Dear Virtual Friend
A gentle sunshine strokes my face and a light breeze caresses my lustrous hair. The fresh scent of cut grass fills my nostrils, and the sweet Spring air is filled with birdsong. I lie back on the warm ground, and stretch out my lithe and muscular body. I hear footsteps, raise my head and … yes! My heart leaps with joy! Before I know it the dark-haired beauty is in my eager arms, kissing me passionately and without restraint, surprisingly sharp finger nails gripping my flesh, her urgent mouth probing my yielding ….
PPIINNNGGG!! Another bloody email.
I wake up, head slumped against my desk and notice to my horror that, instead of the mysterious woman in my unexpectedly full-on daydream, I have fallen asleep on top of my soft toy work mascot Terry, a stuffed skunk in a ‘Have a Nice Day’ T shirt. And, judging from the fact that my tongue has slipped within perilously close proximity to the garish stitching of what passes for Terry’s mouth, I think it can be assumed that he was about to act as an unwitting recipient for my amorous attentions.
Needless to say, my hair is neither lustrous nor my body lithe at 57, especially since for the past six months I’ve been working for a pittance, living in remote leadership exile in a junk food festooned garret in the wilds of East Cheam, Greater London’s most boring outpost.
However, despite the obvious drawbacks of working virtually: recent divorce (my ex-wife Vanessa handed me the Decree Absolu papers herself, with the only comment she has aimed at me in four months – ‘I’m planning to get a lodger, when are you moving out?’) decimated self-esteem, serious weight gain, and a general lingering sense of hopelessness and despair, there is one clear advantage to working entirely across the Internet.
No one cares what the hell you do as a remote leader, as long as you produce something that looks like activity every now and then.
I sit up rapidly and pull the hapless Terry from his unfortunate position halfway inside my mouth. Although I’ve seen desperate, lonely times in the last six months, I haven’t yet sunk quite low enough to enjoy deep-kissing inanimate fluffy objects.
Even Racquela la Dracula, the monstrous teenage witch who now seems to be running Sharp Practice (global leader in novelty pencil sharpeners) where I once so enjoyed leading the finance team, barely seems to bother contacting me anymore. In fact, I haven’t heard from her for well over a month, since I made a spectacular mess of a virtual meeting where I was so nervous I didn’t stop talking for two hours solidly and therefore didn’t notice that everyone else had left in disgust after only ten minutes .
One attendee had even written in Chat Space ‘The worst meeting ever’ and sent it around everyone with an emoticon showing a furious, grimacing face and a clenched fist.
Am I now so lonely that I’m really starting to miss Racquela’s brutish bullying style? The leadership tactics that make Attila the Hun look like a ‘people person’? The manipulative, yet strangely intriguing …
BUZZZZZZZ. Text message. Human contact!
Ah. There are 25 texts actually, all from the vampire boss herself, and I must have slept through the lot.
Hastily I look in my ‘Excuses’ folder and dig out a personal favourite, striking just the right note of farsighted professionalism: ‘Apologies for late response to your messages. Have been doing some final editing on this year’s important corporate strategy report regarding pencil sharpener penetration into blue chip businesses in Outer Mongolia …’
DRRRRIIIINNNNGGGGG!!! Telephone. Oh dear. Perhaps I’ve used that excuse before.
I brace myself in readiness for the familiar banshee scream. But this time it sounds as though the voice itself is coming from Outer Mongolia, on a payphone with a broken mouthpiece stuck deep in a snowdrift.
‘Racquela? Speak up – I can’t quite …’
I hear a croaking staccato monosyllable, and some painful breathing. A vampire with laryngitis, fangs redundant.
She must have got a massive dictionary somewhere, stuffed full with names beginning with K, none of them mine.
‘It’s Kenneth. ‘
‘Important meeting. Am ill. Chest infection. Can you help?’ She pauses, gasping for air.
I attempt a light, witty and totally inappropriate stab at humour.
‘I’m not fully trained in first aid, but I’ll certainly take a look at your chest …
WHAT WAS I THINKING???!!
Her voice returns briefly, thin and biting as a blade of ice.
‘I meant – help me with the meeting, you floundering incompetent waste of human resources.’
‘Er. Yes. Of course. Er. When ….?’
BUZZZZZZ. She hangs up and sends a text. I read:
‘Senior management AGM. One hundred people. Keep it interactive and conversational, do a ‘Check In’ so they can connect personally, set up breakout rooms so they can talk in small groups, and take notes on all the big discussions. Get a link sent out now, it starts in 30 minutes. You’ll be on your own, of course. You DID do that very expensive course on technical online production I paid for last month, didn’t you Kendal?’
One hundred people! Even without hearing that terrifying voice, I’ve broken into a cold sweat. Of course I didn’t even open the email about the technical producer course, let alone attend it. I popped it straight in my time-honoured folder labelled ‘ HR LUNACY – IGNORE ’, and proceeded to do just that.
If my career, like an old-fashioned but still once functional steam-train, could previously have been said to have derailed, it has now most definitely skidded over a cliff edge and is now lying in tattered, broken scraps in a dark chasm somewhere, outmoded, derelict, invisible.
A brilliant idea strikes. Professional nemesis is an excellent excuse. I am going to finally resign!
As Jean Paul Sartre allegedly remarked, Hell is other people. And he hadn’t even been to one of my big group virtual meetings. I send out the link she has emailed, sit back and wait to feel the heat of 100 stroppy senior managers all joining me online in twenty minutes.
LATE NIGHT NOTE TO STILL-EMPLOYED SELF
I have made some interesting discoveries.
- Never attempt to do a big group meeting unless have got decent technical back-up, or possibly even attended the aforementioned producer training that might have taught me a few basic skills.
- Apparently it helps to send out an email in advance, telling people to use a plug-in headset, find a quiet room, turn their wretched phones off and try not to all shout at the same time.
- Also never invite a group of ego-driven, power broking misfits like our senior management team to talk about themselves in a misplaced attempt to create social harmony in a large online group via the ‘Check In’ process. We’d doubtless still be sitting rotting away in utter boredom at their endless, tedious anecdotes now if Racquela hadn’t unexpectedly taken over and conducted a rapid 5 minute ‘big group Check In’ with images on a slide, showing each of them as a baby (all repulsively ugly, even in those days) and asking them to identify themselves with the pointer tool. They loved it.
- Oh, and best to avoid webcam in big groups, unless you want to discover, as I did, that 50% of your so-called ‘leadership team’ prefer to work entirely naked. The other 50%, it seems, spend most of their time asleep or, like our man in Dallas, Texas, working their way through a massive pile of Dunkin’ doughnuts.
- Finally, use breakout rooms to enable small group discussions. As I don’t even know what a breakout room is, I can’t help you here. But Racquela says it’s a GOOD IDEA.
So you see, while not exactly a towering success, neither was the meeting a one-way ticket to the fiery depths. The thing is, she actually HELPED me through the entire horrendous occasion, despite having Transylvanian flu, or whatever other virus vampire bosses are prone to.
Another text, as I sit writing this at almost 1 a.m.
‘Not quite catastrophic, Kameron. Goodnight. Xx’
Those two tiny crosses leap off the screen and almost burn themselves on the back of my eyes. Apart from poor Terry, I haven’t received even a written approximation of a kiss from anyone in months.
What can this mean? Is it possible that Racquela … CARES about me? I find myself speculating frantically, thinking back to the earlier lurid daydream. Dark hair, pointy fingernails .. could she actually be ….?
Oh no. No, no, no. If there’s one thing a failed remote leader can’t cope with, it’s hope. Forget the Spring awakening, I’m going back to the Winter of discontent. Predictable pessimism is the way ahead.
As I turn out the light, however, I decide to postpone my resignation for another day.
Goodnight, dear virtual friend, 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.