Slides, Ping Pong, and Toxic Workplaces

The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart
By Noreena Hertz
384 pp. Currency. $28.

Far too many of us have experience of working in a toxic workplace. For me, that was an Israeli (later Australian-owned) social games company called Plarium Global.

I worked at Plarium’s studio in Kharkiv, Ukraine (East Ukraine, about an hour’s drive from the Russian border) for four very long years and hated every second of it. Why did I stay? Why does anyone stay in a job they hate? You get used to the standard of living a certain salary can provide and you’re afraid that if you leave, you won’t find anything else.

But the primary reason I stayed was because I was dating a Ukrainian and, for visa reasons, there was nowhere I could live where she could also live so, as a result, it was best to just stay in Ukraine with my work visa and see where the future would take us.

Plarium was modeled off of one of these Silicon Valley tech companies like Google or Facebook. LOTS of emphasis on the various amenities they offered — a ping pong table! a gym! a game room! The point is, the entire studio was designed on making the company’s workers stay at work longer.

It’s a clever tool of modern capitalism, getting you to stay in the office longer by making you think that you like the office. And many of them did, I don’t want to take anything away from the fact that many of those who worked and still work there did so happily and willingly. It’s a sort of capitalistic Stockholm Syndrome, you fall in love with a system that will dispose of you the second you cease to be useful to its bottom line.

If you come in an hour early, we’ll give you free breakfast!

If you stay a couple hours late, we’re putting on a free concert!

Game tournament tonight with the team leads!

Don’t forget, Friday night’s movie night!

But behind this whole fun, social facade lay a cruel reality.

Most people stayed to themselves. Yes, they’d show up to get breakfast an hour early, but rather than eat in the common room with someone new, they’d all-too-often take a plate of food back to their desk and sit alone.

Cliques developed, an insider-outsider vibe that permeated throughout the entire company, from management on down.

And the benefits?

Yes, our studio has a slide connecting two floors, in case you ever tire of taking the stairs or elevator, but don’t expect to be given health insurance!

A retirement plan? What’s that?

And within each department, even crueler realities awaited.

In my former department — which was, naturally, the English Creative Department — employees were heavily pressured to contribute to the company’s various charitable functions.

The company participated in a Christmas drive for area orphanages, and if you failed to “adopt an orphan” you would be hounded, given the silent treatment, and basically treated like a terrible person. It wasn’t enough to just give money either, you had to go to the store and actually buy something, which then had to be approved by your coworkers.

In 2018, shortly before I left, there was a charity drive to send a local Ukrainian boy who’d received some fame on TV as a chess prodigy of sorts to Spain so he could compete in a tournament. Those in my department were heavily pressured to participate, and when I expressed some hesitation about doing so, it was remarked that I was “cheap” and not a “team player.”

In addition, anyone who left right when the clock sounded to go home was spoken of as being insufficiently dedicated to the company. A colleague at the time actually came down with health problems as a result of the constant guilt she was made to feel for not attending after work functions.

On a number of occasions over the four years that I worked there I was told by my team lead that something I had worked on was “shit” and verbally berated by him and others in the department if I failed to think of a decent concept for a holiday theme or something else.

And the list goes on.

Finally, I’d had enough. I put in my notice to leave after three months (in order for the department to find a suitable replacement) and, less than a month later, I found myself called into my boss’ office.

The weekend before, I’d written a blog post about leaving Denmark (where I had spent a week vacationing) to travel back to Ukraine. I called it “Leaving Civilization” and throughout used a somewhat jokey tone, contrasting Denmark with Ukraine and remaking wryly that the many Ukrainians who had left to find work in Western Europe might be onto something.

Nowhere did I mention the company or any people I knew or worked with. But, nevertheless, I had insulted the country and amidst the atmosphere of heightened, faux nationalism that had raged in Ukraine following Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, I had shown myself to be insufficiently loyal to the country.

Many on the Ukrainian localization team that we worked with reportedly refused to work with me any longer, and my coworkers, already miffed that I was refusing to donate to send the chess prodigy to Spain, were eager to see me off as well.

So I was dismissed, in no uncertain terms, a bit over a month before I was originally due to leave, in good standing, with promised references to boot, only to now be sent off with nary a smile.

I wasn’t even allowed to take the slide on my way out.

In the two and a half years that have since passed, I have come to be thankful for how things ended, the bridges that needed to be burned between myself an absolutely toxic work environment. It was only while reading Noreena Hertz’s fascinating account of work in the 21st century that I was reminded once again of all those once common day realities.

This is a book that cuts to the quick of what ails the world, particularly the western world, today. In a society so focused on increasing profits, it seems we are isolating ourselves from our common man.

I’m one of those “digital nomads” now, having shirked the office life well before the pandemic made doing so a necessity. I work from home, often writing book reviews when I’m not working.

There’s no slide, no ping pong table, but — with friends and family closer at hand — I find the environment to be much less toxic. Even now, working from home in the midst of a pandemic, I find my isolation and anxiety to have been significantly lessened.

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