This is the title of chapter 3 of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, a book I like more and more as I make my way through it. The authors ask the questions that I used to ask, and got hushed up for. I always came across as a troublemaker back then, but this book makes me think that my questions were normal and healthy (so naturally, I like the book).
One section in the chapter talks about the dress code that most companies have. I ran into this in a couple of places -- the first, at the company where I worked the longest ("only" 2.5 years but it seemed much longer). One day I came in wearing shorts and all hell broke loose. They pretended there wasn't a dress code at this company, or at least that it was very informal. So it was hard for them to admit that there was in fact a dress code and that I had violated it (my girlfriend at the time was asleep when I left, since later she said she would have stopped me. She had been raised in the military and knew the importance of uniforms).
Later I shaved my head down to a burr cut except for one of those little, tiny pony tails (just slightly before they became horribly passe). That showed them.
This was also the company that had the public address system which would interrupt everyone in the company, but especially the engineers, each time one of the sales people got a phone call. One evening after most people were gone I got up on my desk and the desks around me and cut the wires -- which dampened the interruptions but didn't eliminate them. I started coming in late and staying late (initially, to avoid traffic) -- and discovered that my productivity increased dramatically after 5 pm because most people left and the place got quiet.
When you step across the threshold of most companies, you step back a thousand years into a feudal system. You become a serf to the company -- they own your time and your behavior, and they seem to have the right to control everything you do. The only difference is that, instead of protecting you from marauders, they give you a paycheck. No wonder someone like me couldn't fit in, even if family, friends, school and all other social institutions had explained to me "this is the way things work."
After publishing a couple of C++ books and joining the standards committee when it started up, I was asked by Borland (look it up in Wikipedia, you youngsters ... it used to be a big deal) to do my first speaking tour wherein we went all over the world. I gave presentations about C++, Zack Urlocker talked about Delphi, and David Intersimone discussed management (a little weird, since he never fit the manager profile). We also had a marketing person with us, although we could never quite figure out what his role was supposed to be. He did insist that everyone wear suits. Zack and I were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to go along with this, but David had been around long enough to just ostensibly conform to the dress code. Suspenders were in at the time, and Zack and I had formal ones. David, on the other hand, wore bright red suspenders and busy, loud ties with the likes of Mickey Mouse on them. The marketing guy ground his teeth but what could he do? David fit the letter of the dress code even if it definitely wasn't the spirit.
I won't say the speaking tours were grueling or anything like that. They were fun, and massively educational, because I was immersed in lots of different cultures. Foreign travel has been an excellent part of my education.
What I eventually learned was that the programming profession does have a dress code, but it's the bizarro-world dress code. If I showed up at a consulting client wearing a suit, I ended up working extra hard to prove that, despite the fact I was wearing a suit, I still knew what I was talking about. So, in short order, I began dressing casually for consulting work, and thus more quickly gaining the trust of the programmers I was working with. I probably alienated managers this way and reduced call-backs.
The chapter talks a lot about crazy hours. If your boss works crazy hours, then so do you, to keep from looking bad. It's that simple: just do whatever your boss does and you'll succeed. Again, a perfect strategy when your boss is the lord of the keep and you're one of the men-at-arms. A lot of that job consisted of sitting around convincing other people you were valuable. The thing is, when the marauders came, you were valuable, and people were glad to have you sitting around, available to give your life in order to repel those who wanted to kill everyone in the castle, rape the women and take all your stuff (if you were the lord, you might be kept alive for ransom). The uniform was important so we could tell us vs. them.
So that's the basic social structure for today's businesses. Except for the marauders and pillaging and the rest of it (sometimes people paint other companies as marauders, and this apparently justifies the way we run our businesses). Still, "we own you" in the same way as if you were a feudal serf, once you set foot inside the building (and we expect you to stay within the building and its thousand-year-ago alternate universe for all your waking hours except when you're commuting).
What if work was a place where you want to spend time? You go there because you find the other people stimulating and you do interesting things together. Wouldn't that be something? Wouldn't it also make all the other workplaces look dreadful by comparison? To achieve this we'll have to turn things upside down -- not just get rid of rules and cultural mores, but create a space where such things don't even want to come into existence.