“Silence is golden” – except in an online meeting

New Year resolutions made: 1 (resign from being a remote leader as soon as possible)
New Year resolutions kept: 0
Weight gained in just 4 weeks eating greasy takeout food in chilly spare room while
in state of despair at wreckage of professional life now I am a remote leader: 19 kg.

Dear Virtual Friend

I’m sitting here, frostbitten hands typing this to you on my new (and unfathomably complicated) computer, and wondering why this remote leadership nightmare ever had to happen.  

A mere four weeks ago, uber-aggressive teenage boss Racquela Dracula (half woman, half vampire) – forced me to leave my face-to-face day job as Finance Director at UK company ‘Sharp Practice Pencil Sharpeners’, where for 35 happy years I’ve been responsible for designing cutting-edge creative accounting packages and profit margin manipulation systems to die for. It turned out the company had been discussing ‘going virtual’ for months but I’d smugly filed all the emails unopened (assuming them to be about HR matters, and thus both boring and entirely irrelevant at the same time).

Mistake. I turn up one day to find my office transformed into a computer hub for virtual meetings, my beloved office mascot Terry the skunk (stuffed, but full of soul) upside down in the rubbish bin, and Racquela herself sitting in my office chair, running online meetings with teams across the world. The office site, it seems, is being scaled down and will finally be consigned to the scrapheap, a bit like me. I was sent home a month ago, crushed and clueless, and told to ‘work remotely’ from now on, Racquela’s mocking words ringing in my ears: ‘Yes Derek – you are now virtually a leader.’

Well, that was just the start of my demise. Wife Vanessa practically divorced me when she realised my constant presence around the house. Trouble is, she’s got used to having the bathroom to herself in the mornings, and making light conversation with me only at pre-agreed intervals in the week, (and no more than twice on weekends). Let’s face it, we’ve drifted apart – except it’s taken me being at home all the time to realise it. That, and the harsh reality of sitting in exile in the spare bedroom living off takeaways every night, and waiting for someone to contact me over the Internet.  Except no one ever does.

I’m just peering out of the icy window wondering whether I should tie the bed sheets together and escape over the garden fence, changing my identity and starting a new life as a hermit farmer in northern Scotland (I may have a beer gut, but I’ve still got the legs for a kilt) – when the phone rings. In demand at last! I pick up.

‘May I enquire what the bloody hellfire you been playing at, Kendal?’

If she were not an axe-wielding psychopath, Racquela’s southern European accent might be charming. As would her appalling command of basic English vocabulary and 100% consistent inability to recall my proper name.

‘It’s Kenneth.’

‘You’re meant to be leading people! Your team have heard nothing. Not even a salami …’

‘Don’t you mean sausage?’ I interject helpfully.

 ‘Zero. They assume you’re dead. Contacted me to ask when the funeral is. What exactly you been up to, Denzil?’

I toy with the idea of saying ‘eating chips’, ‘staring into space’ and ‘having a nervous breakdown’ – but none of these responses seem OK. Racquela continues shouting.

‘Your last chance, Dennis! Mess up again and – (I heard a loud crash, like someone bringing their heavily nail-varnished fist down hard on a metal table) – you are dead fish. Kaput. ‘

I flinched. It is rumoured Racquela acquired her ‘people skills’ at a very young age, helping her father lead a team slicing up piranhas into bite-sized chunks with machetes in a fish factory somewhere in deepest Estonia.

‘Now get your overpaid English backside into gear and finally meet your team. Over the Internet. Now.’

My moment of nemesis, long-awaited.  I dig deep, and find some inner steel in the soggy mess that passes for my personality these days.

‘No. ’

There was a short pause, and then a very high-pitched scream, so high I’d say it was almost off the scale of human hearing.  The kind of scream a vampire bat uses to communicate with fellow scavengers across the cave when fresh meat arrives within easy reach. The kind of scream that makes it impossible to say no.

Eardrums bursting, I try another tactic.

‘I have bought a new computer, but I – er – haven’t used it yet.’

‘Why not?’

‘ I can’t find the ‘on/off’ button.’

I’m writing this at midnight now, just after the kind of full-on apocalypsis of an online meeting that, on a scale of human suffering, probably equates to the outbreak of a small war somewhere. I might as well have prepared a warning slide for people joining the meeting, saying ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ I’ve put together some tips, to help me learn from tonight’s fiasco.

Footnote: ‘How to survive your first online meeting – six practical tips’

  • TIP ONE: If ever asked to run a virtual meeting, say no.
  • TIP TWO: If that doesn’t work, find out how to turn the computer on.
  • TIP THREE: Seek technical support. The office geek or some other technical person – what do they call them, a producer? – can minimise the humiliation or even take over the meeting so that you can sneak away unnoticed before your reputation is in tatters.
  • TIP FOUR: Plug your computer in to the router, ask meeting participants to use a headset with mic, and use one yourself.  (I’d assumed this was to screen out attendees’ boring small talk, but apparently it gives the best audio quality and avoids echoes. Who knew?)
  • TIP FIVE: Be nice to people. Don’t talk all the time. Encourage interaction. Say hello, introduce people, create a friendly atmosphere, ask questions, be relaxed. (All of this is Racquela’s ideas, what IS she talking about? Encourage interaction? Ask questions? I’m not a bloody psychotherapist.)
  • TIP SIX: During long silences, don’t say: ‘Does anyone know any good jokes?’ Most definitely do NOT, as I did, resort to shouting: ‘Is anyone even OUT THERE? Help!!’ in a shrill, panicky-sounding voice.

I’m about to sign off for the night, when an email from Racquela appears. I read:

‘Tonight was indescribable. Things can only improve. By the way, I found your repulsive stuffed skunk Terry. If you want him back, you’re going to have to shape up. Call me tomorrow. I have a plan for your development. It’s make or break time, Derek.’

Terry! Perhaps it’s the strain of the last month, perhaps it’s the fish and chip takeaways playing havoc with my hormones. Either way, I weep – silent, grateful tears.

Whatever Racquela’s sinister-sounding development plan, I will fulfil it to the best of my ability. Terry, my true and only friend, you may be only a soft toy, but you are safe, sound, and finally coming home.

Good night!


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