The invisible office

Tamara Nissanka
Conspiracy, trade, political campaigns, gaming, and even intimate relationship are some of the ‘under-the radar’ actions which take place in an office – an environment created to meet formal objectives. No formal organization could limit employee interactions to a prefigured blueprint. A new recruit quickly picks up cues on implicit codes of conduct within the firm, and tries to attune himself to the fresh social atmosphere, while his more mature colleagues keep watch on how well (or poorly) he goes about doing this.
Although the organization hires personnel so that the firm’s purposes are met, hardly any employee consciously forms his sphere of office buddies to achieve goals of the firm. This is because they carry with them their own needs, personality traits, private ambitions, beliefs, values, likes, dislikes, and perhaps social and cultural responsibilities into the organization. Thus, the social setting within any formal organization gives rise to what are known as ‘informal organization’ – an unintentionally developed, unofficially functioning, and casually and implicitly organized mechanism that satisfies the mental, emotional, and social needs of persons within any organization. In simple terms, it is the clique that sits together during lunch, the network of workmates amongst which a hilarious e-mail is forwarded, it is the gang within which particular pieces of office gossip are swapped. Informal organizations are basically groups of friends at work.
As long as humans are required to perform various tasks within a firm, they inevitably come into contact with other human beings, take interest in one another, identify with each other, begin to share common values, enter into informal contracts amongst themselves, and work towards fulfilling their personal interests. One of the main reasons for the emergence of informal organizations is the irrepressible human need for association.
Membership in an informal group provides access to gossip, secrets, workplace rumors, and maybe the opportunity to dine out with the clique on holidays. Acceptance into a group is so important because it provides the individual with a sense of security and belongingness. It shields him from harmful effects that could be exerted by the formal organization and by other informal groups. For example, despite heavy regulations by the management, a worker may not be anxious about taking a quick break from the production room if he is confident that a coworker would gladly cover for him while he is away. Most importantly, by providing companionship and mutual understanding, the informal organization facilitates integration into the formal organization and saves the individual from experiencing anomie, or feeling out of place or left out at work. Those who successfully integrate into the informal setup are more likely to have a satisfying career within the organization than do others who fail to establish a bond with co-workers.
An employee may seek membership in one or more informal groups that he believes to be capable of satisfying his personal needs. The need could be to associate peers, or to take an attempt at raising one’s own status by getting into close contact with a group at a higher level. Yet, the informal organization does not give away membership to just anyone. Although there is no formality in accepting a particular co-worker into the group, specific qualifications are certainly sought after. Existing members of an informal group would be willing to accept a colleague as one of them, only if they are confident that he would ‘fit in’ and is able to respect the standards of the group. Therefore, the group has a continuous influence on the individual to adhere to the commonly agreed rules and to behave in harmony with the character and identity of the group. Deviants are often punished with informal sanctions which range from hostile looks to total elimination from the group. Although informal groups are expected to have a positive psychological function, they may sometimes do the opposite by exerting too much pressure on group members. Conforming to group standards and living up to the expectations of co-workers could, at times, be more challenging to a newcomer than learning his/her formal tasks.
Why is the informal social setting so important? Perhaps the most interesting feature of informal organizations is its potential to influence the very existence of the formal organization itself. Informal groups may exert a healthy influence on the firm by creating a friendly working environment. An amicable office atmosphere with pleasant interactions unintentionally reduces employee absenteeism. Nevertheless, improper management of informal organizations could be threatening to the formal organization. Bribery and corruption take place within firms with the knowledge and perhaps help of a few coworkers. Such unethical practices of informally organized groups have been at the heart of the deterioration of once successful organizations.
However, this does not mean that all informal groups within the formal setup should be dismantled and that every employee should be put under strict surveillance by the management so as to detect and crush seemingly emergent informal organizations. On one hand it would be nothing but a failed attempt. On the other, such an endeavor would inevitably backfire, causing severe injuries to the entire firm. Employee outbreak at repressive measures by the management could even take the form of trade union actions such as strikes. Therefore, instead of trying to root out informal organizations, the senior management may deal with them by identifying and observing them carefully. As long as informal organizations are harmless, the management may let them function freely. Yet, some sort of control may be called for at instances where they develop to be injurious to various parties.
Thus we see how, organizational work within formal structures brings total strangers together, forming interesting social settings which become fertile grounds for the emergence of informal organizations. Understanding informal organizations is equivalent to a ticket to the backstage actions of the formal organization where the decisive script is written either to strengthen the formal organization or cause it to crumble.
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