On returning

There were two skies. One crystalline, balanced on a blade, the waterfall of light enveloping Astrid’s gaze; the other bleached, shy and aloof, a pale reflection across the smeared and rain-pocked windows of Worcester House. As her gaze ascended the copycat storeys to her own, Astrid wondered why they ever named such awkward, unhomely beasts a “house”, like calling a pitbull “poppet”. But she was back, standing as she did repetitively, unconsciously, for so many years, taking a final moment before crossing the revolving threshold, a long slow breath to straighten the nerve endings.

Yet this was the first time since the team were sent into the caffeinated wilderness to work, left to their own devices with their own devices to embroider a spirit. Curiosity had snaked her here this morning, the train as cloying as ever, the glazed gaze of sallow faces upon her. Astrid wished she was a mirror. On the street, people walked by Worcester House without so much as a glance, as though it were a collapsed drunk. The revolver was jammed, but trying the fire exit door at the rear corner of the building Astrid was surprised to find it give. She found herself in the unforgiving concrete stairway, moving against the invisible track to the seventh floor, a chill rushing through her like a thousand ghosts in a hurried evacuation.

Having been cast to the fifth wind, it had transpired to be directionless, erratic but weak – it was not so bad. Her team had moulded a routine from the vacuum, given themselves a structure to cling to, and found they had more time and far less intrusion. They spoke, but shared little. They corresponded, but with the unobtrusive warmth of pre-teen penfriends. Yet they realised that they had mostly craved time when there was none, and that in even the earliest stage the glut became a millstone. So Astrid created her own pressure, layer upon layer, until she felt the denial bite. Her gains and losses from the transaction had no exchange rate.

Astrid’s footsteps echoed, reminding her with each of her trespass. She arrived at the oversized plastic “7” with its chipped corners, and pushed against the door to the floor. Again it opened with more than expected ease. The office was a thicket of doors. There was rarely any sense in lowering the outstretched palm. A distant visitor may have wondered if humans defensively flat-handed their way through life. When two palms met, it might have been a kiss.

There, amidst the abandoned skeletal remains of the seventh, were her team, making do. Amidst the trailing workarounds, the home surplus, the trestles, eBay steals and cuddle of the smell of toast, were the easy smiles of delight that said stay. The familiarity was dusty, tardier than she recalled, but the space had been filled. It worked, but it was a different work. Her favourite spot was free, it had been left with the expectation of her return, everyone else had and they weren’t so different. There had been no doubt on anyone’s part that her heart beat as theirs. The agoraphobia had just taken a little longer to percolate.

From the window, there were two skies. One bumbled along the accidental and pockmarked horizon, a hazy and familiar outline. The other, crystalline, balanced on a blade, was where it should have been, outside, beyond. Astrid unpacked. So much to do. 



Not being there

No, I wasn’t at the event.

I didn’t read the liberty news on the train, free of the clasping jaws of the usual day, instead of the meeting action list.

I didn’t pause to collect the badge of awkwardness that I wear in my eyes as well as crooked on my lapel.

The promotional bag wasn’t mine to fumble through and discard all but the memory stick that I could stand in the drawer like the terracotta army. So much storage, so little data when it’s all just ideas.

I didn’t wonder at the discomfort of the opening stand, butter in a cold pan.

I didn’t feel the dislocation of the division bell, called from an entangled conversation to my seat, the momentary disorientation.

I didn’t feel the acupuncture of slides, the linearity of the message, the scattering of bullets on a marble floor.

I didn’t tangle with the ubiquitous frustration of the escherian stairs, the eternal ascent towards something meaningful, a stepping off point in which I could settle.

I wasn’t called on to juggle my thoughts, reflections, plate, napkin and glass with the struggle of searching for those I know, or those I don’t. And I didn’t have to worry about eating horseradish by mistake.

I didn’t wonder if I had been held underwater for longer than my burning lungs and scrambling claustrophobia could handle, such was my need for breathable daylight.

I didn’t feel the creases slowly stitching into my face as the day grew colder, and as the call of the mythical early train emptied the room.

And my spine didn’t ache from shifting in ever decreasing circles in a chair design for a set square, counting the loss of feeling one disc at a time, until the ache pillowed the spoken word.

I didn’t drink too much wine on too much coffee on too much expectation, and wonder whether next year I would expect less, consume less, and listen more.

No, I wasn’t at the event.

Was it good?


Archie: a workplace story

Archie was told that with the office move, it was all about sharing. Things that were once his now belonged to everyone. And by this decree, things that belonged to others now belonged to him.

When the packers came, everything that once belonged to Archie was put into crates with everything that belonged to everyone else. The packers seemed delighted, in a job that brought little delight.

In the new office, everything was the same. Same desks, same chairs, same lamps, same cupboards, same wires. He looked at his workmates, surveying the common sea in bemusement, and against the backdrop they looked even more irregular.

People who once all looked the same in a world of difference, now all looked different in a world that was all the same.

Archie struggled through the first day. He hid amid the confusion of cardboard, garish crates and lost umbrellas.

The following morning, the desk he had been sitting at was already occupied by Martin. The chair he had set for himself and wiped his sandwichy hand on, was being compressed under his heavy frame. The stapler he had filled and used was being used by Patsy, as she tried to force the hapless pin through a biblical report that no-one would read. And in the kitchen, Carmen was helping herself to a second portion of Archie’s Cheerios.

Archie had saved some tippex from the digital cull. Within the crevices of the day, he wrote his name carefully and obviously on the chair, the stapler and the cheerios. Flags in the sand.

The next day, Melvyn was leaning back in the chair with Archie’s name on. Cherie was clip-clipping finance statements together with the stapler on which his name peeped beneath her painted nails. Derek was pouring his Cheerios, bleary-eyed, distant.

The lines had been drawn in a different place, but were now invisible.

The morning after, Archie settled at a desk and calmly removed all of his clothes, folded them and laid them on the back of the chair, sat down, and logged on. He belonged to everyone else. He had a lot to get through.

No-one seemed to notice.


Crystal: a workplace story

Crystal liked to read management blogs. They were free, and all over the internet. There were more than she could keep track of, and each one she read revealed many others. The people who wrote them seemed confident and assured. Crystal always liked the certainty they exuded.

A phrase rattled around in Crystal’s head – “get out of the way”. She had read this a lot. It seemed to be a Big Thing. She related it to her own team management style – regular 1:1’s, SMART objectives, project tracking, and her number one rule – No Surprises.

Crystal wondered if she was stifling creativity, stunting innovation, discouraging failure, driving her people away, swishing her tail around like stegosaurus in a cupcake shop.

Getting out of the way was different. But the blogs also suggested feeling uncomfortable was good too.

So Crystal decided to get out of the way.

Tamara had been pushing a prototype idea for some months that seemed way out of kilter with the product development stream. Crystal stepped back while Tamara spent three months and £150K on an idea that was clear would never work after the first week. But she had got out of the way.

Rupert in Comms had been desperate to expand the firm’s social media coverage by openly interacting with customers on Twitter. Crystal wasn’t sure, but she stood aside. Rupert promptly released key product information in an emotional spat with a difficult customer that was seized on by the competition, and they were beaten to market. The cost was hard to estimate. But she had got out of the way.

Pierre in Finance had been researching some tax ideas that would save a pope’s ransom if successful. Crystal was uncomfortable, but after Tamara and Rupert had soured her First Quarter she needed some good news, so let Pierre pursue his strategy. She got out of the way, and after the first few months all seemed positive. It could happen, she assured herself. So she carried on.

Shelley and Eg believed they had found a lower cost way to source key components, buying in bulk from a new supplier who promised to undercut the market as long as they ordered well in advanced and stocked in bulk. Their charts and forecasts were compelling, so Crystal obliged and stood back. But having ditched the existing supply chain, the new supplier’s initial bulk batch failed the statutory QC check. They reverted to their original supplier, whose prices had increased 20%. But Crystal had got out of the way.

When Crystal allowed Marcus to set up a small “skunk works” team in an incubation centre that produced nothing but great career opportunities for Marcus and the team with fledgling competitor firms, she began to doubt the wisdom of getting out of the way, but struggled to consider that all those bloggers could be wrong.

That was, until the phone rang. It was the Inland Revenue. They were going to audit their tax structures, believing them to be illegal.

Crystal realised the bloggers were right.

Once you get out of the way, you have to stay out of the way. Right out of the way.

Elton the InBox Zero

Elton was a hundred-a-day man and proud he received e-mails in three figure wads even though it was usually less and could say that kind of thing when he was standing by the watercooler albeit usually on his own and generating his own white noise whereby he would often string the words together in one elongated string to see whether he could create a multi-layered background murmur all on his own. It probably tells you enough about Elton already. But what was fizzing in his mind was that he had heard that it was possible to have an empty e-mail inbox at the end of the day and it even had a ripping name, InBoxZero which just had to be something he could only have dreamed of. It sounded like the hundred press-ups challenge he had once tried where he had got to seventeen before needing a rest but this time he really felt he could do it and so resolved to do it and even made plans to do it.

Elton got in early which as he was always in early was in this case very early and cleared the decks and got a coffee and then after a while got another coffee and took his tie off and put his tie back on so as to feel more business-like and set about his Inbox with relish and gusto and even a little bravado. He arranged them by importance  but no-one used the little blue downpointing arrow because nothing is ever that unimportant then he arranged them by sender and deleted everything from distant relatives in lagos with a large inheritance he didn’t know he had and then from a company or a logo and then from anyone he didn’t know which turned out to be most of them then he arranged them by date and deleted older than a month then older than three weeks and then thought that a week was probably enough if he hadn’t already replied. He then replied to those that needed a reply that he hadn’t already replied to or at least couldn’t remember whether he had replied to or not especially anything from his boss or mum but in the other order and then deleted the original e-mail and then he put all of his sent and deleted items in a big folder called general and stared at his screen because all that remained now fitted on one screen and with eyes a-squint he highlighted them all and with a deep deep breath deleted the lot without looking to see who they were from concluding if it was important they would re-send or mail again. InBoxZero. Nada. It was dark outside. He needed the bathroom. He went home springy albeit not skipping because no-one really skips other than the chancellor of the exchequer but with a real sense of achievement at least he thought that’s what it was because it had been so long since he felt anything similar if he could remember ever having felt it at all. Like a kiss.

The very next day Elton was a little sad. He would be back to the old ways of bucketing the water from his sinking boat, the slow down the slow drown. He logged on. Nada. He checked his settings maybe in his fury he had flicked a blind switch because there were hundreds in e-mail you could do it inadvertently and spend all day wondering what silly thing you had done but all seemed normal so he sent himself a Test e-mail and called it Test because everyone does it’s like saying 1-2 with a microphone why doesn’t anyone ever say anything different and there was a soft ping and there is was to Elton from Elton subject: Test. But nothing else.

So he mailed his mum and asked her questions about her breakfast and then arranged some meetings and so sent out lots of meeting requests even with people in accounts and signed up for some newsletters from companies he felt were okay and then signed up for newsletters for companies he hated and then ticked some boxes to receive offers from related companies and then unticked some boxes to ensure he received offers from related companies and anyone they could sell their mailing lists to or even give them away just to be noticed and then he mailed his boss admitting to an imaginary minor mistake that would certainly unleash a remonstrating mail that stopped short of any opportunity for him to take the matter of his treatment up as a grievance. Nothing. Nada. He sent himself another Test message called Test 2 just to avoid confusion with Test and within seconds the soft ping to Elton from Elton subject: Test 2. He went outside and got a coffee and a third stamp on his collect nine stamps and get a free coffee card and walked back very slowly and stopped in reception and read the from page of yesterday’s FT and ambled upstairs to his desk and looked at his screen. Nothing. So he shut down and restarted and then just restarted and then he called IT and the man from IT came and sat at his desk with half a bag of cheese and onion crisps and didn’t say much but looked through all of his settings and checked his network connection and ran some diagnostics and left his empty crisp bag on the desk and an oily sheen on his keyboard as he left confirming everything was okay.

But everything wasn’t OKAY it was a trick of the light trick of the mind trick or treat trick on a stick it was a padded cell it was his own, personal, bespoke, tailored-to-fit hell he had disappeared from view from the world from consciousness from the ethereal ether from the space time continuum from the third dimension altogether he was at long last zero, zero point zero zero, nothing. Nothing other than the mails he sent himself. Nada.

Elton stared at the screen and stared into the InBox and his pupils dilated and the pixels dilated and he could see himself staring back at himself only he was old and sunken and lined and hollow the colour and texture of dirty sand slipping through a bony hand and he realised in the midst of his paralysing sorrow that as it could already be tomorrow it really was time to go.