Corporate Balancing Act

BY JANE Lii, Mercury News Staff Writer

Published Monday, April 3, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Workplaces seek prosperity and harmony through ancient Chinese principles of feng shui

When things went into a funk at Net Optics late last year, with product delivery lagging, recruitment efforts wanting and an employee suddenly grumpy, CFO Charlotte Matityahu nipped the problem in the bud. She brought in feng shui consultant Linda Lenore.

After just minutes, Lenore found the culprit: bad chi. She suggested several cures: Add green and purple colors to the walls, clear up the clutter in the work area, move the employee’s desk 180 degrees.

Sure enough, she said, things turned around after just a weekend’s work of painting and rearranging. “It was amazing,” she said.

Forget the on-site concierge. Move over, gourmet corporate chefs. With employees spending more and more of their waking hours in the workplace, feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of arranging surroundings to attract balance and harmony, has become the latest tool in freeing productivity blockage.

Already popular in the Bay Area’s non-Chinese homes, feng shui was once viewed as a secret weapon used by companies with Asian roots, and, occasionally by a few tradition-busting mainstream executives to get an edge in business. Stories are plentiful about how companies have oriented new buildings and set up executive offices according to feng shui principles.

But the practice has moved beyond the corner suite into cubicles and assembly lines to become the new credo for the region’s corporate masses. Its popularity in the Bay Area underscores the chaotic lives of the times and the desperate attempts by many to change them.

“People are spending more time at work than at home,” said Ho Lynn Tu, the chairwoman of the San Mateo-based Worldwide Lin Yun Educational Foundation, a pre-eminent feng shui school that bears the name of its influential master. “They are finding out just doing feng shui in their homes isn’t enough.”

That may be a sad statement about life in the high-tech age, but thank goodness for feng shui. Now, you can work long hours and have harmony and balance in life, too.

Some of the businesses that openly practice feng shui include Sybase, a software company in Emeryville, Critical Path, an e-mail company, and Esprit de Corp., the juniors clothing manufacturer headed by Susie Tompkins Buell, both in San Francisco. But some, including major semiconductor and business-to-business companies, prefer to remain anonymous because they fear public ridicule, consultants say.

Others such as Cybergold, an Oakland-based e-marketing solutions company, Applied Materials, Stanford Medical Center and San Jose State University have arranged brown-bag lectures and employee consultation for individuals who think it will help.

A life force

Developed by the Chinese about 4,000 years ago, feng shui, pronounced “fung-shway,” emphasizes the manipulation of chi, more commonly spelled qi in Chinese Pinyin system. Chi is the metaphysical life force believed to permeate the universe. Good chi, believers claim, can heal and make life pleasant. It has been credited with promotions, romantic connections, even great sex and rising stock prices. Bad ones are said to wreak havoc, causing breakups, volatilities in the market and general discord.

To attract good chi, a desk, room or house is first divided into an octagon, with each side representing an aspect of life that can be improved upon: career, knowledge, family, wealth, fame, marriage, children and helpful people. Symbolic objects, mirrors, plants and water fountains said to convert bad chi into good are placed on the appropriate sides.

As feng shui consultants have become more commonplace in Bay Area, the words, which literally mean “wind” and “water,” have even morphed into a verb: One can “feng shui” his or her cubicle or office.

Skeptics may scoff at such exercises as yet another scheme to make money off the granola-eating, crystal-dangling New Age crowd eager for the latest metaphysical means to salvation. They say all the talk about chi, whose existence and supposed power have been debated in the scientific world, is, well, bunk.

“A lot of the stuff is common sense,” said George P. Koo, deputy director of Pacific Rim Services of Deloitte & Touche in San Jose. “If you pay attention to your life and strike a proper balance between life and work, you’ll achieve the same thing.”

True believers

But feng shui devotees swear that their new workplace setup has not only saved them from ruination but also brought exceptional rewards. Some even argue the recent stock market volatility is all the more reason to introduce it into the office — fast. Alan Greenspan could raise interest rates again.

And then there are the compelling testimonies.

Charlotte Matityahu said things picked up dramatically within days of Lenore’s visit: Shipment increased, the Sunnyvale company finally found a production manager, and the grumpy employee started to smile again.

And, oh, sales have more than doubled, Eldad Matityahu, Net Optics CEO and Charlotte’s husband, added with a grin.

Today, 17-employee Net Optics is a study in feng shui-correctness: In addition to the green- and purple-striped walls, the iMacs and the safe are purple. The plastic wires connecting to the fiber optic cables are green and purple. Small round mirrors are attached to many computers. The actual cost attributed to the exercise: $500 for paint and to remove the clutter.

But while acknowledging Lenore’s prowess, Net Optics’ Eldad Matityahu wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: He had good instincts to begin with. Sure, the walls near where employees take orders were painted purple and green, the color of wealth, at Lenore’s suggestions, but he said he’d decided to use the same colors for a company logo long before learning about feng shui.

“I was feng shui even before knowing about it,” he bragged.

Patricia McCarthy, a university relations manager at Hewlett-Packard, credits Lenore, who is based in Redwood City, for having saved her $25,000 and helping her establish stable business contacts. She sought help after a company transfer from Cambridge, Mass., to Palo Alto left her without a company car at first. She also had trouble keeping sources.

Lenore suggested adding plants and mirrors to McCarthy’s wealth and relationship corners. Lo and behold, McCarthy said, a company car appeared, and her business contacts stayed in touch.

Good things are already happening to those who feng shui-ed their offices only recently, adherents claim.

Christie Hardwick Vianson, staffing and community relations director at Silicon Graphics Inc. and a former Fremont school board member, said she has seen her portfolio grow by 40 percent since she feng shui-ed her office and home four months ago.

Joe DeMarco, a sales manager at Cybergold, said he received a larger territory after applying feng shui to his office a month ago.

Except for the basic eight-sided template called ba gua, there are no hard and fast rules to feng shui. You can also incorporate your own cultural roots into the practice. Janice Lee, a real estate manager at Sybase, fuses her Latino heritage with the Chinese practice, using a small replica of a water fountain in a Mexican pueblo to ensure a prosperous career and the red in the poster of the Mexican Legend of the Volcanos to ensure fame.

Not a guarantee

Although claims of miracles abound, feng shui, it seems, isn’t 100 percent foolproof. Jamie Shapiro, a manager at Cybergold, got his biggest bonus since feng shui-ing his office three weeks ago. But he was dealt a setback in romance: His girlfriend left him just one week after it.

Most feng shui devotees say they have no regrets, however, even if the whole thing was nothing more than a good exercise in decorating.

“Even if it doesn’t help, it can’t hurt,” said Hardwick Vianson. But Charlotte Matityahu was even more blunt. “I don’t want to find out what would have happened if I hadn’t done it,” she said.

Contact Jane Lii at or (408) 920-5042.