[Preface: So this was written round-about the start of September, I think. I didn’t date this one, but from the surrounding dates, it sounds reasonable. While it is undoubtedly diary-style, I think it’s worth putting here. Partially because it’s a damn sight more coherant that much of my private-style writing, and partially because I no longer work in this job. After 8 months of pretty much daily scream-worthy frustration and beauracratic fuckery, I got fired. This post therefore, marks a very nice snapshot into why this job was the passive-aggressive pressure cooker that it was.]
As those (un)lucky few who both personally know me and read some of the things I write will know, I’m not much for consistancy.
You’ve almost certainly come across ‘the zone’. Flow is just another, rather more zen-like term for that. It’s a state of active immersion. I use the word active there because plain ol’ immersion can be a very passive thing. If I watch a film, and it’s a good film, and I’m paying attention, then I may well be fully immersed in the events on screen. But I don’t actually interact with them. They happen, and I pay attention. To be ‘in the zone’ has to mean there is some chance for you to have meaningful input.
Let’s paint an example. At the place I work, every morning there is a 15 minute morning meeting. For some horribly corporate reason it’s referred to as a ‘huddle’. Why is that horribly corporate? Well because you’re not allowed to call it anything except ‘the huddle’. It’s one of those things you come across quite frequently, where someone – very soullessly – tries to force something to have soul. Like a 50 year old middle manager trying do a fun, 30 page presentation to The Board on ‘how to be down with the kids’. With clipart. I’d laugh, if it wasn’t for the fact that this kind of thing, very obviously, happens all the time. But hey. We have this huddle.
This huddle follows the same formula. I don’t think it’s a corporate-mandated formula, although I don’t know for certain, but in my branch, there is this formula. First, 3-4 minutes will be filled with stupid small talk. Sometimes it’s someone’s wedding. Usually it’s the traffic. Importantly, only half of the room will actively participate in this, because only half the room is allowed to. So, inevitably, the three male members of the room stand in silence, waiting for it to finish (very importantly, we still have to be there, and in fact we will be called over from our actually-job-necessary morning tasks if it’s past 9 o clock.) The huddle doesn’t start until all are present. And then 3-4 minutes are wasted. Very importantly at this point I will interject that the small talk does not happen inherently because the people doing it are women, and the small talk is not inherently passive for the men just because they are men. This is the dynamic of my branch – a branch in which the three males are all under thirty, the three most senior females are over forty five. This is how it is here.
In what stands as a microcosm for the entire huddle experience, and the branch experience above that, we still have to pay attention during this time. We can’t tune out. At any time, a question might be thrown my way – and if I don’t answer suitably, then my lack-of-attention-about-the-fucking-traffic-for-the-fourth-time-this-week will be taken as rudeness. I will be publicly shown to be someone who just doesn’t care about the branch, and by extension, my job. This is not an exaggeration, this is a thing that has been said. So I stand, rooted in my purgatory. Eventually, after all stars have gone out, after all beings have breathed their last, and the universe itself has folded down to rest, the small talk finishes.
Then our advisor will be given the stage. She inevitably says one of two things. Option A: I’m having a good week, so I need you guys to do it more for me. Or more often option B: I’m not having such a good week, so you guys really need to do more for me.
Some background at this point. The branch advisor is a slightly odd position. They take care of a lot of the more nuanced and time consuming things. If you’ve ever had an appointment in a bank, chances are the first one you had was with an advisor. Now, their job is different from mine. They get some different training, and probably a slightly higher pay. But importantly, their job is not senior to mine. I can’t do their job, it’s true, but they can’t do mine. I can’t open a new account (at least, not correctly according to legal standards), they can’t get £10,000 in cash for customers. But there is a degree of interdependency. Obviously, I see a lot of customers. Obviously then, people wanting appointments will often come to me. So I will book them in with the advisor. Actually there isn’t a degree of interdependency. When I think about it, anything that I need the advisor for (usually some more specific nuance of what-is-allowed) is only actually done in order that I might book the customer in to see the advisor. So I help them. And they help me to help them.
But the advisor relies on me and my colleagues – at least in our branch. As I mentioned before, I have never worked in another branch. I have no context. So it was several months before I met staff from other branches, and got to really talk to them. And one of the biggest things I found? It’s not my fucking job to book appointments. Well, it is, but only for my benefit. I book appointments in order to ‘help customers’. It is not my job to book appointments because our advisor’s diary is empty. Because it’s her damn job to fill her diary. Her job literally is her diary. If she has nothing booked in, she can’t do her job (or more accurately, can’t get her stats up).
All of the above background is actually important, because now you might understand why both option A and B (remember those?) are fundamentally wrong. Option A would be good, if the bottom line wasn’t ‘because I need you guys to make me look good’. Option B would be okay if there was some form of interaction. Give and take. Something.
But there isn’t. As I realised above, the reason the oft paraded ‘give’ of asking-for-help has always felt so hollow from our advisor is that it isn’t what it appears to be. I’m not doing it to help me, and nor is she.
All of the above comes with one huge caveat: regardless of if it’s option A or option B being said, it will take ten minutes. Ten minutes. Every day. Of the same, entirely self interested thing. Being said to me by someone who isn’t my boss, but who is given the power to act like it by my boss. My manager genuinely seems to think this 10 minutes of time is useful. More than that, she thinks it is ‘good for the team’.
So we’re 14 minutes into our morning huddle. 1 minute left. What’s to take care of? Oh right: All the security/audit questions, all the internal business news updates, all the special notifications that might be happening in branch that day, all product updates, all service updates, any suggestions/thoughts staff might have to help the branch, and pretty much anything else that needs to be covered.
And that is my morning huddle. Every day.
Now, I haven’t worked in my job for all that long, only six months or so. I’ve never worked in an environment like it. And I’ve never worked in any other branch. So my experience of these morning meetings is extremely limited; I have no context, aside from my own general-worldly experiences. I say this because I’m willing to believe that it’s possible for these huddles to be useful. Hell, I’ll concede they could sometimes even be good. But during the last six months I have sat there every day, mug of tea in hand, trying to pay attention to information I’ve heard before and will hear again, and I have proceeded to lose a sliver of my soul and a shaving of my patience.
My point being (eventually) that those morning huddles, they are not actively immersive. For me, they literally cannot be. I have to pay attention at all times – because you never know if a fragment of something very important is going to be thrown in with the swill (this happens about once a month, but the important thing is often very important in order for me to do my job). So my attention needs to be right there, in the room. But I can’t do anything. Anything I say will be ignored, mitigated, explained away, or otherwise sidelined in some way. This is demonstrably true. In a horribly self-feeding loop of pure idiocy, I have already established myself as someone who ‘speaks up’ – something I am constantly told to do. During my time in the job, one of the most consistent observations/criticisms I get is that I don’t ask enough questions (this being the main way I am supposed to learn my job. Six days of basic training, and then ask questions. Oh, did I mention the place I work is in a bank?) So I am constantly told to ask more questions. But if ever I have a suggestion (i.e. an interaction that is not purely passive) then I am marked as trouble. Not openly of course (oh no, that would be unprofessional). Instead, I will get a response. Just not a relevant one. Here is an example:
Manager: …and so we will all be out front in the hall, greeting customers.
Me: Okay, that sounds good. I can see what the bank is going for here, I think it could be really good. One thing though – and I’m really not being negative here Manager, I just think it’s something to think about – if we’re all out front, and having to walk back and forth through the security airlock, is it possible there might be delays? Because if someone is coming out, no one can go in and so on. I’m just wondering what we might be able to do about that.
Manager: (immediately) So it’s really important that we’re not just negative about this, and throwing up problems and saying we’re not going to do it, we have to give it a go.
Me: (slight pause) Okay Manager, I’m not saying I’m not going to do it. I’m absolutely going to do it. But I thought it was worth pointing out as something to consider, otherwise when we do it, if this happens, it’ll cause quite a lot of confusion and stress for us – in front of the customers.
Manager: Okay, but bear in mind it’s really important that we’re not just negative about this, and throwing up problems and saying we’re not going to do it, we have to give it a go. We all have to pitch in on this, and do our best.
Me: (genuinely a bit dumbstruck, although fuck knows why, I should be used to this) Yes, I get that, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it. What I’m saying, maybe, is that this could be a problem, and you know how busy we get, so my worry is that if this happens, it’s gonna cause fairly big delays, and it’s gonna make us even more stressed. So I was just wondering if we could think about it in the next couple of days, maybe come up with a solution? Then we can avoid any problems. D’you get what I mean?
Manager: (slight pause) Well if it happens we’ll just have to deal with it as it comes up – so moving on…
The above is not overly-dramatised by the way. That is a genuine interaction that happened, and near verbatim. This is what happens when I try to be not passive.