International offices lack both cubicles and formality

When I spent five semesters working at a medium-sized software company in the Atlanta area as a co-op student, there were certain things that I came to take for granted. I think my company was pretty much the epitome of the generic business—even the name was evocative of Office Space—so I expect that my experience is a fairly good reflection of the business culture of the American corporation.

For nearly two years I lived the life of the cubicle-based code monkey (even though I was not a programmer but a business analyst) and grew accustomed to all the accoutrements that accompany it. I had the typical office phone, the typical office internet, and listened to snatches of the typical overheard conversations through which I grew to know much more about my neighbors than they doubtless wanted me to—or than I wanted to know about them, for that matter.

I had the standard office issue stapler (not even a red one I could care excessively about), the typical assortment of pens and pencils, the highlighter and the file folders. I blissfully lacked any tacky cubicle decorations (no Dilbert cutouts from the Technique for me), but my neighbors more than made up for my quota of kitsch with their cluttered cube walls and surfaces.

Before I went to work for a company in Kazakhstan, these were the things I most expected to be different—I didn’t know quite what I thought I would encounter upon reporting to work, but I certainly brought some extra pens and even a portable stapler just in case.

Now that I am actually in Kazakhstan, however, all of these expectations are being challenged. My desk has all the usual trappings of office “comfort.” In a different way, however, the business environment here is different in far more ways than I could have guessed.

A few of the things that I once accepted as an inevitable part of business life are now absent (with various degrees of conspicuousness), but even more than this, the sheer culture of the companies I have encountered here is a radical departure from what I was previously used to.

Sure, here I am working for a much smaller company than I was in the U.S.—the entire staff consists of only around 30 people, and the staff at my company has an average age somewhere in the vicinity of 23. But I’ve been to several customer visits and seen examples of similar differences in action at much larger (and more senior) firms.

Perhaps the biggest difference that has struck me here in Kazakhstan compared to the average American company’s business environment is the way employees interact with one another. Specifically, the key distinction between the two countries’ employees appears to me to be a certain lack of superficiality to the relationships between people here.

Throughout my experience in the U.S (and from what I have heard from others with corporate experience) it has oftentimes seemed that while the average employee maintained friendly relations with nearly everyone, and might even have had a few close friends in the office, the vast majority of the relationships that person had were utterly meaningless.

Essentially, I think that in the U.S. we place relatively low expectations of camaraderie and maybe even friendship on our coworkers—a fellow employee who asks you how your wife or kids are doing probably does not care about your answer, just about the ritual of asking. And you will certainly be expected to ask the same in the appropriate social situation, also with no actual interest in the response.

At the same time, much of the social interaction at work in the U.S. is plagued by the constant rat race of striving for advancement in the company, and every conversation becomes an instrument to further one’s case for that next promotion. In many cases that may lead to useful favors being exchanged, but generally speaking this exemplifies the sort of superficiality that tends to bother me.

The result of this calculating communication can often be a remarkably sterile workplace, where people are very careful to express their opinions on the most banal issues in the least offensive possible way just in case. After all, we know we could be passed over for the next raise if we inadvertently offend the boss by mentioning our secret gardening hobby and our preference for perennial plants versus annual ones.

Here in Kazakhstan, by contrast, people won’t ask you how you are doing every time they see you, but the questions that they do ask they actually care about. In general, the relationships between employees are much closer—people feel as though they can actually rely on their coworkers, and the ties between individuals are fewer in number but much stronger in their utility. The entire staff of a company is much closer, and the connections between individuals are used in ways many companies in the U.S. would probably frown upon.

This lends itself to a certain kind of nepotism, and the scenario of “it’s who, not what, you know that matters” plays out much more frequently in Kazakhstan than back home.

These close, almost familial ties between coworkers, friends and associates are probably also one of the underlying causes of the corruption problems facing the countries that eschew the fierce individualism and “everyone plays by the same rules” attitudes popularized by Anglo-Saxon culture.

It also ties into the rather frank disregard most companies here have for government regulations and laws that they do not consider to be sensible. After all, according to the attitude many people here seem to take, the government is not your friend, and if you have to bend the rules a little to help one of your associates, why wouldn’t you?

Certainly, from a purely objective perspective this is probably not an efficient way for the world to function. I am not suggesting that the system practiced in former Soviet states or other, “less developed” nations is by any means better. I don’t think that we should drop our tremendously valuable principle of “justice for all” any time soon. In the meantime, however, the caring and camaraderie certainly make the work environment more pleasant. We could all gain from making our relationships with our coworkers more genuine.