Dear Virtual Friend
May I call you that? I’ve no idea whether you’re reading this in Bombay , Barcelona or Basingstoke, but I need to feel someone out there, even a complete stranger whom I’m never met, actually cares about me. Today my whole life was turned upside down, and I don’t know who I am anymore. I feel like that chap in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, only I haven’t even turned into a beetle, but something much further down the insect pecking order – a wood louse or carpet bug, perhaps.
When I got home and broke today’s terrible news to Vanessa, my lovely wife, she just stood there, repeating: ‘Working from home? What do you mean – working from home? What – PERMANENTLY?’ in a shrill, semi-deranged voice, like some kind of crazed parrot.
Then, when I politely asked what time I might expect dinner, she rushed upstairs, slammed our bedroom door and locked it. Even the dog (Wittgenstein, thick and untrainable) won’t talk to me. So here I sit, Kenneth Reddy, virtual leader, Macdonalds Happy Meal on my knees (darkly ironic choice but Vanessa had clearly forgotten to shop) poking drearily at some chicken nuggets in a spare bedroom whose freezing cold and inhospitable environment brings to mind an extended holiday in outer Siberia.
I should have seen this coming. The winds of change were blowing, and I didn’t even feel the breeze. All those boring emails – modernisation this, globalisation that – I jauntily deleted every single message over months, assigning them all to my secret folder labelled ‘HR Lunacy – Ignore’.
But the emails, it now transpires, were from the very top – from ‘God’ or Racquela La Dracula, our new teenage CEO. (OK. So Dracula is not her real name. Nevertheless, rumours abound that her family started life hanging upside down in a dripping wet cave in deepest Transylvania.)
Thirty glorious years here, at ‘Sharp Practice’ (we’re big in pencil sharpeners, slogan: ‘Do you get our point?’) from postroom boy to finance manager, and now this.
Yet when I went in to our offices earlier today, nothing seemed different. I parked in my usual slot (management only) in the usual car park, striding in my usual confident, friendly but purposeful way past reception and was about to bound up the stairs in my usual ‘I may be 57 but I’ve still got what it takes’ two-at-a-time gallop, when I notice Jill, our ancient, people- hating receptionist staring at me, mouth open.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ she hissed. (Jill was once signed up for a course in customer interfacing, but never attended.)
I’m a tolerant chap, skilled in dealing with difficult junior staff.
‘I work here Jill’ I said kindly. ‘Had you forgotten?’
‘You’d better go home’ she snarls. ‘You r job has been – ….’
I barged past and raced upstairs, cushion-soled shoes working overtime. At the top, a hideous sight greeted me. My name was no longer on the office door, indeed most of my office had been removed. In the space I had happily sat for decades was now an open-plan, glass and chrome Boardroom lined with computers and expensive-looking gadgetry. Terry, my 30-year-old soft-toy mascot (a small skunk wearing a T shirt saying ‘Have a nice day’) was upside down in the rubbish bin, the only two things of mine left in the room.
She was peering into a bank of computers, flashing white smile revealing the merest hint of fang-like teeth.
‘Ben! How lovely to see you! Welcome to our brand new video-conferencing suite! We can run 10 meetings simultaneously all over the world with full avatar representation! Exciting times!’ She held out a perfectly manicured, only slightly bat-like hand. I ignored it.
‘It’s Ken. Kenneth.’
‘Of course it is. Silly me. And congratulations on your promotion. You are now – virtually a leader!’
She broke into a laugh. At least, it was probably a laugh. No sound actually came out, at least not one discernible to the human ear. The next 15 minutes passed in a horrible blur. Racquela repeated endlessly ‘We told you about this virtualisation project 6 months ago, Ben’ and I stood there helpless, unable to speak.
Then, suddenly, I lost control. Letting out a howl of rage, I picked up mascot Terry from the wastepaper bin, and threw him at Racquela’s head with full force. She ducked, he bounced against the wall with a loud squeak, then richocheted out of the window into a rubbish skip for broken office furniture below. Terry and me. On the scrapheap together. Finished.
She smiled. Ice cracked, somewhere. ‘An entertaining resignation speech, Ben, but I’m not going to let your prehistoric attitude to change keep our business in the pond-slime along with the other dinosaurs. Now get out. Go home. Do your job. Make contacts. Bring some warmth and empathy to your role. Being distant doesn’t mean being distant. Goodbye.’
And that was it. Interview over.
Warmth and empathy? I’m a finance manager, for heaven’s sake!
Nearly midnight now. I am just climbing, resigned and alone, into the spare room bed – when I hear a knock at the door! I fling it open and, mad with relief, gabble a desperate apology, begging Vanessa to be allowed back into our bedroom. Then I see the phone in her hand .
The chicken nuggets do a terrible tap-dance in my stomach. Racquela. I take the phone.
‘Sorry to hear about the marital situation, Ben’ she says smoothly. ‘The global team are here online, waiting for your emergency budget report. We have – how do you English say it – “baited breath”. You were due to present 30 minutes ago. Are you having trouble joining us?’
The nuggets break into a rapid, clumsy tango.
‘M – meeting ..? I stammer. ‘It’s nearly midnight …’
Racquela lowers her voice to a whisper, but I’m sure the Board hear every word. ‘Midnight in England, 6pm in New York. I wanted to get rid of you, Ben, but they persuaded me to keep you on. Why not start reading my emails? Unless, of course, you want me to press charges for assault wiith a small and unpleasant smelling office mascot.’
She hangs up. Vanessa disappears and I hear the bedroom door slam shut. Remote leadership? More like exile.
I’ve kept this quiet for years, but I don’t even own a home computer, scraping by at work on an ancient Dell and a spreadsheet invented in the Medieval era. I make hardened traditionalists look cutting-edge.
In the depths of night, I hatch a plan. Action one: stage counter-revolution. Action two: Find Terry, my trusty mascot skunk, and bring him safely home.
I think I’ll start with finding Terry, it’s probably quicker.
Will clueless Kenneth reverse the march of progress? Or will he give in and buy a computer? And what does Racquela’s mantra: ‘being distant doesn’t mean being distant’ mean? Follow Kenneth’s monthly blog as he staggers from one ‘remote leadership’ disaster to the next, learning usually on his feet but sometimes lying down. Practical tips and embarrassing moments guaranteed!
Nomadic IBP runs all kinds of virtual training and coaching services, including remote leadership training, that will help you avoid Kenneth’s misery. Indeed, we aim to get you up to speed with virtual facilitation of all kinds with high-energy, engaging and entertaining learning!
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.