Curiosity is a good and wonderful force, regardless of all those unsubstantiated claims about how it killed the cat. Curiosity is the perpetual motion engine I use when travelling through this life. Curiosity powers the bicycle with which I move from one corner of this city to another — always in search of something to be curios about. Curiosity is an infinite combination of the questions What? Where? Who? Why? and How? Curiosity is also what motivated me to enter the vanishing shell of the Post CS Building and take a look around.
During three half hour lunch-breaks, in December 2010 and January 2011, I was allowed to climb up through the rubble of Post CS with my camera and tripod. The lifts had long been decommissioned and, especially on my first visit, somewhere between the sixth and seventh floors I began to doubt the wisdom of my endeavour. Fortunately our good friend curiosity came to the rescue and pushed me further up the building and I was rewarded with spectacular views and a strange not-quite silence.
1. 0830: Here we go. A brand new day: coat hangers, swivel chairs, start buttons, coffee and an endless stream of “Hi!” “Hey there!” “Hello!” “How are you doing?” Collegial greeting is the most important part of our collegial ritual: how are we supposed to get through the day if we don’t say hello to one another?
2. 0840: I can’t help but wonder about this computer: sometimes the words appearing on the screen before me are not the ones I typed on the keyboard. I have mentioned this phenomenon to the IT people and they say I must be confusing what I see with what I think I see.
3. 0850: “Beware of false intellectuals.” These words belong to the first of today’s General Circulation Messages — also known as a GCM. It is a warning about the dangers of hiding one’s meaning behind a wall of long and complicated words. Have your ears and brain also been punished by smart-sounding-but-rather-hollow blah blah blah?
4. 0900: Something very funny is going on in the background. My colleagues laugh and giggle and slap their thighs and I’d really love to join in. Unfortunately I’m in the middle of my probationary period and still need to pretend I’m a very serious worker.
5. 0910: Don’t you just hate it when a member senior management leans over your shoulder and starts watching? As if this work I do is some form of entertainment for everyone but me.
6. 0920: Aaaah, first toilet break of the day — I don’t actually need to go: neither my bowels or bladder are under pressure. Still, it’s nice to be alone for a minute or two.
7. 0930: Don’t look at the clocks if you’d rather be outside because the more you want to get out, the longer and longer and longer the seconds become. Take the day before yesterday for instance: I counted at least six thirty minute long seconds!
8. 0940: The number 7 on my keyboard has gone on strike. The reason for Nº 7’s misbehaviour is its general irritation at forever being imprisoned between the 6 and 8. The number 7 is not the first keyboard character to protest and it will not be the last.
9. 0950: GCM #2: “Dear colleagues, never forget that we are here to build the future and not celebrate the past. Yesterday has come and gone: tomorrow is our collective destination.”
10. 1000: It’s all an illusion: this sitting at our desks pretending to be calm, civilised and wonderfully organised. At least half of us (and I know this to be a fact) would much rather tear off our clothes and go for a run in the wild.
11. 1010: Uh-oh, here comes certain-person-in-a-bad-mood-who-thinks-we-should-all-be-in-awe-of-particular-mood-in-question together with all the usual baggage: snappiness, incessantly loud sighing, slamming things down on desk and mild cursing. Why these people think it’s a good idea to come in and terrorise us with their sulky terrorism is beyond me.
12. 1020: I’ll call them ’A’ and ’B’ — in order to protect their identities — and they do not get along. Two alpha males fighting for influence; two wild men suppressed by the ties around their necks and the jackets across their shoulders. Their battle for office supremacy has entertained us for weeks on end.
13. 1030: Tick tick tick tick tac tac tick tick. The sweet concerto of busy keyboards as our fingertips feed the system a steady stream of letters and numbers. I’m doing this for a reason but have been here too long to remember just what that reason was.
14. 1040: Outside, the clouds seem happy: moving, shifting, disappearing, reappearing and playing hide and seek with the sun. There are times when I cannot help but wonder what life would be like as a cloud.
15. 1050: GCM #3: “Please, please, please let us not over-think ourselves into paralysis. The reason we are here is to accomplish and achieve, to implement and undertake. So ’smart’ people take note: we are on to your cunning brainstorm-driven work avoidance scheme.”
16. 1100: A coffee break; a chance to stretch my legs and circulate around the work floor and re-greet colleagues with nods and muttered “Hey”, “Hi”, “Hellos”. Sometimes I wonder what an alien would make of all this nodding and greeting — we do an awful lot of this on the work floor.
17. 1110: Our employee handbook is not written for normal human beings: it explicitly forbids intra-office relationships. And yet week in week out we share the same space and breathe the same air and lock eyes from time to time while our hearts beat out rhythms like the funky drummer. Amor est vitae essentia — just my two cents.
18. 1120: An email message from the departmental head comes in. It asks us to be on the alert for email messages falsely claiming to have come from the departmental head.
19. 1130: There is something peculiar going on with the fluorescent lights: they appear to be in conversation with one another. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they are plotting to takeover the building but I know the lights are talking about something amongst themselves. I have asked maintenance to look into this.
20. 1140: Another email message from the departmental head: “Please disregard my earlier message. The messages allegedly sent out by me do not exist. In short, there are no false messages from me in circulation.”
21. 1150: GCM #4: “Friends, colleagues, employees; having the courage to express an original thought is a good thing. Just because something sounds crazy does not actually make it so.”
22. 1200: Some colleagues are far more equal than others. Through a subtle combination of seniority, bluff and all-round cunning, they get away with near permanent non-productivity, deep-rooted cynicism and other mischief — things which could get a less equal colleague fired.
23. 1210: Sometimes my mind drifts and I begin to wonder about all the wild and crazy things I once planned to do. Whatever happened to all that? At what point did I run away from bigness and choose, instead, to play it straight? And how do I feel after years of not doing the things I was supposed to do, but rather the things I thought everyone wanted me to do? Well I feel there’s always time to change.
24. 1220: Ah, lunch time. We descend to the canteen in groups of three and four or five. Our plan is to conquer the most strategically important tables: the ones with the best view of everyone else in the room. Our running commentary on the comings and goings of distant colleagues is good for the digestion — we find.
25. 1230: Have you ever stopped to listen to the sound of a lot of people eating at once? It’s a humbling noise; a reminder that (in spite of our clothes and air-conditioning, our streamlined workflows and speed at which we fill a million sheets of A4 paper with printed messages) we are not that far removed from our cave-dwelling ancestors.
26. 1240: A strange post-lunch telephone conversation takes place just outside our office door: “So. Yeah. But— But— Yeah but what I’m— No but— No. Yeah. No. When? But still— Yeah but I already— But I told them— Yeah, I know. Yeah. No. That’s what I said and— What? Fine. Okay. No. But— No. What about— Really? Yeah okay. Sure. Tomorrow? Evening’s better. Yeah. No, we went there the other— Yeah, great. Fine with me. See ya then. Seven, okay? Bye.”
27. 1250: GCM #5: “It is helpful, though not essential, to become familiar with your own limitations — after all, they will be with you for quite some time.”
28. 1300: An impatient and somewhat stressed-out middle management fellow stabs at a lift button again and again and again. I know from experience this kind of behaviour will not make the lift arrive any sooner. I also know from experience that stressed out middle management types are best left well alone.
29. 1310: I need to get an LB-211 holiday request form stamped. This turns out to be easier said than done. The man in charge of stamping these things would like help but can’t: his rubber stamp is missing, and without a rubber stamp there can be no stamping.
30. 1320: An essential part of big office survival is retaining the ability to be amazed by simple things: a shadow, a chipped table top, a fly trying to break through a window. These are the things that keep you from losing perspective.
31. 1330: Outside, someone in a red coat — too far away for me to see if it is a man or woman — makes paces back and forth in front of a bus stop. Are they waiting for public transport or are they taking part in a ritual dance?
32. 1340: Aha! See that? There! My pile of forms is now 3mm higher than it was 10 seconds ago. It does this all the time and every day — but only when I’m not looking.
33. 1350: GCM #6: “A message for our newer colleagues; please stop being afraid of being yourself. After all, who else can you possibly be?”
34. 1400: Why do my blocks of Post-it™ notes keep running away? I’m not against their freedom — really I’m not. The thing is; the people in Supplies (who I am now visiting two or three times a week) think I’m involved in some form of illicit Post-it™ notes trade. This is absolutely not the case.
35. 1410: If and when I ever leave this job, I promise to devote eighteen months of my life to studying the relationship between the number of junior, regular and senior something-something-something executives in an organisation (check those job titles please) and what percentage of the work week is consumed by meetings. Intuition tells me it will make for interesting reading.
36.1420: A large-ish group has gathered by a south facing window. Something of interest has happened on the street below. My colleagues and I move over to the crowd and ask what’s going on. They cannot say: they’re still waiting for the latest update from the guys pressed up against the window…
37. 1430: Do you also have those eyeball moments? When our eyeballs peek over the top of our computer screens as every person in the office watches every one else for fifteen or so seconds. We see ourselves, think our thoughts and then return to our work. All this happens without any one of us saying a word.
38. 1440: There are days I wish would go on forever; when my bosses and my colleagues are in the best of moods; when the pile of paper sitting in my in-tray evaporates at high speed and the office atmosphere is warm and jovial. Today, however, is not one of those days.
39. 1450: GCM #7: “In an attempt to boost morale and elevate self-esteem, junior staff members are no longer required to laugh at any bad, cheesy and embarrassing jokes told by senior members of staff.”
40. 1500: A temporary break down in decorum: a portly colleague bends to retrieve a dropped fountain pen; the seams and stitches holding his trousers together can take no more and surrender. We hear it all and see it all but dare not laugh. Instead we choke back giggles and bite into our sleeves — no natural human behaviour allowed in a place like this.
41. 1510: “Anyone want a coffee?” a colleague asks and we all say yes. Our fingers shake, our hearts tap out arrhythmic beats, our hyper-concentrated minds can no longer focus and still we say: “Yes, the usual; no milk, no sugar.” I’m beginning to wonder whether or not this office life is really and truly as healthy as advertised.
42. 1520: The rows of desks, the in- and out-trays, the cursor blinking on my screen, the soft yet wicked hiss of the air conditioning systems, the distant telephones calling out for attention, the hidden cables, the rules (both written and unwritten) and the mechanical wheeze of the copiers and printers. There are times when these facts and noises and civilisation turns the office into a prison.
43. 1530: The weather outside is glorious: what am I doing in here? Oh wait a second — the outside weather has changed: raindrops the size of cricket balls (and just as hard) fall from the sky. Now I remember what I’m doing in here: keeping warm, dry and safe.
44. 1540: I really wish my super-serious colleagues could one day acknowledge and appreciate the medicinal benefits of fun and laughter: it has been known to lower the blood pressure, increase one’s lifespan and reduce the length of a working day by up to 29%.
45. 1550: GCM #8: “There is absolutely nothing wrong in biting off a little more than you can chew: it happens to the best of us. All we ask is that you do not make a habit of it.”
46. 1600: Funny how quickly an unsubstantiated rumour turns into fact: my colleagues to the right of me are debating a rumour derived from another rumour about an allegation as if it is indeed fact.
47. 1610: Have you ever noticed how dangerous a promotion can become when given to the wrong person? How one extra ounce of responsibility and a few extra pennies at the end of the month can turn a former colleague into a barking, snapping power-hungry monster?
48. 1620: How often were you polite enough not to say what you should have said and ended up wasting an awful lot of time? Exactly! How often were you good enough not to hurt a colleague’s feelings and chose to lie to them instead? Some collegiality we’re talking about! How often have you twisted, turned, juggled, increased your blood pressure or gone out of your way to be friendly to a colleague who, through no fault of his own, you simply cannot stand? You know what I mean. Life’s too short for all that and I’ve learned to keep it simple, keep it straight and keep it honest.
49. 1630: Another set of instructions flies in and lands where I cannot ignore them. This batch covers what needs to be done today and in what particular order. Nothing major, nothing complex, nothing out of the ordinary and I set about these tasks in my usual manner: a fifteen minute gaze out of the window — the city skyline is a great source of motivation.
50. 1640: I often wonder what would happen if we were given ten minutes each week in which to do exactly as we pleased. How much of this building would be left intact after such a bout of unbridled employee enthusiasm?
51. 1650: GCM #9: “Dear colleagues, one final thought for the day: it does not matter where an idea comes from. What really matters, what truly matters, both to you and the company, is the quality of a given idea.”
52. 1700: What is it about five o’clock that encourages so many colleagues to power down their computers at the same time, toss printed memos, pens and other personal items into their bags and briefcases at the same time and leave the building at the same time?
53. 1710: A fly buzzes around the office in search of a way out. It bounces off the window glass, light fixtures and computer screens. I wonder how the fly made it past the guardians of our office environment. That’s the thing with these thoroughly modern climate controlled spaces: the air, and everything else, is screened before it’s allowed to enter or leave. Let’s hope our friend the fly makes it out of the building before nightfall…
54. 1720: Well that’s it for today; I’ve put in my time and have definitely achieved something today that must be of use to someone somewhere. Though I’m not at liberty to tell you exactly what that something is and this has nothing to do with adhering to company rules or keeping company secrets but has everything to do with me simply not knowing why I’m here. The good thing, however is that there’s always tomorrow: when I’ll come in again and do it all over again and maybe, just maybe, at the end of the day be one step closer to understanding what my role is in the bigger scheme of things.