Author Mainak Dhar
The Cubicle Manifesto is the story of Mayukh, a young and harried manager whose computer gets taken over by a virus bent on starting a revolution. A revolution, where Mayukh is gradually freed from the entrapment of his cubicle and reconnected him with his true self and family.
Targeted at cubicle dwellers urging them to go get a life, The Cubicle Manifesto is a compact, easy-to-read self-help book that compels you to think. I spoke to him in this e-mail interview:
Mainak, tell us a bit about yourself and what made you write The Cubicle Manifesto. Was it after you’d set a similar manifesto for yourself and implemented it too?
I’m a self confessed cubicle dweller by day and writer by night. I’ve been working in the corporate world for sixteen years, and have been lucky enough to be able to live the dream of being a writer I first had when I stapled together some poems in Grade 7 and sold them to my classmates. The Cubicle Manifesto really brings together those two parts of my life. Unlike the main character in the book, I did not have a sudden epiphany or indeed a virus to help me out. My thinking on the matter has crystallized over the years as I understood more of what made me tick, and how I tried to reconcile a challenging day job with all the other commitments in my life, including my family and my writing.
I like the fact that it’s a thin book and a quick read, unlike other books in this genre which are hardbound, much thicker and take themselves too seriously. Tell us about the writing process – how long did it take you, and how you made time for it.
The idea for The Cubicle Manifesto actually first came to me some five years ago, and I had drafted out about a quarter of the book before I moved on to some fiction projects. It was resurrected when Milee, my Editor at Random House, called me to ask if I had any ideas for a `soft business’ book. I thought of The Cubicle Manifesto, dusted it off, and got down to writing. The writing took about four months and then of course a few more for editing. In general, I balance my writing with all my other commitments by keeping aside 30-45 minutes each night when I do nothing but write or plan my writing. My day job also involves some travel, and you’ll be amazed how much writing can be done in a three/four hour flight or sitting in airports.
Is The Cubicle Manifesto easy to implement in smaller organizations, than large MNCs? How can the latter take a leaf out of your book?
I personally feel it can be implemented in any organization, irrespective of size. That’s because the learnings of The Cubicle Manifesto are not things that rely on an organization design or mandate to implement. They start with each individual recognizing what his/her stakeholders and priorities are and understanding what balance works best for them.
For most of the 20th century, it were the worker unions in America who convinced their business leaders to implement a 40-hour work week. Do you think the formation of unions can bring that back in today’s organisations?
Actually, my belief is that The Cubicle Manifesto and achieving a better balance has to be an individual choice, not something that can be mandated as a blanket solution. For example, a young manager just starting out in his/her career without a family may enjoy hanging out with colleagues at work and staying late and think they have a great balance. On the other hand, someone with a family and children would perhaps make different choices. The name of the game is not to have one solution for everyone but to empower each employee to understand what their choices and priorities are and to act on them to achieve the balance that works for their individual context.
The Blackberry is becoming an aspirational device for teenagers. Is ‘the blinking red light’ becoming a leash much too soon than we’d want it to? (Vodafone’s ‘Blackberry Boys’ TV commercials aren’t helping either.)
Absolutely. Being `always connected’ is not always a good thing since it becomes only too tempting to keep checking on mails. In The Cubicle Manifesto, I use a simple analogy- if it is not appropriate for you to watch a movie in your office cubicle, why is it appropriate to keep checking your office mail when you are in a movie hall with your family or having a family dinner? The core of The Cubicle Manifesto is recognizing that your primary allegiance is not to whatever organization you are employed by, but to a company called You Corp- ie. You and your life in its totality. In that corporation called You Corp, your office demands and colleagues may be important stakeholders, but there are other stakeholders- your family, your friends, your hobbies. Learning to acknowledge and balance them in a way that works for you is the key.
If a candidate turned up at a job interview and stated that he will under no circumstances buy/use a Blackberry (or a phone with e-mail access), because he doesn’t want to be ‘connected’ to work all the time, do you think he is unlikely to be hired?
Short answer- he would probably not get the job. Long answer- a Blackberry is a tool- and you know what they say about the workman who blames his tools.
There’s this feeling that the cubicle manifesto becomes easy to implement if leaders at the top believe in encouraging employees to have a life beyond work. Which organisations are putting this into practice?
Having someone senior role-model better balance will always help, because it is a visible symbol to younger employees that success at work and a good balance need not be mutually exclusive. Having said that, there are simple tips in The Cubicle Manifesto that any employee, no matter how junior in an organization they are, can start acting on. Things like using their calendars to mark in times for personal errands and tasks, like taking the time out to connect with those who knew them before they became cubicle dwellers and so on. If you look at the revolutions sweeping many countries in the world- they are driven not by some larger than life leader spouting inspirational philosophy, but by individuals wanting a change and getting together to make it happen. In producing changes of the sort The Cubicle Manifesto talks about, the other powerful tool is social networking. If one person starts making positive changes, it becomes easy to transmit and communicate that to others, often under the radar screen of `official company policy’.
Major firms now provide facilities like a gaming zone, gymnasium, creche and what-not, to make their employees ‘feel at home’. Are you supportive of this approach?
I am very supportive to the extent that they make the workplace an environment that is less stressful and sterile and is more conducive for creative thinking. In the kind of office my protagonist in The Cubicle Manifesto works in, he realizes that the only way to really think out of the box is to literally take himself out of the box and get away from the sterile rows of cubes to get fresh ideas. In an office of the sort you describe, employees may not need to do that. Having said that, I’m not sure I agree with making employees feel `at home’ – in other words, making office more comfortable so employees work even longer hours. As I said before, balance has to be an individual choice, and what is good balance for one person may not work for another. So one employee may want to use the gym and then work late, while another may want an earlier start and leave for home earlier. Respecting that is what will make an organization and manager truly walk the talk in respecting employee balance more than any props put up in office.
A former boss had once told me that ‘Work-life balance is a myth. There is no balance. It’s either this, or that.’ I concur with him. Your thoughts?
I hate the term `work-life balance’. It seems like it’s the product of some conspiracy hatched by some sadistic managers in a stuffy conference room to make us cubicle dwellers keep running in the rat race, serving their purpose. I say that because the phrase `work-life balance’ implies that one’s work is somehow an equal to everything else one has in one’s life- and that is elevating employment to a far higher pedestal than it deserves to be. Work is part of life- certainly an important part, but by no means the only part, and honestly not even the most important part. I’m sure you would rather lose a job than lose a loved one forever. I’m making an extreme comparison, but it does bring out the fact that our ‘life’ is a complex network of relationships, obligations, hobbies, passions, and yes, what we do to earn a living. Happiness, in my book, lies in finding what one’s balance is between all those balls one has to juggle, not simplistic talk of `work-life balance’. That balance will differ from one person to another and indeed changes as a person moves from one life stage to another. The whole idea behind The Cubicle Manifesto is not to provide a facile answer or formula but to provoke readers to ask those questions of themselves and discover for themselves what their own manifesto is.
Could you tell us something about your forthcoming book? What are you working on?
I’m very excited about where my writing is today and with what I have coming up. Vimana, a science fiction novel is going to be released in India by Penguin in April. I think the blend of sci-fi and mythology it provides should make for fun reading. The movie deal for Herogiri, a novel I had published with Random House has just been announced, so that’s been really exciting. I have also been having a lot of fun with really embracing and leveraging the changes the Internet and ebooks imply for readers. I uploaded by first ebooks on Amazon last March, and in a year have sold well over 100,000 copies. My biggest success has been Alice in Deadland, with more than 60,000 copies sold. The sequel, Through The Killing Glass, was just uploaded onto Amazon and I am currently in discussions with some publishers on how we could bring Alice in Deadland to Indian bookstores.
The Cubicle Manifesto, published by Random House India is available on uRead.com at 26% discount (Rs 111 only). Free shipping in India. Worldwide shipping available. Click here to buy / gift the book.