OPINION

If Work Is God, Who Are Your Colleagues

April 11, 2010
IdeaSmith

Doing some online housekeeping, I came across some of my old writing. I noticed one of the lesser read blogs and it took me down memory lane, why I used to write it and even why I didn't try very hard to build its readership. Office Capers was about work and deep down I was petrified that my personal life would spill over into my professional life and mess up the one thing that still worked.

As I read through this, I was glad I hadn't deleted the blog as I'd often considered doing after I shut it. Like old diaries, old blogs can serve to show you how far you've come and even remind you of things about yourself that you had forgotten.

It was a sharp wake-up call to remember the face behind that ugly word 'workaholic', a reminder of the frustration, the desperation that fuels a person on to risk destroying everything else in life, in pursuit of the tangible goals of work.

It was seeing the early signs of restlessness even in what would seem like a fulfilling situation. A tremendous sigh of relief at having escaped. Also the clarity that the experience was necessary, even good for how it enriched me and brought me to who I am today. And finally, a reminder of some of the good moments, funny and sweet and happy that were what really sustained me through the pressures and the despair.

A job is much like a relationship. You spend so much of your time and energy on it. It defines a major part of your identity. It molds you but it also cuts you. It changes you in ways that you may not like and some that you may feel lucky for. There are the tangible wins, the dates that you circle on your calendar and look back at with a smile. And the everyday annoyances, the tiny deaths and daily frustrations. If you are lucky, the former will more than make up for the latter. Either way, you are changed forever by what you give yourself to.

My favorite boss of all time remains my role model and I cherish him all the more since I met him at a time when my beliefs were shaken and I felt the loss of someone to look up to, acutely. When I became a manager I tried my best to pattern my behavior and systems on him. I don't know if I succeeded but just having someone to aspire to being makes a big difference. I cried in his office when he left and I was transferred to another team. And that took me 3 years to admit to.

My second favorite boss was also a friend before we worked together. Our relationship was very different from the one I described above. I didn't look up to him with awe but I always had a deep respect which only got stronger with time. If the first one was the creator of a space for me to learn, the second one gave me a stage to showcase my skills. Every minute of the year I worked with him was personally satisfying.

I also had a few peers that I felt close to at various points of time and some became friends. But the one relationship that I never anticipated was the one I would have with my juniors.

In my last year at work, I became a manager to a large group of teams. It was an exciting opportunity professionally. But it was also a fun, vibrant atmosphere to be around such young, energetic people. It was a funny (and initially unsettling) experience to be on the other side, to be that person who was called 'the boss' *in hushed tones*.

Working with my first boss in mind, I was determined that my team should trust me and enjoy working with me but also personally benefit from the experience. I made mistakes, a lot of them. One of the things a friend told me then (and it saved my sanity) was,

If you've become a manager, you are going to have to accept that you will never really be liked by everyone. But that's okay. You don't need to be popular, you need to get the work done.
The untimely death of one of my team-members was a crucial turning point. I felt Sidhant's absence acutely and it wasn't because there was one number short on the headcount. It was him, the person himself I missed....his very own unique brand of good work, daily tardiness, unyielding commitment, silly jokes, excessive worrying and great ideas. In the six months that I continued working after he was gone, I could never quite shake the feeling that if I just called out for him, he'd pop around the corner with his shy, sudden smile. His phone number is still on my cell. It used to be one of my frequently dialed numbers and somehow I can't bring myself to let go of the security of that.

Things changed around tremendously workwise. But something inside me shifted as well. You don't expect people younger than you to suddenly pass away. It suddenly made me look at every else in a new way - my friends, my family and my colleagues. They suddenly went from being a group of 'resources' to individual people. I suddenly realized something I should never have forgotten.

Work was not about the fancy office, the cabin in the corner or an impressive visiting card. It wasn't the laptop, company credit card or the special employee benefits. It wasn't the high profile clients or how much value it was adding to my resume. Finally, it was all about the people I was with, day in and day out, sharing daily annoyances with, laughing over last night's movie to lighten up the day's pressures, cribbing about a screaming client, fighting with, colliding against. It was the people who touched my lives and whose lives I touched.

When I began the sabbatical, for the first week I had withdrawal symptoms worse than my most heartwrenching breakup. I was terribly....officesick. I didn't miss the work (even thought it actually been thoroughly interesting). I barely missed the mad commute and having to get up each morning (Hah!). But every day I missed the familiar faces, their jokes, their worries, their conversations. I missed walking into a building where people knew me and who I was. I missed having a place to belong to. I missed my team, my kids. Terribly.

The good thing is that I'm now able to be much more of myself now. Their image of me was the last link holding me to my anonymity and since that stopped being an issue, I came open last year. Most of my kids (and both aforementioned bosses) are connected to me on Facebook. Some of them read my blog.

I socialize with a few of them. I wrote a reference for one of them. I party with another quite often. I counseled a few of them when career choices happened.

One of them is my fellow commiserator in matters of the heart, as we swap love-life anecdotes and compare notes. Two of them are dating and I was accordingly enlightened the week after I resigned. 'Since you're sort of my mom-in-law' she said with a wink. :-D

When one of them came home on her winter break, she met me for dinner. She brought me a bottle of wine because she said I had introduced her to rose wine which became her favorite (I don't remember this. I most certainly didn't encourage drinking in office!!) :-)

The day I left, one of my kids clasped my hand and said, "I'm going to work really hard and make you proud of me." I told him I already was. And prouder still when he was promoted a few months later. I received another call the day a bunch of promotions were announced and the voice at the other end said, "I wish you had given me this news." Both those times made me choke up. Guys, at the risk of slipping in yet another lesson....it's okay to get senti sometimes. Celebrate the wonderful times, make a huge deal out of them. But NEVER in front of a client, okay! :-)

Another one, all wistfulness, was telling me recently, that he missed the early days when the team was small and their friendships close and intimate. I told him relationships would change and it wasn't always bad. The good ones would last even as they evolved. And that perhaps some day we would work again, maybe this time he would be my boss and would teach me something. It made him laugh but I wasn't joking. I was so lucky to have worked with them, to have been in a position to touch their lives. And after I quit, overnight I gained a group of new friends. I'm thrilled to continue being a part of their lives.

This post has gone all over the place, as with matters of the heart. I'll end with something I found in the Office Capers archives.
Colleagues Can Be Human Too

After a week of travelling and staying with collegues, I now know that the people I work with:

- Look like hell first thing in the morning
- Do not know how to set an alarm, then set it wrong
- Are willing to do without toothpaste because they forgot to pack it and refuse to buy it
- Have not heard of voicemail and are unaware of how to check messages (I didn't either)
- Read the pre-class work over breakfast
- Copy each other's notes
- Flick pens, pencils, mints from other desks and forget their own in the restaurant
- Will drink vile-tasting brown liquid from any cup lying on the table so long as it smells of coffee
- Sit on/ step on other people's spectacles
- Leave their own spectacles in the restaurant aisle, the table outside their room, the seat next to theirs
- Eat noodles, pancakes, fried rice, sushi, dal makhani and fresh fruit all in the same meal (breakfast!!!!) and with the same cutlery
- Gorge on soup, salad and croissants (for lunch!) and finish up with a dessert of chocolate sauce over watermelon slices (...err..that was me)
- Love shopping even for things available at half the price back home (the women)
- Love guzzling beer and rooting for people they can't name in a strange pub and paying thrice for it (the men)
- Lie about their age (women) and marital status (men)
- Pack their airline tickets into the checked-in baggage
- Shuffle between tomorrow's tickets, the travel brochure, the hotel bill while looking for the boarding pass
- Find the boarding pass lodged into the unused wallet pocket on the left, and wonder why it looks different from everyone else's (its the one from the arrival flight and we're now on our way back home!)

In short, the suits and ties fall away revealing a bunch of feather-brained, illogical, annoying people who remind me of myself. Does that make me feel better? No.
To all the people I've referred to in this post - The only reason I haven't mentioned names is to protect your privacy but you know who you are. I was privileged to have worked with you. You changed my life in ways that I'm still counting.

IdeaSmith: Woman. Mumbaiker. Firebrand. Stationery collector. Aspiring novelist. Panipuri junkie. Compulsive list-maker. Chocaholic. Free spirit. It's a package deal. Available at www.theideasmithy.com and www.thexxfactor.net.
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If Work Is God, Who Are Your Colleagues

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