Tag Archives: office

Boxed in

It was the waiting that grated. You could sense it across the office, a palpable air of fidgety discomfort blended with impotent uncertainty. It felt like we should all be out stock piling canned goods and bottled water; hunkering down and bunkering up. I think that’s why I was daydreaming about escape all the time. Anything to be out from the slightly oppressive sense that something bad was coming. It was hard to maintain ‘business as usual’ knowing that business was currently quite so unusual. Hard to keep a professional face on it. What happened to authenticity? That was supposed to be the buzzy new thing in leadership. Be authentic. Bring yourself to work. Get to know people, show your vulnerability, watch that Brene Brown TED talk, dial up your emotional intelligence. I guess submitting to your basest instincts and retiring to the corner of the office to crouch, sobbing, whilst gnawing repeatedly on a pencil, fists bunched, occasionally stamping a foot and letting out a yelp of inchoate rage would be considered too authentic. It’s a fine line. I walk it delicately.

The strange thing is that I’ve been in this film before. Had a bigger role than I wanted. It was my estranged, disappointed face they cut to when they announced the runners up in the “who gets to keep their job” category. No gold statue, no tearful acceptance speech. No after show party in Venice Beach. More like being hit by a tsunami on Venice Beach as the fault line running through California finally cracks open and LA is disgorged into the ocean. It’s like a bereavement. That wave, that tsunami, hits, you lose your feet on the sand, and for a while you’re thrashing and tumbling in the sea, fighting for breath and a solid place to stand. I guess some people cope with it better than others, find some exhilaration in the loss of control, give themselves up to the swell, emerging laughing and shaking the water clear of their ears. It wasn’t really like that for me. After the shock I just sank, cold and numb and adrift. Even after I found the shore it was like I was always ankle deep in it, as if the tide line had shifted, and from time to time, without warning, the undertow would pull me over and I’d pitch back into the water. I don’t think I’ll ever really stand on the beach again. Or, at best, it’ll always be a beach flying the red warning flags. Probably without David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.

Having seen this film before I know that once the end credits roll that life goes on. The lights come up and you pick your way out of the cinema, popcorn scrunching under foot, and emerge blinking into the day. Maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far. There’s other films, other roles. That’s the point. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being out of the industry for a while – a resting actor if we’re going to keep this up – wasn’t appealing. A chance to start again and to break out of all the little boxes that working in a big corporate puts you in. My favourites:

  1. Talent grids. There’s nothing quite so motivating as a three by three, nine box, talent grid. Performance on one axis and potential on the other. You can tell a lot about the prevailing culture by the labels assigned to each level on the axis. I’ve been rated ‘good’, ‘average’, ‘over performing’, ‘out performing’, and ‘astonishing and sensitive’ all within the same box, just in different places with different scales. That last one is a lie. That’s what Caroline Josephs said about me the first time we slept together. That may also be a lie. Potential is even worse. Like the myriad of possibilities and capability that anyone possesses can be wrapped up and summarily dismissed with an ‘x’ in a box. You have no potential. That’s the truth of what Caroline said about me. At least, to be fair to her, she gave me this feedback in the moment, with quite specific details on where I was going wrong, and didn’t hide it all by talking about me with her peers and putting me in a box on a spreadsheet. Who knows? Maybe she did that too.
  2. Myers Briggs. I’m using this as a catch all for all those development questionnaires that they make you fill out to discover who you are, a grand voyage of self discovery and awareness. The ones that are introduced with great sincerity by name dropping Jung, principally to distinguish the outputs from, say, reading your horoscope. But then I’m an INTP and so I would say all of this, wouldn’t I? And I would also violently kick against being put in a box. So maybe there’s something in it. I guess I believed it all more when I was junger. Yes, all of that was just leading up to that pun.
  3. Org charts. Here’s the rub. Org charts are for roles and not for people. I know they have people’s names on them, implying some kind of security sitting there snuggly within the confines of your rectangle, but they’re not for you. I’ve gotten short shrift in a variety of situations when I’ve claimed that it was my role’s responsibility to do something and not mine – paying for stuff in shops, that incident with Caroline Josephs after we broke up and I turned up drunk at her flat and shouted through her letter box that I had been practicing my skills and that she should give me another chance – that kind of thing. Turns out, as a pretty nice police woman patiently explained to me, that those things are my responsibility and not some amorphous, ambiguous title in a box in an org chart. Turns out that it’s people that do stuff and not roles. Live and learn. (Technically as an INTP I don’t so much live and learn as observe, over think, and learn but that’s less snappy and hasn’t been adopted as universal parlance).

Be authentic but fit in this box. And this box. And this box over here. It’s almost as if the beautiful complexities and contradictions of human essence – of an individual – can’t be contained in a one-size-fits-all categorisation. And yet that’s what we do to fit in and get on.

Right until they tell you to get out.


Lockers and leaving

The redundancies started a couple of months after they implemented the clear desk policy. You had to hand it to them. They were nothing if not efficient and at least we were spared the sight of another job lottery loser trudging through the office carrying a box filled with their personal effects. There were a few odd exceptions:

  1. The people that actually used their locker (I swear I caught a glimpse of the inside door of one decorated with stickers and a picture of Kit Harrington like we were all back in High School or something. We’re not even an American firm. Winter was coming though: they had that right). They usually had a fair bit to carry away.
  2. The people that made a land grab from the stationery cupboard to round out their statutory settlement. This was usually people with only a couple of years service who presumably figured they didn’t have much to lose. One guy made it out with four packets of A4 copier paper, five highlighter pens (three pink, two yellow), and the large staple gun that sat by the printers. Said it was what he was owed as he wasn’t offered an outplacement scheme, apparently it was going to help him pull his CV together. I hope he went easy on the pink highlighter. And the staple gun – he seemed pretty upset…
  3. Finally there were the people who kept bringing in a picture of their family every day to prop up on whichever work station they could find. ‘Work station’ was one of those phrases we’d absorbed during one of the office refurbishments but I can’t remember if it was the one where we downsized from offices to cubicles, or from cubicles to curved desks with drawers, or from curved desks with drawers to the current set up: lines and lines of regimented tables demarcated at 120 centimetres into work stations. As corporate buzz words go it was one of the better phrases in my book as it bore some relation to the thing it was describing: a place where people waited for the arrival and departure of work. Just like a station. Only at this station the departures tended to be waved off somewhat more enthusiastically than the arrivals were greeted. You again? But you just left? Anyway this last little contingent of the lost, the family men and women, they didn’t have much to carry but they usually made sure their prized picture was overtly on display as they departed, often pausing pointedly by the desks where the HR Director usually perched. I couldn’t tell if they genuinely didn’t realise that he didn’t care or if they just wanted one final attempted moment of triumph; a small perceived victory to balance off, all things considered, a pretty shitty overall defeat.

I was primed and ready to depart with nothing. All I kept in my locker was a pair of unwashed socks that I’d used in the brief period we’d been offered free, trial membership of the local gym as a way to soften the blow of last year’s below inflation pay review. Boss had put a brave face on it during the team cascade but even his veneer of professionalism had started to crack as he tried to upsell the benefits of the twenty five state-of-the-art cardio machines, dedicated weights room, and tailored fitness programs to a room full of people mentally calculating the calorific loss they could attribute to their reduced opportunities to buy food given their cost of living. I admit, we were a little melodramatic. It’s not like anyone was going to starve and some of us could probably stand to take one less visit to Nando’s a month. But chicken or gym and chicken’s going to win out every time. Come to think of it I may have left an old box of unfinished KFC in my locker as well as those socks. Probably best, when the time comes, that I just leave that for someone else to discover.

Primed and ready but stuck in departure lounge limbo with the rest of my uncertain associates. Waiting for them to call our name to the gate. Waiting, our destinations unknown.


I can tell you what it said. I’ll give you the short version rather than the Peter Jackson version. Don’t misunderstand, there were no hobbits or dragons or songs about gold in my three sixty feedback. Definitely nothing about gold. There was the slight inference that my career was heading inexorably towards Mount Doom though and a number of comments suggested that I might as well have been invisible for the past three years. And all without the benefit of a magic ring. What was the point of that ring, anyway? All it did was make you invisible and, over prolonged exposure, go a bit mad. So, in that respect, I guess, pretty similar to my job. But that’s not worth ripping up Middle Earth for, surely? There was that stuff about it ruling over all the other rings, one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. All that. I think it gave the wearer the power over the will of men. It wouldn’t have to work too hard on mine: I’m losing more of it everyday.

I digress. This is what it said. I’m paraphrasing but you’ll get the general idea. My peers all said I was anonymous and lack presence. They all said, on such a consistent basis that I have to be suspicious that they didn’t agree it beforehand, that I had reached the limit of my potential. Hit my own personal ceiling. What the hell is a ‘personal ceiling’? That’s actually what one of them put in the open ended comments. Standing on the top rung of my own career ladder and, should I try to climb higher it’d inevitably end with me on the floor in a heap. That was another one. They had definitely been comparing notes. I think my favourite, if I can put it like that, was: “he reminds me of Ringo Starr: he’s the least talented amongst us and the best he can hope for if he steps away from the protection we give him as a group is to read stories for kids about steam trains.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Thomas The Tank Engine’s worth a billion pounds a year. And he was the best drummer in the Beatles. So, I take your Ringo slur and I wear it with pride.

Those fuckers were never going to write anything nice to be honest. Straight self-interest. There’s a finite number of jobs above us and we’re all in for them so why put anything down in writing that might inadvertently give a rival a leg up? Even if it just boosts their confidence a fraction, enough to tip them over the edge in a tense interview or some made up presentation task. Tell us about a time you disagreed with someone and how did you change their mind? All that. What’s your biggest weakness? Drink and the musical theatre of Barbra Streisand. Ha, and indeed, ha. Is there anyone who doesn’t say… ‘well, I guess my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘well, I do find I’m so committed to my work that I sometimes work too hard’ to that question? I made the mistake of answering it honestly once. I thought they’d acknowledge my self-awareness. Turns out they weren’t looking for someone who got bored easily and had a tendency to procrastinate for hours wondering whether he’d made a catastrophic series of decisions from his A levels onwards. Live and learn.

I was disappointed in the responses from the people in the grade above. Disappointed that there weren’t any. I guess, on some level, I was aware that I wasn’t a huge blip on their radar but I thought I might have registered a little. Or at all. There are billions of pounds and dollars and yen being spent on developing stealth technology around the world to fit out planes that are invisible to enemy defence systems. Billions. And here I am with, seemingly, in built stealth DNA. I should be able to make a fortune letting them replicate my genome to smear across wings and fuselage and, why stop there, tanks and aircraft carriers and bombers. Instant invisibility. Utterly undetectable to anything or anyone with decision making power.

I had consoled myself that the fact that my immediate peers hated me and my seniors were completely oblivious was because I was a man of the people. The real people. Good, honest (and, talking of being honest, not well paid) workers. They would recognise my common touch and my empathy with their concerns. Sure, they never invited me for after work drinks but I guess that was because they didn’t want me to feel awkward. I understood. Or I thought I’d understood: turns out they took the anonymous opportunity afforded by the online ‘personal development’ survey to give me a right kicking as well. It is not true to say that I relentlessly talk about young bands and the latest gig I’ve been to as a way to try and appear like I’ve still ‘got it’. I genuinely like Stormzy and that whole grime thing. Not knowing the song titles doesn’t mean anything. It’s about how it makes you feel, isn’t it? Middle management can feel urban rage and alienation as much as anyone else. I put their comments down to some kind of reverse snobbery. And that stuff about me lying about having a tattoo really hurt. It’s not like I’m going to get that out in the office to prove it, is it?

Bloody HR. I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to it. Three hundred and sixty degrees of feedback and no degree of restraint or discretion. At least they’re making everyone do it. I will have my revenge.