For her research on collaboration, Petra Saskia Bayerl spent a week among some real diamonds in the rough: men who work on a drilling platform. ‘At one point they started performing skits for the camera. It was really sweet.’

I’d never given it much thought, but if you think about it, a large oil company would have people in the office and people who work on the platform. There are the managers, the planners and the number crunchers, who work in their air-conditioned offices setting the targets from nine to five. And then there are the technicians, painters and cooks, who spend ungodly hours far from civilisation, surrounded by the untameable forces of nature, making sure these pounding, hammering machines keep running. Non-stop. For weeks, sometimes for months without a break.

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For the Cowboys in Science section, Geert Maarse interviews scientists who are prepared to go just a step further than their colleagues. Petra Saskia Bayerl is an associate professor at Rotterdam School of Management, where she specialises in organisational culture, communication and technology. For her research on drilling platforms she visited offshore/on-shore teams in Scotland, Trinidad and the United States, interviewing more than three hundred people in the industry.

And no, these two groups don’t necessarily get on well with each other. If they have any contact at all, it’s through email, something that doesn’t really promote mutual understanding. The large corporation, whose name Saskia Bayerl can’t reveal (due to a signed non-disclosure agreement), felt that this situation needed to change. A video link was installed and suddenly, from one day to the next, both groups were in contact with each other 24/7. Saskia Bayerl’s question was: how would people respond? Would things run more efficiently? Would people suddenly become friends? Would you be able to carry out repairs more quickly? To find the answers to these questions, she spent two years at the company, in their offices and at sea.

Do you remember the first time you boarded a platform?

“The first thing you notice is that everything is shaking and everything smells of oil. I came from an office setting with comfortable chairs and colleagues dressed in suits. Here, everybody was wearing oilskin jackets, everything was cramped, and any time I stepped outside I had to wear my full kit, including chemical sensors to detect any gas leaks. Something else I remember is how I got there: you have to come by helicopter, which is a fantastic experience. You only see the ocean and as you fly through the clouds, you also see ‘rainbow fires’, rainbows that dart back and forth between the clouds and the sea. An amazing sight.”

Saskia Bayerl (RSM)
‘Als ik naar buiten ging moest ik mijn volledige uitrusting aan, inclusief chemische sensoren om eventuele gaslekken op te sporen.’ (Foto: privéarchief Petra Saskia Bayerl)

What is it like being there?

“It’s exciting and extremely boring at the same time. There’s always something going on, your surroundings are very impressive, the machines have a raw force. Employees spend two weeks on, two weeks off. There’s plenty of entertainment, with a sauna, a pool table, a cinema and a library. There are guitars you can play and a 24-hour kitchen, so you could walk in at three in the morning and have your dinner. But the work is physically demanding and often quite monotonous. You’re staring at a monitor for 12 hours and if you need a bathroom break, someone else has to take over your work. And it’s simply an island in the middle of the ocean with freaking nowhere to go. It’s like a small prison where you see the same 60 people day in, day out. If someone was listening to Internet radio, you couldn’t send off any emails. And that’s how it is for two weeks at a time.”

How long were you there?

“The longest stretch was a week in Scotland.”

Could you stay there permanently?

“I thought about it. A lot of people do it for the money and you can definitely make double what you would for the same work on-shore. But it’s demanding, especially for your partner or family.”

What kind of people are they?

“It’s a certain type of lifestyle. If the platform shakes, they feel it in their bones. Even if it’s cold, stormy or raining, they still have to keep the platform running. They’re very practical, pragmatic and down to earth, and they have to be, because they can only rely on themselves. For example, oil and gas are being extracted, so theoretically, the platform could explode at any time. Actually being there makes you realise how insignificant you are compared to the forces of nature and the machines surrounding you. What I liked is that they are a tight-knit community and I was very warmly received. There’s always someone to talk to and of course there are the inevitable disagreements, but you learn to deal with them when living in such close quarters. The platform is their home away from home. They often say: ‘This is my family. I spend more time with these guys than with my wife and children.’”

What did they think of you being there?

“Very different responses. The average age is around 45, so many of them also have children. I enjoyed how they treated me as if I was their young daughter and they were giving me a tour, acting as my chaperone.”

Saskia Bayerl (RSM) olieboorplatform
De fitnessruimte op het boorplatform (Foto: privéarchief Petra Saskia Bayerl).

Are there only men on the platform?

“That was the case on the platform where I spent the most time. Sixty men. And me.”

I can imagine that there were a few who found it exciting that all of a sudden there was a woman on board.

“Yes, there were certainly a few like that.”

How did you know?

“Sometimes, when I was in the fitness area, men would drop in for a chat and I would think… okay… that was odd. And there were a few times someone was outside the door of my quarters.”

Did that bother you?

“No. In such a closed environment where everyone is hyper aware of your presence, these things happen. But the group also has a self-regulating mechanism where the older men will take one of the younger ones aside and tell them to calm down a bit and take it easy. They look after you that way.”

Did they understand what you came to do as a researcher?

“Not really. I explained it clearly, but some of them thought it was some kind of personal hobby. They liked that I was so interested and that they could say whatever they wanted to me. What they enjoyed in their work and what they found difficult. I heard a lot of personal stories and I remember how one of the managers asked me for career advice. He had his doubts about whether he should look for a new job. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of time there, but you’re not really part of the crew: you turn into a kind of occupational psychologist.”

You compiled information on what happens when two completely different groups of colleagues are suddenly brought in contact with each other. How did that go?

“The best example is a team I followed. It was during the technology orientation and at first, they didn’t like each other very much. There is a massive divide between on-shore and offshore employees and this includes all the typical stereotypes. Offshore believes that on-shore is only concerned with maximising oil production, and says: we know how the platform works. If you try to ramp up production, you’ll mess everything up. They feel they aren’t taken seriously because they don’t have a university education. And they think that the university people have never done ‘the real work’. Polar opposites, with a great deal of negativity. But then you see that over the course of a year, both groups started to grow closer thanks to the continuous video link. They started talking about their holidays and at one point they started holding what resembled little fashion shows whenever someone would wear a new shirt. It was really sweet. The offshore men put on little skits in front of the camera using paper puppets. A personal bond emerged.”

‘Je kunt geen kant op. Het is net een gevangenis’ (Foto: privéarchief Petra Saskia Bayerl).

A continuous video link sounds quite intimidating. Was there also a downside?

“Definitely. Imagine someone constantly breathing down your neck. When you’re at work, when you’re calling your wife. It’s exactly like Big Brother. By the way, it wasn’t just offshore that was being watched all the time. The link went both ways. Sometimes people on the platform could read what the office employees were typing in their emails. Of course this led to a lot of dissatisfaction.”

None of these people had ever met each other, so that makes for a bizarre situation, doesn’t it?

“Communication travelled down a chain of command, starting from upper management. In large corporations that’s not unusual.”

Is this an example of how technology has made management obsolete?

“Some of the management suddenly felt excluded. They felt they needed to be in control, and sometimes with good reason. On a platform, a small error can result in a major disaster. That’s why not everything can be arranged behind closed doors.”

What is the added value of your field work for science?

“It shows us how technology can be used to deal with extreme diversity. We often speak of what is referred to as ‘virtual team work’, but not about differences like this. These two groups were dissimilar in every imaginable way. They way they think, the way they work, their education, the demographic. It was useful to study such a unique setting as it’s not something that happens very often. In this kind of research it’s crucial that you do more than just listen to what people say. You need to see it, experience it, and only then do you understand where this need for autonomy comes from.”