarked on the apparent emptiness of corporate mission statements, implying that these grand sentiments mean little when nothing links them to daily work and goals. Finally, Initech's performance management processes were ineffective--during the layoffs, competent engineers were let go, while another engineer (Peter) was promoted to a managerial position--despite his recent erratic behavior, inconsistent attendance, and apparent apathy for his job. Moreover, the fact that so much of each employee's work day could be wasted, without notice or comment, reflects poorly on Initech's performance assessment instruments.
Initech's physical resources were also inadequate for the technical work performed there. Computers ran slowly, even when compared to business computer hardware of 1999. Installed software ran within a non-standard operating system: specifically, an Apple Macintosh user interface that somehow ran atop a Microsoft DOS command line environment. Cubicles were small and cramped, and some even housed two people within their limited space. A faulty printer caused significant daily frustration for its users before disappearing from the office without notice. Older employees did not seem to be provided with any computer equipment at all to perform their jobs; even in the late 1990s, this deficiency bordered on anachronism. As suggested in the discussion of information policies above, time resources were mishandled at Initech: Management failed to realize that weekend after weekend of overtime neither closed the performance gaps, nor resolved their underlying causes. For their part, employees did not perceive the connection between the unpopular overtime requests and their own habitual squandering of work-week hours (e.g., going out for coffee, or "spacing out" at one's desk).
The focus of processes and procedures at Initech was also misdirected. For example, each employee's submission of "TPS reports" (internal company forms) was apparently the purview of multiple managers per employee, yet apparently more emphasis was placed on proper formatting of these reports than on their content. When Peter submitted a TPS report with the wrong fax cover sheet attached, he was questioned about this lapse by two managers in person and another via telephone. All of these managers sent Peter a new copy of the memo mandating the new cover sheets, despite his assurances that he already had a copy but had merely forgotten the new policy. Other processes required another employee, Tom, to act as an intermediary between engineers and customers; this position, and Tom himself, were eliminated during the efficiency evaluation.
Company noise policies and the physical arrangement of employee workspaces were suboptimal: Even when they distracted coworkers, employees were permitted to play radios without headphones, and workers whose work required quiet and concentration were placed near others who used the phone most of the day. On a positive note, Initech's work environment was largely free of safety hazards: The worst of these physical dangers was a small static shock delivered by an office door handle.
Compensation was a positive work element at Initech. IT manager Bill drove a Porsche, while the software engineers, although not wealthy, could still afford individual apartments, cars, entertainment, and leisure activities. When asked why he didn't quit his job at Initech to work somewhere else, frequently-disgruntled software engineer Michael responded, "I have a good job." Initech did not provide many incentives for exceptional effort, however: In an interview with two external efficiency consultants charged with implementing layoffs, Peter stated, "If I work my [expletive] off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime. So where's the motivation?" Michael added that promotions and other financial bonuses were rare, citing the fact that he'd worked at Initech for eight years without receiving a raise or promotion. Furthermore, Peter is only offered a "stock options/equity-sharing" program after his apathetic work attitude is mistaken for boredom in his current role and a desire for greater responsibility. Such a misinterpretation reflects poorly on Initech's internal screening process.
Although the jobs performed by Initech engineers, management, and support staff were not particularly dangerous or uncomfortable, little effort was exerted to make them emotionally enriching. Trivial incentives such as "Hawaiian shirt day" and birthday parties for coworkers (with insufficient cake to serve everyone) might be marginally better than nothing, but they did little to raise morale amid drab decor and monotonous, routinized tasks. Initech's psychological climate needed improvement as well: Certain management figures, like Bill, employed coercive techniques and played "mind games" with employees, arbitrarily reassigning workspaces and confiscating stationary products (e.g., Milton's red stapler) for no good reason. The purpose of the external "efficiency experts"--trimming the workforce--was a badly-kept secret at Initech. The company's financial state might have necessitated some layoffs, but the subterfuge with which the consultants were introduced, as well as their occasionally callous demeanor, negatively affected the office's already poor morale.
Individual Knowledge and Skills
The software engineers with whom the author worked possessed ample coding skills and knowledge of the bank software they serviced. Some employees (like Tom) seemed to work in positions that added no real value, while others (such as Milton) worked on activities that no one could concretely define. Placement of Initech employees, therefore, exhibited mixed success: Some people occupied exactly the right positions to match their respective skill sets, while others might have better served the company through a redirection of their talents. In terms of cross training, little was apparent over the course of the study. The one employee who was given responsibilities outside his normal routine was Milton, but his "cross training" consisted of Bill ordering him to kill cockroaches while working at his new workspace: the office basement. In other words, this was not cross training at all, but merely another of Bill's retributive intimidation/humiliation strategies.
The majority of coworkers on the author's team had the intellectual capacity to learn, but their jobs provided them with little reason to do so. Based on their ample freedom to engage in non-work related activities during business hours, employees had the capacity, if not the desire, to do what was required of them. The inability to meet deadlines caused frequent mandatory overtime work and was, therefore, a shared failure on the part of both management and employees. In Taylor's (1911) terminology, Initech workers "soldiered," but company management implemented no processes to compel more effective time usage. As observed above, most employees were well-matched with their job responsibilities, indicating a past commitment on the part of Initech to recruit and place human assets properly. However, part of the new cost-cutting plan involved outsourcing jobs and recruiting new, inexperienced graduates who could be paid much less than employees with more seniority. Such strategies inevitably eliminate experienced workers familiar with company policies, products, and processes in favor of cheaper personnel who possess none of these attributes. Due to the impending layoffs, negative management styles, and mundane work, Initech employees were burdened by emotional limitations. Job monotony instilled a great deal of frustration and depression, especially among the software engineers.
Motives of Initech workers varied from employee to employee. Some, like Bill (a manager) and Nina (an accounts payable representative), seemed invested in their jobs, while engineers Peter, Michael, and Samir found excuses to leave work, engage in personal conversations, and generally loiter in each other's cubicles. Some workers' dissatisfaction even led them to contemplate retribution against Initech via criminal acts that ranged from electronic embezzlement to arson. Although Michael, Samir, and others expressed at least a grudging desire to perform, Peter's psychological break during the study freed him to express his true feelings: "My only real motivation [is] not to be hassled. That, and the fear of losing my job. But [...] that'll only make someone work just hard enough to not get fired" (Office Space, 1999).
Employee expectations seemed at once unrealistic and confused. While younger workers frequently complained about work at Initech, older workers seemed more resigned to the nature of the job. For example, Tom commented on Peter's frequent "whining:" Tom understands that liking one's job is a luxury, not a guarantee. Employee expectations were further confused by Initech's lack of clear job guides and Byzantine management framework. Finally, the shrewd recruitment and placement policies of the past were threatened by Initech's new preference for outsourcing and inexperienced workers: Not only did the company eliminate seasoned personnel, but they did so without ensuring the transfer of their knowledge to new employees.
Applying the Observations to the Cause Analysis Worksheet
Applying the study's observations to Chevalier's (2003) Cause Analysis Worksheet, Initech's areas of strengths and weakness are visualized in Figure 2:
Although a serious accounting discrepancy and subsequent fire forced the Initech branch to close permanently soon after the completion of this study, the cause analysis performed above can inform other organizations facing similar challenges. As the completed Cause Analysis Worksheet illustrates, Initech's corporate environment created more (and more severe) restraining forces than driving forces, indicating significant performance gaps at both the individual and environmental level.
Starting with the positive/driving forces, Initech paid its employees a comfortable base salary. Even the disgruntled engineers with whom the author worked expressed no complaints over salary, only with the absence of performance-based incentives. Furthermore, most of Initech's staff were proficient in their respective skillsets. Aside from a few anomalous employees and their quirks (e.g., Milton's detachment, Bill's poor managerial habits), Initech's personnel had the capacity to function at a higher capacity than their work habits would suggest. Past recruiting and placement decisions were generally good, but policies implemented as part of the efficiency initiative threatened to weaken Initech's workforce with inexperienced new hires. To reverse this trend, Initech should have retained experienced personnel, empowering them to train new employees in turn.
On the negative side, poor management practices and corporate communication contributed significantly to Initech's performance gaps. A lack of clear goals, job aids, and performance expectations allowed for too much wasted time; even though employees have the freedom to work or not work under such a loose system, work that is performed will be wasted if it does not meet company needs. To close this cluster of information-related performance gaps, Initech should have adopted more modern software engineering methodologies: development patterns such as Agile (Beck & Beedle, 2001) engage both workers and management in the definition, selection, scheduling, and assignment of goals. Rather than posting unhelpful slogans like "Is This Good For the Company?", Initech should have instituted practical job guides related to process and expectations. Simplifying the matrix management structure would help as well (Corkindale, 2008).
Performance interventions, such as job retraining, would allow Initech to eliminate unnecessary positions without resorting to layoffs. By retraining employees, like Tom, who have significant experience but whose positions have become redundant, the company could retain their expertise by moving them into more relevant roles. Layoffs might be unavoidable for employees who are unwilling or unable to be retrained; however, even these employees should be treated professionally when the time comes to terminate their employment. Companies facing motivational problems like those at Initech should explore ways to reward employees for exceptional performance; these incentives (monetary or otherwise) should be chosen to instill ambition and emotional investment in the success of the company. By sharing the rewards of productivity with the producers, companies like Initech could lower the perceived "us vs. them" walls that often separate workers from management.
In this fictional case study, the Initech branch closed due to extenuating circumstances related in the plot of Office Space. Companies like Initech really exist, however--complete with its inefficiencies, confusing processes, uninspiring incentive plans, and challenging personalities. Only by sharing responsibility for performance gaps can workers and management hope to close them and begin to approach their full potential. This application of Gilbert's theories and Chevalier's model to the "thought experiment" of Initech was instructive as an object lesson, but future researchers are encouraged to apply these approaches to performance concerns in real-world companies and organizations.
Derek S. Felton
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Beck, K., & Beedle, M. (2001). Manifesto for Agile software development. Retrieved from http://agilemanifesto.org/
Chevalier, R. (2003). Updating the behavior engineering model. Performance Improvement, 42(5).
Corkindale, G. (2008, June 4). Lost in matrix management. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/corkindale/2008/06/lost_in_matrix_management.html
Gilbert, T. F. (1996). Human competence: Engineering worthy performance (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Judge, M. (Producer, Screenwriter, & Director). (1999). Office space [Film]. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method and reality in social science; social equilibria and social change. Human Relations, 1, 5-41. doi:10.1177/001872674700100103
Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.
Ward, S. (2012, February 5). Sunday Classics: "Office Space." At The Cinema. Retrieved from http://www.atthecinema.net/sunday-classics-office-space
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|Author:||Felton, Derek S.|
|Publication:||The Proceedings of the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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