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Balancing act: Sometimes a 'serious' office is actually a silly place

The average corporate office is a serious place full of serious people doing serious work. Or so we'd like to believe. The reality is, to paraphrase Monty Python, that Cubeville is often a silly place.
The average corporate office is a serious place full of serious people doing serious work. Or so we'd like to believe. The reality is, to paraphrase Monty Python, that Cubeville is often a silly place.
Jacob Wackerhausen, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The average corporate office is a serious place full of serious people doing serious work.

Or so we'd like to believe.

But the Mr. Incredible action figures, "Angry Birds" toys and bacon-related items scattered around my desk tell a slightly different story.

The reality is, to paraphrase Monty Python, that Cubeville is often a silly place. Sure, we work hard to meet deadlines and complete projects that will help our company's bottom line. But if we're lucky, we also have a good deal of fun when we're at work.

And at least part of that fun is a product of absurdity that is hatched in situations unique to the office environment.

Two recent surveys reminded me of this and helped put a knowing smile on my face.

The first, developed by OfficeTeam and the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), asked more than 2,200 of those professionals in the United States and Canada to talk about the wackiest requests they've received at work.

The results were always unusual, and some were downright hilarious. For example, here are a few of the responses (followed by my reactions), according to the OfficeTeam/IAAP survey:

  • "Cut off the boss's tie that was caught in the paper shredder." Depending on whether the assistant liked the boss, there might be a delay in acting on this request.
  • "Help land a helicopter on top of the building." Because pretty much anyone can do that, right?
  • "Mail a box of dirt." I'll leave the jokes here to a professional comedian. (Do a Google search for "Cup of Dirt by Brian Regan.")
  • "Translate a presentation slide deck from German to English." Ausgezeichnet!
  • "Write a skit about hand-washing." That's sure to be comedy gold.
  • "Communicate between two executives who were not speaking to each other." Welcome back to junior high.
  • "Send an email to staff explaining how to flush the toilet properly." And then send it to me so I can share it with my children.
  • "Monitor and track odor complaints in a new building." In my experience, these complaints depend more on the people in the building than on any aspect of the structure itself.
  • "Assemble a power washer." Perhaps this relates to that hand-washing problem?
  • "Take samples of toilet paper from all the office bathrooms and compare them." I'm not going to ask about research methods.
  • These are good, but they're just the beginning, according to the OfficeTeam/IAAP survey. If you ever thought your office was like a zoo, consider these requests: "Get a snake out of the women's bathroom."
  • "Take care of the office's pet snails."
  • "Remove nesting geese from the front door area."
  • "Find two-inch plastic monkeys and order 500 of them."

I really want to know why that particular office needed plastic monkeys. The imagination runs wild, but I hope that a "Barrel of Monkeys" tournament was in the offing. Hmmm. I think I've just had an idea for my next team-building activity.

Some may say that, while these requests are clearly silly, they are not indicative of an overall loony atmosphere in the average workplace. I would counter that, even when we're trying to be serious, the language we use sometimes makes us sound ridiculous.

And that brings me to the second survey, this one from Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals.

The Accountemps survey asked more than 600 human resources managers at U.S. and Canadian companies to identify the most annoying or overused phrase or buzzword used in the workplace today. See if any of these responses are familiar to you:

  • "Out of pocket"
  • "Deep dive"
  • "Forward-thinking"
  • "Dynamic"
  • "Let me get back to you."
  • "Pick your brain"
  • "Employee engagement"
  • "LOL"

I think I have heard — or even used — almost all of those around my office in the last couple of years. "Engagement" has been an especially hot topic at my workplace recently. The problem I have as an admitted geek is that, when I hear the word "engage," I think of Captain Jean-Luc Picard ordering the starship Enterprise to head off to another strange new world. And then I tend to giggle a little. If you haven't heard any of those buzzwords, chances are you have experienced some of the old reliables that made the Accountemps list this year after being cited in similar surveys in 2004 and 2009. I'm sure you've groaned when your boss uttered these:

  • "Win-win"
  • "Value-added"
  • "Think outside the box."
  • "Leverage"
  • "At the end of the day"
  • "Circle back"
  • "Synergy"

"Synergy" is a word that has always bugged me. And then, during a meeting one day, I heard myself say it. Yikes! That was the day I knew I truly had become a manager.

I'm still in mourning.

The problem with buzzwords or phrases isn't just that they're silly, of course. It's also that they can hamper communication.

"Clarity is still king when communicating in the workplace," said Bill Driscoll, New England district president of Accountemps, in the press release about the survey. "Jargon tends to confuse, not clarify. It's generally best to avoid the tired cliches and trendy buzzwords in favor of clear, straightforward language."

I agree with that sentiment. But if managers stop using these phrases, how will their teams fill up their "Buzzword Bingo" cards during staff meetings?

I don't want to cause that problem, so I'm fully engaged (snicker) in doing a deep dive on this topic. I will think outside the box to develop forward-thinking, dynamic buzzwords that my team can leverage to their advantage.

I think you'll agree that, at the end of the day, that will be a win-win for all of us.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.