Dear Virtual Friend
How are you? After a bit of a rocky start – career demise, midlife crisis, marital exile in spare bedroom, impending divorce, 20 kg weight gain – I’d say my new role working as ‘remote team leader’ at Sharp Practice Pencil Sharpeners (UK) is shaping up nicely. I’m actually – if you’ll excuse the playful pun – starting to ‘sharpen up’ my act! Ha ha. I know. I really NEVER thought I’d say that, not in my wildest dreams.
Well, I say ‘new role’ – it’s more a new way of life really. And, much to my surprise, I’m starting to rather like it.
Oh, I kicked up a bit of a fuss at first, certainly. Being booted out of my office after 35 years in glorious residence as top finance man in a centre of corporate pencil-sharpening excellence (we even supply the Queen!) does not sit easily with a man of my status. But the company’s gone virtual, global and fiercely competitive – and I must, in the words of gum-chewing teenage boss Racquela (imagine Nabokov’s Lolita combined with Cruella De Ville from 101 Dalmatians, then add fangs and leather trousers) ‘drag my old-fashioned bottom into the 21st century’ to keep up.
But you know what? This remote leadership thing is an absolute doddle. Here’s an outline of my working day. Get up around 10.30 am, have a leisurely breakfast and a biggish pot of coffee. Remain in pyjamas. Check emails, delete any which look boring and irrelevant (99%), have another coffee, check fridge for doughnuts (or similar snack) to keep strength up, return to computer, add a few details to corporate strategy document that was supposed to be finished 6 months ago and which no one understands, and call my daily team meeting to share my latest ideas.
I must say I don’t know why I was always so scared of running meetings via the Internet before. There’s nothing to it. We don’t use webcam, and as there are only three people in my team, all of whom are grotesquely unattractive people with nothing to say for themselves, not being able to see them is a positive advantage.
And keeping control of the meeting is easy – mostly they don’t even bother to show up, and the only time they did all attend, Jill (the people-hating receptionist) actually fell asleep. I only know this because after chatting through my ideas for two hours I realised no one else had spoken. When I pointedly asked for comments the only sound that could be heard were deafening snores from Jill’s headset. Well. That might put some team leaders off, but not me. I create a relaxed atmosphere in these virtual meetings and if lazy dullards like Jill want to take advantage, that’s her lookout.
And that’s about it. I close the computer, check the fridge for food that’s reaching its sell-by date, eat it (I like to help around the house where I can), and head to the golf course around midday. Job done!
I’m browsing the Net for a new office chair (for some reason, the seat on my current one is getting a bit snug around the derriere) when … PING!! Damn it!. An email.
I’m about to delete it without further perusal when I notice its provenance. Racquela la Dracula.
I struggle to quell the sinking feeling in my guts and urge to rush to the toilet. I read.
‘It has come to my attention that our current corporate practice in running meetings remotely is – how can I put this nicely? – a catastrophic, risible failure. I intend to keep a much closer eye on your meetings etiquette, and will be instituting the following guidelines with instant effect. Failing to match my expectations from now on will mean … ‘
(I couldn’t actually bear to read this next paragraph and moved swiftly on, but I’m sure I saw the phrase ‘torture chamber’ in there somewhere) …
‘Physical fitness. Just because you’re sitting for hours behind a computer screen doesn’t mean you can let yourself go. Get dressed. Look presentable. Do your best not to sound like a complacent zombie speaking through a mouthful of Krispy Kreme Donut. I urge 100 press-ups and a two mile run daily before every online meeting, with physical stretches to warm your body and free your voice –‘
100 press-ups! The only reason I’d attempt even one press-up these days would be if someone taped a large portion of fish and chips to the bedroom carpet and invited me to pick it up in my mouth. How was having my mouth full of fish and chips supposed to free my voice?
‘Two final things. Powerpoint Slides are for firing the imagination and stimulating ideas, not for boring the pants off people. Get rid of all that dreary text and use some images instead! Inspire, don’t perspire!’
I laughed out loud. Far-fetched nonsense, she’ll never get away with this. Then I read the final edict.
‘Lastly, don’t have a virtual meeting unless you really need one. If you just want to share information, an email is more effective. And if you do decide to meet online, try to make sure no one falls asleep.’
I sat up sharply, and stared at the screen. Then I saw the email subject line, with my name in it: ‘REDDY for virtual leadership?’
Oh, dear God. Please, no. I placed a couple of swift calls to reliable colleagues, and checked the circulation list frantically. But no. It turned out I was the only recipient of this humiliating missive. No one else had seen it. So .. why was Racquela doing this? And how did she know about my sleep-inducing slide presentations?
PING. A Chat message on Skype. Racquela. I read:
‘Feedback is a gift, Karl. Only you can change your ways. Do so with instant effect, and I have big plans for you. Fail to do so and – …..’
Raquela has maintained a 100% consistent record in getting my name wrong since we were first introduced. The message trails away with a line of dots as if the ending is too boring and predictable to put into words.
I am sitting quietly trying to think (difficult enough at the best of times) when I hear a crash. It is Terry, my beloved mascot and office stuffed toy skunk, who has been perched on my computer for the last few weeks after Racquela returned him to me when my office was closed down at Sharp Practice. He falls onto the carpet and, astonishingly, I notice something shiney sticking out from under his ‘Have a nice day’ T shirt. I pick him up and look closer. Stare, astonished. Can’t stop staring.
So that’s how she knew about my donut-eating habits, the unkempt appearance, my general physical decline. She probably also therefore knows about my frequent departures to the golf course and …. Oh, I just can’t bear to think what else.
You see, it turned out Terry was housing a miniature video camera, running on extra powerful batteries. Racquela must have hidden it there when she gave him back to me. He’d been quietly filming me for weeks, making an idiot of myself running hopeless meetings from the spare bedroom, generally under-performing and thinking I was getting away with it.
What else had the hapless Terry witnessed? And why …? WHY had she done this?
Terry is tucked away under my pillow, free of his hidden camera, no longer a surveillance tool but a friendly cuddly toy again.
As for me – I can’t think straight anymore, so I’m signing off for now. But believe me, virtual friend – I’m going to get to the bottom of this and when I do, Racquela’s reign of terror will be over. 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.