The cast of the office

by Gautam Raja

Though I haven’t worked in a “proper” office for nearly eight years, I realised the other day that I don’t miss it one bit. It’s the punishing schedule that drives me insane. And by punishing, I mean that there’s a schedule at all… both the daily grind of having to be at the same place at the same time every morning, as well as the weekly one of having to endure five days of this for what feels like a few hours of weekend.

Then there’s the people. Don’t get me wrong—some of my best friendships are from offices, and I even met my wife at one. But the sheer energy of navigating social webs and tides would leave me drained by the end of the day. And it doesn’t help that every office has people put there specifically to test you. Take the Question Barker, for example.

It doesn’t matter that Google is on every screen around. There’s always one person who shouts out questions without even looking up from their computers. “Hey, what’s the capital of Azerbaijan?” “Anyone know the GDP of the US?” “What’s braising?” All questions that Google will answer in 0.38 seconds or less, but no, this person has to involve the entire floor.

Then there’s the Meeting Hound. Every decision they make becomes a collective one (that’s a great way to duck responsibility), and therefore every decision becomes a dilute fits-all version of what it could have been. So much of your day goes in sitting, glassy eyed and not working, at a meeting where contribution requires different skills or knowledge than yours, but you have to be at because the Meeting Hound requires everybody to rally round.

There are plenty of other major and minor irritating characters, but for me, the most testing has to be the Force Friend.

You know how, when you really need to concentrate on something, you send out a “don’t you dare disturb me” aura, sometimes even making little blinkers with your hands? Most people get the message, but every office has one person who is immediately drawn to you. Everything about you is saying “leave me alone” but they’ll come up to your desk, and proceed to attempt to annoy you. They’ll pretend to type on your keyboard. Or cover your eyes. Or hold a file up in front of your screen. Or poke you and say, “Talk to me”.

And so, because you don’t want to be on someone’s list of office characters, you go with the joke at first, and then gently head back to work. After a couple of times, perhaps you suggest, in the nicest possible way, that you need to concentrate. But neither subtlety nor niceness work, so you ask firmly (but still nicely) not to be disturbed. You even explain why. But this only seems to make things worse until finally, one day, you get annoyed and snap a little. This is when the Force Friend gets deeply and dramatically hurt and is never the same way with you again. And in the months that follow, every time you interact with them for work, they have an air of “Oh so now you need me huh? You treated me so badly, but now when you need something you come running?”

“I’m not asking for a favour,” you want to say through gritted teeth. “This is work.” And then the inherent surrealism of the office hits you. That a large part of your work day goes in pleading with people to let you do your job. Don’t miss it one bit.

First published in Gulf News, May 14, 2013