"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Working From Home

I can’t imagine why anyone would work in an office from 9-5.  There is nothing more dispiriting, deadening, and mind-numbing to be in an airless glass shaft for eight hours, poking out only to chat with the girls over tuna melt.  Gone are the good old days of the  civilized three-martini lunch spent in downtown men’s clubs where one discussed golf, private schools, and business. Gone too are the cinq a sept liaisons; the post-affair cocktails at the Mayflower, Hays-Adams, or Jockey Club.  Life was more civilized then, and going to the office was fun.  Men got to fight in a gladiatorial ring for market share or a corner office and then spread their seed widely.  A little squash at the Club if Nancy or Jane or Melissa were unavailable; and work that counted – decision-making, hard choices, hanging out on the ledge, fighting it out in the pit, and making bloody money. Women got to show a little thigh and catch a man – a sport easier than making money, given how susceptible men are to a little pussy, but competition nonetheless.  A girl couldn’t put out too much or too often, and had to trump up her credentials beyond the ken of the secretarial pool.

I never worked during the Golden Age of office work, the famous Mad Men Fifties, but I did work at the World Bank in the early Eighties which, thanks to its older European personnel, was still ranging a few decades back. There were five-week Tuscan holidays, long lunches in the Executive Dining Room, and plenty of attractive and available Jamaican, Somalian and Palestinian Project Officers on every floor.

There were also secretaries – not Administrative Assistants or Associates – who typed in a typing pool, who smoked, and who survived the class-structured, type-and-keep-your-mouth-shut through elaborate, byzantine, games.

Barbara East was my hero.  She was a secretary in my division of the Infrastructure Department of the Bank.  She was, like Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, and just as smart.  She never made it past high school, a prisoner of the class system, and resented every Englishman who crossed her path.  Our division chief had won a special prize and had gone up to Oxford, but Barbara never let him forget that he was the son of railroad people, no better than her, worse actually because he affected a plummy accent and tried to deny his roots while she proudly honked and quacked hers, dropped her aitches, and used gutter slang. 

Barbara knew that in the very English and European Bank, she would never make it beyond Administrative Secretary.  She found her job boring, demeaning, and insulting and needed to find a pastime to help her make it through the day.  Hers was to get dirt on everybody in the division.  Who was fucking whom, who was gay, who hated his wife, and who wanted to kill Hermann Goetz, the Nazi Division Chief who ran his office like the Gestapo.  She worked on me for the four years that I managed to stay at the Bank, and never managed to find my smoking gun.  I led her down blind alleys, primrose paths, deviant passageways, dark and mysterious arcades, but never to the truth.  Whatever peccadilloes I was hiding, I never let on.  It didn’t matter to Barbara, for the fun was in the hunt.  The ‘gotcha’ was only the frosting on the cake.

Which leads me to the present day.  My last job was at a bottom-line, take-no-prisoners, private firm out to make a killing by bidding on everything, winning a third, and managing successful bids by keeping costs low.  One way they did this was by working their young, idealistic, recent MPH graduates to the bone.  Once they had reduced them, through 14-hour days, weekends, and no vacations, to quivering wrecks, they quit; and the firm hired another round of eager, idealistic, and ambitious youngsters.

The 9-5 had morphed into the 9-7 long before I arrived.  Lunches were eaten in, not out; and if a minion managed a break, it was at the Subway across the street watching the clock. Cinq a sept liaisons were relics, and sex was reserved for weekend debauches when the twenty-somethings, on furlough from Angola Prison, let all hell break loose. I was the beneficiary of some of this frustrated largesse, and I can attest that there was one hell of a lot of frustration built up in these girls.

The minions complained long and loud about the work-life imbalance, but the firm, reaping plenty of profits for stockholders with its grind-‘em-down-until-they-leave-and-hire-new-ones business model would have none of it. They told middle management that they would have to acknowledge the hard work of their subordinates, take them out for a chili dinner once and a while, but hew to the party line. 

As part of the discussion about work-life balance the subject of working at home was raised. Life would be a lot easier, said the minions, if they could participate in virtual meetings, cranked out drafts from their home computers, and checked in periodically with their bosses.  The company tried it out on a limited basis.

I loved the idea.  Except for this job, the one at the World Bank, and an earlier one in the mist of my early ‘career’, I had been on my own – a private consultant, Lone Ranger interloper, and international part-time bon vivant, part-time problem-solver. Working from home?  I could deal with that.

I have crazy hours.  I normally wake up and am at my best at 4am.  I do my best work between 4-10 in the morning.  I have the tunnel vision common to most early-risers. We are preternaturally alert in the dark before anyone else is up.  I figured I could work my normal circadian schedule and game the system at the same time. I sent out reams of emails at 4am, attached commentaries on proposals, and gave directions to my staff in four countries. When I left at 3pm to ‘work at home’ no one doubted me, and everyone assumed that I worked the same 14 hour day that they did.  The truth was that I got more work done between 4-7am than they could ever imagine in their long, dull day; so I got to play between 7-9 and after 3pm. In fact, when I left the company, I was considered a model employee for having given so much to the company.

The fact is that in the few hours of the day that I actually worked, I produced high-quality outcomes. I was value-added to the company, for they assumed that anything from an alter kocker at the end of this career was gravy, and instead got K Street magic. I worked the work-from-home system to maximum advantage.

Of course top executives are unhappy with the move towards out-of-office experiences. They know that when we are patched in on a conference call, we push the ‘Mute’ button and go stir the soup; and that most of us, what with bawling, shitty diaper babies, and doorbells, can’t really do a lick of work; but the tide has turned. Virtual reality is here to stay.  Sitting in interminable meetings with dumb bosses and dumber colleagues is so yesterday.  Social media and the IT revolution mean that WE rule, set our own agenda, interact at our own speed

I for one have milked the system good and proper.  I was a consultant in a venal and corrupted international development system, so no one noticed if I was out fucking Esmeralda.  I came and went at the World Bank because they were antediluvian and retrograde in their social policies; and I was a hero at my private Washington firm because I ‘worked so hard for the poor’.

Here’s to all who work at home, want to work at home, or even aspire to an independent work life and a reasonable work-life balance.  Bonne chance!!

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