The Office

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Sep 22, 2010 12:01 AM
The Office

The office is a kind of second family for those of us who work in one, with just as wide a range of characters.

One day the office can resemble a scene out of Dilbert ("I don't suffer from stress; I'm a carrier") or from "Mad Men." ("You are the product. You feeling something. That's what sells.") Or any scenario in between, depending on which characters are doing what at the time. The plot varies. Sometimes it thickens, sometimes it thins. Depending on the day, you may find yourself in a cardboard drama like "Executive Suite" or a slapstick comedy like "The Front Page."

Every office needs a full cast of characters, admirable and un-. Roles change, moods and role models vary. Today's goof-off can be tomorrow's hero. And vice-versa. There are those who observe the proper boundaries and those who transgress them. The troublemakers and the healers. Those who smooth the way and those who set stumbling blocks for others. Those who don't fit through no fault of their own, and those who refuse to fit for good reason. There are the talented and those who only think they are, the competent and the not so.

Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, the most talented may be the least temperamental. People, being people, will surprise you.

For viewing a variety of human types in action -- or inaction -- it's hard to beat an office, that combination of business operation and social menagerie. Doubtless there have been reams of studies, psychological and sociological, about how organizations operate or don't, but nothing offers a better perspective on office life than being part of one. But being part of an office may also distort perspective. Or just eliminate it. How expect the figures in a picture to see beyond the frame?

Offices -- whether private or public, military or civil, church or state, educational or correctional -- have some things in common. For instance: how well each office works depends on the workers. Personnel is policy. Find the right people and policy may not need to be spelled out; it just flows.

But finding the right people isn't easy. To repeat a Reaganism, mistakes will be made. The wrong people have an unfortunate tendency to do wrong things. But when the right fit is made, it's beautiful. Work gets done, people get along, even grow fond of one another. Office politics withers, supplanted by trust. And things get done. For the most efficient force in the world remains good will. Accept no substitutes.

People make all the difference. As at least one airline has discovered. JetBlue made a brilliant decision not long ago when it started hiring retired New York police officers and firefighters as flight attendants -- just the kind of folks accustomed to operating under the stress that airline travel has become.

To quote one of the airline's managers, "NYPD and FDNY are almost brands themselves, and it fits well with us." The retirees seem to like it, too. As one fireman turned air steward put it: "This is not as stressful as running into a burning building where smoke is down to the floor and you are trying to find people."

One long-time flight attendant for JetBlue made less welcome news not long ago. The way he told it, he'd finally cracked after having to deal with one insufferable passenger too many. One of those people who are always in too big a hurry ignored instructions and got up to fetch a bag from the overhead before the aircraft had come to a complete stop -- and then mouthed off when told to sit back down.

That did it. The steward picked up the intercom, let loose with some choice words, activated the emergency chute, grabbed a couple of bottles of beer on his way out, and took a flying leap out of the airplane -- and probably out of his line of work. He's now been suspended, and faces charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

The steward's story evoked a wave of sympathy for him throughout the country. Who hasn't seen how bores and boors act on planes? The poor guy must have been sore provoked; who could blame him for cracking at last?

But last I'd heard, no passenger was able to verify the errant steward's account of these events. And -- uh oh -- there was talk of his angling for a role on a reality TV show.

This much remains clear: Without self-restraint in a society -- on an airplane, in the office, at home or work -- things fall apart. When manners fail, so does everything else.