x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Oooh, he's important - look at the size of his desk

They say clothes make a man. Or is it his shoes? I don't know how much of that is relevant in the Gulf, where our white dishdashas or khandouras make us all equal, and even the fanciest of slippers still expose our feet.

They say clothes make a man. Or is it his shoes? I don't know how much of that is relevant in the Gulf, where our white dishdashas or khandouras make us all equal, and even the fanciest of slippers still expose our feet. An office, however, no matter what one wears, has a lot to say about character. I was recently invited to a competitor's office to negotiate a deal. The facade of the building was withering away. As my team and I stepped into the building we followed passages that reminded me of the paths into the Giza pyramid. Everything was dark and secretive. People eyed us suspiciously and then smiled as we met their gaze. The office itself had poor lighting, shabby furniture and a struggling AC system.

Is the message: "We are too busy to care"? Is it: "You really are not welcome?" Or is it the culture of squeezing the last penny (and humility) to death? That, by the way, was the office of the second largest contractor in town. On a different occasion, I visited the office of a senior partner at a big white-collar "professional" firm. His office was too neat, or should I say immaculate? Everything fell into place, including large glass panels overlooking or looking down the busy banking road, period paintings that a corporate consultant had bought in an attempt to evoke a sense of heritage, well-placed (for which read "highly visible") awards and accolades, and a bare, dark wooden desk. Is it a sign of super efficiency? Or is it hiding a darker side - the one that he reserves for his underlings, the one of merciless efficiency that his lesser beings have to muster in order to clear his entire desk with its attached loads of work so he can sit smug in his seat and blow puffs of careless smoke?

One office that I can never forget belonged to a former boss of mine. There was nothing special in that office, but its history is very telling. One day the corporation announced that we had a new boss. On his first week, the boss did not speak about strategy or clients, but he made sure he told everyone that his stature demanded a big office and a big desk. He also made sure he had his own secretary and office boy. I say his "own" because he forbade them from serving anyone else, and anyone else was the rest of his team.

Then there are offices full of artwork, in which one admires the culmination of one's success. I call the occupants of such offices retirees in denial. Many such great men and women are losing their power without knowing it to the hordes of yes-men who doggedly compliment their boss's great achievements and suggest the new best thing in office design. "Leave it to us," they say, as they bring in more dodgy deals and large transactions that have nothing to do with the business of the company.

There are, of course, offices that demand greatness. I have found that some high-ranking officials keep a ceremonial office with great artwork, photographs, and telltale signs of success, but they also work out of a functional office. The problem is that many become trapped in the nice office, where nothing gets done other than receiving dignitaries and ego masseurs. There are also rules that extend beyond expensive furniture and objects of art. Anyone who has visited old palaces can see how kings employed some wit and common sense to make their visitors feel small and insignificant. A simple and favourite trick was placing the throne directly in front of a particularly bright window, so that the guest was at best distracted when looking at the king. In offices, another tool is to move your desk right into the centre of the room, leaving little space - physical or mental - for the visitor to manoeuvre.

Ultimately, as cliched as it sounds, it's all about power and the intent to impress. I therefore wonder why so many great (male) bosses wear pink, or its equivalent in Arabic headgear, or immature looking glasses. I spend half the time gazing at the strange contrast between the power talk the room is exuding and the off-tone colours on the person, and the other half on the person's solemn face. I wonder if the guy (usually it's a man) does indeed wear the trousers at home, and this is the ultimate in showing off how comfortable he is with his masculinity.

I guess dress does make a man. Did you ever see a king in pink? Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman