‘ … If your time to you is worth saving
Then you’d better start swimming
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times, they are a-changing.’
(Bob Dylan, 1964)
Dear Virtual Friend
Sorry that I haven’t been in touch for a while. The truth is, I don’t seem to have time to do anything anymore. Today was no different….
Alarm clock, 5.30 am. Awake from my usual nightmare, the one where I am standing at the altar in my pyjamas, about to get married all over again to ex-wife Vanessa. She asked for a divorce on the day, almost a full year ago, when I informed her I would be working permanently from home as one of our company’s new ‘remote leaders’, a role where any face to face contact with colleagues is now deemed almost entirely unnecessary in the interests of time-efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In my ex-wife’s case, the grisly realisation that our company’s switch to remote working and round-the-clock virtual presence meant that she was literally stuck with my ACTUAL, flesh-and-blood presence in the house 24/7 with no respite whatsoever sent her scampering straight off to the solicitors and filing for divorce before you could say ‘Decree Nisi’.
5.45 am. ‘Get up, you lazy good-for-nothing fool!’ My new robot-alarm clock, programmed to go off with a fresh insult every 5 minutes if I don’t get up at the first warning beeps, looks and sounds exactly like teenage CEO boss Racquela La Dracula, whose surname tells you everything you need to know about her leadership style.
The alarm clock is a ‘motivational gift’ sent to the entire remote management team at Sharp Practice pencil sharpeners (company mantra: ‘Do YOU get our point?’) a couple of weeks ago, as reward for a ‘consistent (under) performance this financial year’. And, in my case anyway, Racquela is right. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a remote leader in these last few months, it’s that I am entirely useless at it.
5.50 am. ‘Get up NOW, you incompetent oaf! ‘ The Racquela-robot alarm clock insults get progressively ruder until after a full hour the prospect of hearing another one is so terrible that I am usually forced upright. I lurch out of bed and throw back the now-obligatory ‘remote leader’s lean breakfast’ of 3 tangerine segments and a mint tea without sugar. Racquela imposed a strict diet on all employees following a virtual meeting with our global sales team where I accidentally activated everyone’s webcam controls by falling asleep on my computer. The ghastly and embarrassing visual exposure that followed revealed that 15 of the 20 sales team habitually attend these meetings from a restaurant, and from a rapid count of spare chins, most of them looked as though they were in the habit of spending their entire day there, eating solidly through the menu.
A terrifying new dietary regime followed shortly after. Days of eating nothing but 3 tangerine segments (and a radish every other week) have resulted, in my case, in the somewhat astonishing acquisition of a toned six-pack in my stomach area where once lurked only an expanse of flab.
6 am. Before the alarm clock can revert to full-on expletives, I stab the computer on frantically and check my virtual meetings agenda, quietly ruminating that while having a highly toned body is undoubtedly a bonus, it’s rather pointless when there is no one around to admire it.
A sharp bark and a whine from around my knees reminds me I’m wrong. Ah yes. Dylan. A black labrador dog of an uncertain age, Dylan – like his great musical namesake, is one of society’s rebels. I found him one morning tied to the railings in a quiet local park near my new bedsit, and he seemed so pleased to see me when I approached that I can only assume he had been left there all night. No one ever claimed him, and Dylan now shares the bedroom with me, occasionally wees on the carpet, and loves me. My ex-wife Vanessa did none of these things, so I suppose my new relationship represents some kind of progress.
I let Dylan out for his morning stroll and glance at the day’s agenda. Oh – thank God. My biggest dread is the company’s latest fad – running ‘virtual parties’ to increase employee commitment. Given that the main attraction of these events is, following the typical wording on email invitations, to ‘enjoy your own alcohol and party snacks from the comfort of your own desk at home, without the hassle of having to dress up or travel anywhere’ – it’s rather hard to imagine anything less attractive, since that description just about sums up my average working day. (Although apparently the ‘virtual vacation’ is now taking off in some circles, a low budget affair involving confining yourself to your room alone for a full week, and passing the hours in front of your computer, looking at slides of enticing beaches and hotels from around the world.)
The last time I ran any kind of virtual ‘party’ was the global office Christmas party, held somewhat retrospectively in April because that was the first date we could get anyone interested . The basic ‘concept’ was to get everyone into a virtual breakout room in small groups, with some music on in the background.
Unfortunately running music in breakout sessions turns out to be impossible, and as most of our employees appear to suffer from low-level personality disorders, they are usually hopeless at making small talk. On top of these drawbacks, I didn’t have a clue how to set up breakout rooms properly.
Result: I ended up consigning all 50 attendees to a SEPARATE room each, with nothing to do but talk to themselves and wonder what button to press to leave. I couldn’t work out how to get them out again, so some of them were stuck alone in the individual breakout rooms for hours on end without company or entertainment. Needless to say, the party was not a big success and I haven’t been invited to host any others. But, in case anyone does ask, I now know that there is helpful button in the Breakout panel which enables you to close the breakout rooms without people having to die in them out of sheer boredom first.
Sweating with relief at the lack of virtual parties on today’s list, I glance at the last item on the meetings list, which can only be described as inducing gut-wrenching horror. I’m invited to an untitled event, with Racquela. Bad enough in itself, of course but there are at least ten other people who I’ve never heard of. Surely this has to be the virtual equivalent of a public execution, the unnamed spectators gathered there to witness my demise, like the knitting grannies around the guillotine in the days of the French Revolution?
The meeting is now. Hands shaking with a high-octane mix of paranoia and panic, I stab at the meeting link, enter the password and sit back, waiting to see what instrument of torture will be responsible for dispatching me into full-time unemployment. I do not have to wait long, and within less than a minute hear something that has changed my life for ever.
It’s now very late and I’ve been out to the pub for a few restorative beers. Believe me, I needed them. Virtual friend, you’re never going to believe this. That meeting link was sent to me by mistake. As soon as I got in, I realised I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I couldn’t help listening in before sneaking away. And within just a few seconds I heard Racquela telling the bunch of strangers that she is selling Sharp Practice and leaving the business! This is apparently TOP SECRET. I snuck away quietly but it’s probably only a matter of time before Racquela will discover I was there, and come after me to find out what I know.
Who is she selling to, how much, when, and – WHAT ABOUT MY JOB???? It’s now nearly midnight but I can’t possibly go to sleep. The other odd thing is, even though I never liked being a remote leader, I’m starting to see that being an unemployed divorcee with no friends is one stage worse than being an employed one.
There is a scratch at the door. Not Racquela, armed with a pick-axe to polish me off before I can blurt her secret to the business world, surely? No. It’s Dylan. Back from his late night ramblings, with what looks like Terry, my stuffed-toy desk mascot, in his mouth.
Looking at me meaningfully, Dylan drops Terry at my feet. On mascot Terry’s ‘Have a nice day’ T shirt, in a rounded feminine hand, I see two words alone standing out in sloping biro:
‘Marry Me. ‘
It worked for Bathsheeba when she proposes to William Dashwood in Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, and although I’m no ravishing young beauty but a soon-to-be-redundant middle-aged bloke with no prospects, I still have hope. I grab a pen, and write frantically on Terry’s T Shirt
‘Whoever you are, I accept!’
Then send Dylan out, Terry in his mouth, back to my secret admirer somewhere in the gathering dark. I have no idea who could be foolish enough to want to marry me, unless this is some kind of unpleasant practical joke, but desperation is the mother of – well, desperation – and there is nothing to do now but sit here, heart racing and wait and see what will happen next.
Fingers crossed for me, dear virtual friend, and goodnight.
Fredrik Fogelberg is a chartered Organisational Psychologist specializing in leadership development and team facilitation in international organizations. He has over 30 years of international experience in the corporate world and as a consultant.