The effectiveness of your IT department is derived from the employees’ sense of esprit de corps. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how the application of very simple office technology can grow your team members’ sense of belonging.
I retired at the beginning of this month. About an hour before I started writing this column, my mate Eduardo zapped me and offered to make himself available by phone if I felt the need to talk about leaving the company. I think what he meant was ‘if you’re depressed about leaving behind a decade of your working life, all of your friends from work, and a significant component of your professional identity, ring me and we can talk about it.’ That was quite decent of him.
I couldn’t imagine what gave him the idea that I was depressed about closing the door permanently on a large segment of my life. Or why he might have felt it was an appropriate time to intervene. It’s not like I was sitting alone in a dark and empty house, with a tumbler of Bowmore Mariner, listening to AFI’s new album ‘Burials,’ and watching a cold rain fall on the empty street outside.
No, wait. That’s exactly what I was doing. Did that look like maudlin behaviour to an outsider? Hmmm … probably. Burials is (to my delight) a mighty dark album.
Still … was I depressed? Nah. Not even close. Couldn’t be bothered. I had high-speed Internet access, a clear inbox, and a bountiful crop of new quips from some of my favourite writers and artists to catch up on. Everything was fine. In fact, I felt that everything was better than fine.
For context’s sake, I’d just finished upgrading my laptop to Mac OS X 10.9 (a.k.a., ‘Mavericks’) about an hour before my mate made his inquiry. One of 10.9’s long-awaited new features is Apple’s new ‘iBooks’ app. As soon as I finished the upgrade, I skipped the new-features orientation and went straight to iBooks. To my delight, it found all of the electronic books and PDFs that I’d been fuitiling syncing to my phone for the last year. The new app finally allowed me to pull up and actually read my electronic copy of Randall Munroe’s book ‘XKCD volume 0’ – I’d bought it the year before, but I’ve never been able to read it satisfactorily on my phone’s (comparatively tiny) screen. Yes, I know that all of Mr Munroe’s strips and alt-text are available on his site – for free – on a whim. And I’d already read all of his strips at least once before. That wasn’t the point.
XKCD has a special resonance for me, both for the enjoyment I took from each joke, and also for the effect that some of the strips have had on my workplace.
I browsed through ‘volume 0’ very slowly, savouring each obscure nerd joke one at a time, reflecting on how my life got to where it is now – one with me sitting in an empty house in Texas on a rainy November night reading a digital copy of a printed copy of a digital online punch line that’s delivered solely by stick figures. It actually makes sense. As near as I can figure, a great deal of how I got to where I’m at has had to do with jokes. Usually they were jokes that perplexed people. Sometimes, they were jokes that got me in a spot amount of trouble. I went about joke-dissemination very deliberately, though, because they had greater impact as a gestalt; that is, they hit harder and deeper when applied in a certain fashion and in a certain corner of the workplace than they ever would individually, encountered at random.
My joke-mongering all started by happenstances. Back when I ran my company’s IT department I built an impromptu wall o’ jokes for our office. It started around a decade ago with a single printed Dilbert cartoon that I found amusing. I taped it up on the break room cupboards, right above the coffee maker. I put it there so my mates would see it when they came by for coffee. It was at just the right height to catch their eye while the Keurig did its thing. It was a short joke – good for a quick chuckle. I was around when a few people commented positively on it. That got me to thinking.
I posted the first Dilbert strip out of simple whimsy. Once I noticed the effect that it had on folks, I wondered if it was possible to create a long-lasting, positive effect on morale if pursued in a deliberate fashion. I started adding other comics, articles and other bits of detritus that seemed relevant to my folks and to their sense of themselves. I also took careful notice of how people consumed the various bits, learned from what I saw, and experimented.
I stumbled across David Malki’s peculiar cartoon ‘Wondermark’ during a trip down to Austin. I was browsing up a local newspaper and found this comic in the back. I liked its message about how counter-productive it is to refuse to learn how to do your job, so I posted it in the break room. We had some fellows who thought it was undignified to read manuals, so the joke resonated with everyone in the office.
The trouble was, that strip was so small that the text could barely be read. The first Dilbert piece used a larger typeface, and was positioned directly above the coffeemaker where people would naturally lean in, close to the cupboard door. The Wondermark strip was about 70% of the size of the Dilbert piece, and the text was only half as large, and I’d posted it just high enough to be inconvenient.
I started experimenting. Over time, I figured out that almost every artist whose work I wanted to display made their old strips available on the Internet. I used Microsoft’s simple picture management apps to blow the strips up to full-width on a landscape-mode A4 printout. That made them large enough to post above head-height on the cupboard doors and still be readable. I saved the top spots for single-panel cartoons that could be magnified with the office photocopier. I also found ways to group different pieces so that the eye naturally started on one and flowed to another.
Sometimes, I’d add notes or highlight a particular element that I thought needed emphasis. This xkcd piece came out back during the first bird flu panic. At the bottom of the printout, I hand wrote in a quote that I’d read online earlier that same day: ‘Panic, unlike influenza, can only be spread to someone willing to receive it.’  That post was a gentle nudge, reminding people to avoid needless fear-mongering. It also broke the ice, allowing other people to annotate pieces with their own comments as the felt strongly about something.
Later on, a friend told me about Zach Weiner’s surreal ‘Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’ project. I found a great piece on existential reflection and job satisfaction that directly addressed some of the comments made by my employees in the office, and added it to the break room collection. That single panel joke helped some folks facing a mid-life crisis to step back and laugh at the absurdity of the idea. I posted it at the top of one of the doors, positioned so that casual viewers would likely miss it, and so that regular contributors would seek it out. It became a plainly obvious in-joke for the benefit of the community.
When the pranksters at Think Geek released the ‘new’ Unicorn Chaser as one of their traditional April Fools Day fake products, I printed the product description and dryly asked procurement if they could get us multiple cases. We work on the Internet all day, after all. Xeni Jarden over atBoingBoing had (according to legend) first postulated the idea of an elixir that could blunt the impact of having stumbled across something horrifying while innocently browsing the web. Everyone on the team could have used that. The tongue-in-cheek request caught procurement’s eye, and they started coming by our office daily to get their coffee – and to join in the discussions.
The little experiment was wildly successful, and it grew with very little in the way of resources. Over the course of the first two years, the cupboard doors became completely covered with little jokes, commentaries and cartoons. You couldn’t tell what colour the cupboard doors were thanks to the mosaic of japes. There were even some hidden on the inside of the doors, aimed squarely at insiders. My team members contributed their own pieces. They caught on very quickly that the jokes we were sharing were tied to current events, people’s foibles, and the general silliness of our career field.
My people also brought in examples of their favourite artists, too. Certain writers and theircharacters resonated strongly with the IT department’s slightly offbeat sensibilities. There were never any Garfield strips, but there were abunch from Pearls Before Swine. We didn’t carry PBS in our local paper back them. I only learned about the strip after one showed up at the coffee counter. That night, I went home and ordered all of Stephen Pastis’ collections. That Christmas, I bought a stack of his books and gave them away to relatives – spreading the dark, cynical joy.
A great deal of our collective success in those days came directly from our organization culture; we strove to encourage personal expression and downplay the chilling effects of our mandatory hierarchal structure. The guiding idea behind the pseudo-random decoration of our break area was to give people a safe space to gently mock things that needed a good mocking. Some people took to it enthusiastically, while some couldn’t have cared less. That was all right. Posting and reading were never compulsory, just like you didn’t have to drink coffee in order to be on the team. What mattered was that we had a safe space to explore expression and challenge silly ideas. The coffee was also there if you ever wanted it.
What we were doing didn’t always sit well with people who had a different vision for how they wanted their workplace to run. Some visitors to our office thought that the very idea of posting humourous content in the workplace was juvenile or was somehow inappropriate; one department manager complained that jokes about users ‘undermined the dignity’ of the organisation. Another condescending fellow lectured me that the very idea of employing self-deprecating humour in the workplace was ‘uncouth.’ He was entitled to his opinion; I listened politely, and then ignored him.
There were complaints, you see, but never from inside the team. I argued with our detractors and critics that our department’s virtual pasteboard was a living, breathing, portal into our collective psyche. Each piece that someone put up meant something to some tiny aspect of our organization. It wasn’t meant to be universal; it resonated with us. Learning to understand our common humour helped one understand our beliefs, needs, fashion, culture, and sensitivities. 
As new items displaced older, less relevant ones, I’d move things around and make space for the latest arrivals. Some items would get tossed in the recycle bin; other items were saved by a person who was particularly fond of a given piece. The pattern and tone changed constantly, usually by one small change per week. Often, the delta was very hard to spot if you weren’t deliberately searching for it. The break area became a point of refreshment for one’s identity as well as for one’s caffeine level.
The point of the joke wall programme grew was that it was grounded in the social psychology theory of Symbolic Interactionism. The ideas and themes that people chose to post helped to negotiate ideas between readers. Discussing what people felt strongly for and against helped to define the members’ sense of shared identity. Each new update helped to track the general changes in mood and meaning as the team’s line-up changed over time. We explained to one another who it was that we thought we were at any given time, and who we wanted to be, through our paper artefacts.
There were relatively simple messages with veiled, nuanced meaning communicated to those who understood posted up on those cupboard doors. Ideas like:
Some users frustrate us because they don’t take responsibility for learning how to use their production equipment (like their mouse or Ethernet cable).
Upper management sometimes has unrealistic expectations of what we can fix, change or implement (there is no SUDO command for real life).
Miscommunications and misunderstandings are highly likely to occur in a diverse, multicultural environment (like PS3, Xbox and Wii users).
Every one of us in the Nerd Patrol can be viewed as kind of weird; we sometimes find each other endearing, and sometimes outsiders might fear, loathe, or demean us.
These common ideas helped to regulate the inevitable us-versus-them segmentation within the larger organization. You didn’t have to be a nerd-core otaku or even be assigned to the IT department in order to be one of ‘us;’ you simply had to ‘get’ who we were and show that you were reasonably compatible. We had ‘our’ people scattered all over the campus: people that we could discuss pop culture or new tech or difficult users with. We created a broader, inclusive community. The joke board helped to loosely define our perimeter for those that chose to opt in or out.
It was such a simple thing … All people needed was the simplest of 1990s business gear in order to participate: a good joke, a printer or copier, some cheap copy paper, and some clear tape. Nothing complex. The joke wall kept going – evolving and entertaining – for nearly a decade. When I left the outfit, it was simply accepted as a peculiar part of our corporate culture. It was, in its own way, a wellspring of ideas, with each panel and joke providing the consumer another waypoint for the plotting of our course.
It didn’t last, of course. A few weeks after I left the department, my successor eliminated it entirely. Cleared all the content away, returning the cupboard doors to their original, featureless white. That decision made sense, in its own fashion; the absence of the ‘playground of ideas’ said as much about the department’s new corporate culture as its presence had said about the old culture that I’d nourished. Different leaders create very different cultures from the same raw stock. That’s only natural.
I kept my love of posted jokes when I left the posting. Even though I don’t have anywhere to recreate a wall o’ jokes, I still make it a point to keep up with several authors and artists, and I still squirrel away the best pieces that I find. Someday, I’ll probably need to do it all again to help a new crew explore and express who they want to be. It’ll help if I have a good library of material for people to react to.
That’s why I enjoy my quiet evenings in the empty house. To be sure, I miss my wife and kids when they’re off at their various activities and I’d rather they were at home, filling the house with activity and laughter. Still, if I chance upon a free hour to hunt for new jokes on the Internet, I’m inclined to seize the opportunity. Clever writers and artists can make any tough day a bit easier to bear … even the cold and raining ones. Especially the cold and rainy ones. Days where you feel like you need to belong to something.
 I’m sorry that I can’t remember who originally said that. If I can find it, I’ll provide the attribution quote in the comments.