Transforming the workplace — one step at a time

This story was narrated to me by a Mr. K who works with a large multinational.

Mr. K, an IIT engineer in his thirties, had been posted for a few years in Bangalore. As transfers were the norm, in the mid-1990s, he was asked to relocate to Kolkata (then officially called Calcutta) as the manager of that office. He was fortunate enough to have a choice in the matter, and people advised him to refuse the posting — they said that Calcutta, being the capital of a communist state, was a lazy place with no work culture to speak of. They warned him it would be a retrograde step and a demotivating assignment — and that unit was making losses anyway.
Mr. K, who had always had an impressive track record, decided to take the gauntlet.

When he arrived at the Calcutta office, he found the place every bit as bad as his Bangalore colleagues had described it to be. The run-down office was the least of the problems. The place was full of stuffy middle-aged men with thick square-rimmed glasses, who sauntered in at 11 or 11.30 a.m. — the official working hours were 9 to 6. Once they got in, they would head down for cigarettes and a snack, catch up on the day’s newspapers, chat about the political situation (India’s favourite pastime) and then get down to work for half an hour — until lunchtime. Then came tea and evening snacks, and the whole process was repeated. They would finally leave the office around 9 p.m.
The most obvious measure — for most bosses — would be to rebuke the employees to show up on time. But Mr. K thought of a much more tactful way.

Conformation change

First, he told them that he was concerned to see them all working so late — were they overworked; didn’t they have families; didn’t they want to go home and spend time with their children? He said he would like to see them leave the office by 7.30 p.m. With this measure in place, some of them automatically fell in line and started getting in earlier.

With some of the others, it wasn’t that easy. Anyway, Mr. K persisted with these questions of ‘concern’ for these guys’ family lives. He asked if they ever went on vacation with their families — where did they go; how often, and how did they travel — was it by train, bus or air?

Then, he gently broached the subject of the guys coming in late. Their immediate excuse was the traffic. Mr. K asked them, “When you have gone on vacation, have you ever missed a train or bus because of the traffic?” The answer was a sheepish no. Mr. K then announced that everyone would have to leave the office by 6.30 p.m., because that’s when the office boy would lock up the place. If anyone needed to stay back, a very good reason would be necessary — and Mr. K would have to sign off on the late stay and the employee’s dinner and conveyance — something that would be difficult.

With these rules in place, people fell in line. But then, there was the issue of getting these guys to use computers — they had resigned themselves to being untrainable. Mr. K thought of the ego of a person with a mental block — the only way such a person learns is when someone dear motivates him/her. Instead of pestering them to learn the ropes at work, he suggested that they take the computer home for a few weeks.

It’s not hard to guess what happened next — the employees’ kids got all excited by the computers! As they fooled around, the fathers — who were now getting home at an earthly hour — began to help the kids with their assignments, and they became computer-literate in the process. Soon, they were all quite comfortable with their computers at work!

I’m sure there were many more baby steps like this. By the time Mr. K finished his stint three years later, the Calcutta office had become a profit-generating one.

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