A Thursday. A balmy spring evening. A pub beer garden in the City.
Young suits drifted in from all directions. Believing they looked like a montage of the Marvel Avengers assembling. Drawn like moths to a naked flame.
Fitted jackets. Skinny trousers. No ties. Oversized clown shoes. Almost all smoking or vaping.
Tab open. Lager flowed. Endless rounds of drinks ferried from the bar, ensuring few empty hands.
Few women were present. A visible minority. Trying to fit in. Attempting to keep up. Playing a game that is rigged. Possessing only half the body mass of their male colleagues, while consuming wine and cocktails, drinks with double the alcohol content. A combination that rarely ends well.
As the sun went down, the crowd got louder. Mocking cheers whenever a glass was dropped. Flashes of anger should the ceaseless jostling result in a drink being spilt. Opportunists ducking and weaving through the teeming mass, liberating laptops or dispensing off-market pharmaceuticals.
The pandemic was over. The City was back.
Except every group commented they were missing people. “Out with covid” was the common refrain. More than a quarter. Less than a third. A second dance with the disease for many. The new normal.
The following morning, a dozen hardy souls braved the commute to attend the office. Heeding the relentless call for “bums on seats”. A few wishing to be seen as team players, toadying loyal corporate citizens. The rest succumbing to thinly veiled threats of “consequences”.
An expensive management consultant had recommended implementing a monitoring report, keeping score of hot desk bookings to flush out those recalcitrant remote workers. Who, despite ably demonstrating throughout those covid times that they could successfully perform their roles from home, were now being recast as work-shy troublemakers.
Inevitably, as soon as the monitoring was implemented the staff began to game the system. Fictional desk bookings became the norm. On paper, a full house. In person, the sound of crickets could be heard.
In a throwback to high school, the long-suffering facilities manager was given the unenviable daily task of roaming the office and taking attendance. Fortunately, she had a modicum of common sense and an excellent understanding of who contributed value versus those who simply made up the numbers. Her roll call report was a fine work of fiction, protecting her favourites and those the firm couldn’t afford to be without.
One of my more earnest colleagues had taken a principled stand. Hired into a fully remote role at the height of the pandemic. An arrangement well suited to his family situation and epic commute. The firm subsequently reneged on their employment contracts, removing all mentions of flexible working conditions or remote locations. The corporate negotiating strategy was simple: take it or leave.
He raised an objection with his line manager.
Then his manager’s manager.
Concerns dismissed. The edict had been issued from upon high. Toe the line. Don’t rock the boat.
He formalised the complaint to HR.
This proved to be a judgement error. The guy mistakenly believing that Human Resources existed to help employees, rather than their true function of protecting the firm from the employees. The clue is in the name, Human Resources. Consumable. To be used up in the production of a commercially saleable output. Indistinguishable from bandwidth, electricity, or water. Commodities all.
He was summoned to a formal meeting, where it was explained in no uncertain terms that his reluctance was a problem. Now a problem on record. Every week that he failed to follow the instructions of management would have a negative impact on his remuneration. Performance bonus lost. Payrise forfeit.
For good measure, he was placed on performance management. A ridiculous outcome for the star of his team, an employee who worked harder and smarter than any other in the department.
A couple of days later he submitted his resignation.
The firm insisted on him honouring his three month notice period. In person. On site.
He’s been out sick ever since, “with the covid”.
His role was backfilled by a lovely fellow residing in Eastern Europe. Working entirely remotely. For far less money. Which was what the game was really about. The pool of human resources retaining a similar skills mix at a reduced cost base. A net win, for all but the expensive employees.
The beginning of spring marks a familiar annual event, the corporate compliance training tick box exercise. Evidencing that all staff had skipped and cheated their way through a series of excruciating e-training set pieces.
Read some slides. Answer a quiz.
Watch a video. Answer a quiz.
Achieve a high pass mark, or do it again.
All told, it took on average 7 person-hours per staff member. Across the whole firm. For the final couple of working days of the compliance year, the entire multinational business effectively stopped.
An eye-wateringly expensive exercise in compliance theatre.
Demonstrating that the firm had made the effort to educate their workforce in the principle-based dark arts of bribery, corruption, money laundering, and sanctions.
Providing plausible deniability. Getting excuses in early, for future blame-shifting when such activities were exposed in the course of conducting daily business. A wink and a nod from senior management encouraging those behaviours, until somebody gets caught.
Much like Tour de France cycling or the Olympics, there was a tacit understanding that competing at such a level was impossible without breaking the rules. Widely understood that it was part of the game, table stakes for entry. Universal acceptance that every year a few sacrifices were necessary to protect the herd, providing the regulators with scalps to demonstrate that their vague, ill-defined, and subjectively applied regime was “tough, but fair”. Enforced, occasionally, while the core regulatory mantra remained: “let business do business”.
Seven hours of mind-numbingly dull compliance training was an endurance sport. Doubly so for those attempting to meet unrealistic project deadlines with inadequate resources and undercooked budgets.
Doing it while coming down, or nursing a hangover, made it harder still. Those who had been out on the town the night before were questioning their life choices as they choked down bacon sandwiches and considered an early liquid lunch for some “hair of the dog”.
This year a particularly sadistic management consultant had devised a diabolical training course. A lengthy video, broken up every thirty seconds or so with quiz questions. All means of fast-forwarding, skipping ahead, or increasing the playback speed were disabled. Getting a question wrong meant failing the course, yet being forced to watch it through to the end before restarting.
And over again.
Until by some minor miracle an acceptable score was achieved.
Some employees paid attention. Others got lucky. Most failed, and failed again.
The relative quiet of the near-empty office was shattered by an imaginative torrent of swear words, delivered in a thick Scottish accent. A string of anatomically implausible suggestions about where the person who devised the course could go, followed by some creative recommendations about what they could do with themselves once they got there.
The rant abruptly ended with some actual shattering, as an office chair toppled through the glass partitioned wall of a conference room. Pebbles of safety glass cascaded across the carpet.
A very angry, very hungover Scotsman stood in the newly made opening, looking somewhat bewildered. From his expression, it was unclear whether the unconventional method of exiting the meeting room had been accidental or deliberate.
He had been under a lot of pressure. We all were. “Do more with less” slowly grinding down the staff, until one by one they burned out, walked out, or went out on long term sick leave. It didn’t really matter which, the outcome was the same. There was no coming back.
The facilities manager appeared, quickly took in the scene, and filled out an accident report. Telling everyone present the breakage had been an accident. The Scotsman lucky to avoid injury when the window suddenly failed while he was in a meeting. Advising that the firm would most likely offer a settlement to avoid a potential lawsuit, money that would come in handy as he looked for a new job.
One of his colleagues was asked to take him home. Instead, they went back to the pub with the beer garden. Enjoying a Friday afternoon of beer-fuelled frivolity, ahead of the inevitable fallout the following week for missing deadlines.
Failing to complete the compliance box-ticking exercise.
Challenging authority, by not unquestioningly doing what they were told.
An outcome that would ironically involve interaction with the firm’s senior management, something that had proven virtually impossible for anyone attempting to deliver projects to them.
But at least the sun was shining, and the weekend would soon be upon them.