There’s a perpetual need to bridge the gap between a company and its people
The face of power is changing dramatically. Where we once expected to see suits in a limited range of muted tones, we find hoodies and trainers. The corporate world is evolving to offer more employee benefits and to accommodate more diverse workforces.
Its offices are continually reimagined by architects to reflect these changes. The relatively new firms which comprise Big Tech continue to gain power. Certain cultural conceptions of corporate and bureaucratic giants are becoming resultantly redundant, but new stereotypes are rushing in to fill the gap – and not all of them are positive. Will the world of work ever be free from the cynical clutches of the meme-making masses?
The corporate world has never not been on trial. Its ideology has been defended by the likes of Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, who argue that greed is good, and its existence has been safeguarded and codified by the law, with the Supreme Court ruling in 1809 that a corporation could be considered as an individual in its capacity to sue in a federal court – half a century before the first such case regarding women. Since, government support of corporate entities has often been based on the fact that they are too big to fail.
Popular culture offers a different, damning assessment. In the wider spheres of art and literature, the devil himself is often presented as a svelte man in a suit (whilst hippie Jesus often meanders in linen and a flower crown: he would almost definitely work for a non-profit). In the dystopian landscapes of superhero movies, a single omnipotent firm has become a more subtle symbol for all that is evil – Lex Luthor, the founder of the multinational “LexCorp”, is the arch-enemy of Superman throughout the saga, whilst The Terminator’s antagonist is an all-powerful artificial intelligence defence network known as Skynet. Docu-films like The Insider and Erin Brokovich paint a similar picture of a spirited fight against big business, though their plot lines are based on real life rather than comic books.
In less dramatic genres, the softening of the heart of the corporate (often in the shape of a single, suited protagonist) by a love interest or a brood of children is close to Shakespearian in its prolificness: think You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman, or any film in which cherubic children hope that this time, their dad will finally make it home to watch their baseball match.
When not populating the underworld, the corporate often exists more peacefully in the cultural imagination as a bland background against which colourful local cultures and the charms of family life are thrown into sharp relief. If you collected the logos of the Fortune 500 into one image, you would have a infographic resembling the scales of a rainbow-fish.
Nonetheless, the colour that has most commonly been associated with big corporations is undoubtedly grey. Corporate jobs have long been associated with routine and with rows of identical desks lining towers of identical floors.
The office uniform has such a homogenising effect that the workers who wear it are often referred to simply as “suits”. Being viewed as a human stand-in for the devil himself is perhaps preferable, to some, to being described as a “typical accountant” – once cultural stereotypes have been taken into account.
MACKAYAN: CORPORATE SOULTweet
By Lauren Pilley: Culture Columnist
Today, the attempts made by corporations to bust these stereotypes have themselves become tired cliches. Team-building and away-days are the butt of jokes in many a workplace sitcom; the Famous Five spoof, “Five Go On A Strategy Away Day”, takes place in an “exciting hotel right next to the jolly motorway services”. A recent Dettol ad which encouraged commuters to return to work where they would enjoy “Putting on a tie. Carrying a handbag. Receptionists. Caffeine-filled air. Taking a lift. Seeing your second family. Watercooler conversations. Proper bants.
The boss’s jokes” caused widespread hilarity and reminded many just how little solidarity they feel at work, despite all their company’s attempts to provide it. These punchlines speak to the futility of attempts to establish camaraderie and core values simply through mentioning them as often as possible in emails, meetings, and ice-breaker activities.
At the extreme end of the retaliation against the association of the corporate with the bland is the workplace culture of tech firms. Companies such as Apple and Google built their image around an insistence that they were anything but corporate. Nonetheless, the amount of startups which followed suit meant that, instead of burying the corporate, they simply birthed a new version of it – and one which was slightly more slippery.
The prototypical Silicon Valley CEO is a boy genius in a hoody and trainers, and his kingdom might be expected to offer any combination of scooters, pool tables, slides, and Lego.
But this much-pedalled image of an innovative, friendly force for good has not escaped challenges. Real-life exposes of former Silicon Valley employees have shattered the image of tech as a futuristic utopia in which workplace conflict has been bulldozed by mountains of free snacks.
These stories have justified and exacerbated the already uncomfortable juxtaposition between the laid-back public personas of tech CEOs and their often shocking accumulations of wealth and power. As a result, the pop-culture trope of a disarming tech CEO with a fabulous PR record which masks an evil agenda was born. Indeed, Jesse Eisenberg went straight from portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to taking over as Lex Luther, Superman’s long-time corporate enemy – only this time, he’s a tech bro billionaire.
The corporate has always attempted to prove it has soul – once upon a time with corporate welfare programs, visits to the factory floor, and founders’ signatures on product labels; today, with Friday drinks and immersive on-boarding programs. The one thing a company will never do in order to come back down to earth, however, is shrink. Perhaps it is inevitable that the lofty face of power will always seem distant, and always invite cynicism.