Sep 11 2012

The view from our build­ing

Much like the peo­ple from the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers, I work in an office. In a cubi­cle, to be pre­cise. In a 20 story build­ing over­look­ing a river on one side and a major down­town met­ro­pol­i­tan area on the other. It’s not the tallest build­ing I’ve worked in. In 2001, in fact, I was just a few blocks away from my cur­rent office in a 33 story build­ing I can see from our win­dows. That build­ing, eerily enough for those work­ing in it at the time, is also part of a “twin tower” set of build­ings. But I digress from the point of my story.

My day starts out just like most peo­ple. Get up with the alarm before sun­rise, shower, get dressed and ready for work. Feed ani­mals, grab a cup of cof­fee on the way out the door. On trash days, I run the trash bags or recy­cle bins quickly to the curb just before the truck arrives on our street. When the days are shorter in win­ter, I’m leav­ing for work while it’s still dark out — in sum­mer, just as the sun is ris­ing. Like most Tex­ans, my com­mute con­sists of dri­ving alone in my car through con­gested, construction-laden streets and high­ways. (I’ve been told this is the least energy effi­cient way of get­ting to work, but for many of us, there are no other options. Even co-workers live too far apart and have too dif­fer­ent sched­ules to make car­pool­ing an option. This is the way it is.) In the late sum­mer days of August and Sep­tem­ber, I’m faced with the full moon through the wind­shield as the sun comes up behind me. My com­mute takes me through no less than 4 sub­urbs of the city that is my des­ti­na­tion. Each of the small towns’ cit­i­zens have their own style of dri­ving. The first drive as close to your bumper as they can, urg­ing you for­ward in their mad rush to their own jobs. These are younger, career-minded peo­ple in newer and more expen­sive cars. They moved into homes fur­ther away from the city, in new and grow­ing sub­di­vi­sions with two-story houses and tiny yards. They are always in a hurry. Next come the work trucks, logos on the side, with 2 or 4 men inside — all but the dri­ver still sleep­ing. Last, in the town clos­est to the city and one of the old­est in the area, dri­vers are slower, more laid back and in older model cars and trucks. The dri­vers are older too and often drive slower than the speed limit. On their way to jobs they’ve held for 30 years, they’re in no rush to begin the cycle again. All the while, con­struc­tion zones threaten to slow traf­fic to a crawl as we wind our way together to our var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions.

Finally, after 30 min­utes or an hour (or more), I arrive at my cur­rent place of employ­ment. It’s like many oth­ers I’ve worked, and not much dif­fer­ent than any given office in any given city. We’re lucky that we do have a badge-access cov­ered park­ing garage. In past years, I’ve had to walk blocks to a paid lot, parked in rain, hail, or snow, hav­ing to clear my wind­shield before start­ing the jour­ney back home. I appre­ci­ate the cov­ered garage. I grab my lunch and my badge, which is my access to the build­ing as well. Greet the secu­rity per­son sta­tioned by the door. In spite of see­ing the same peo­ple each day, they also need to see your badge as you come in. Some­thing inter­est­ing I learned years ago — build­ing secu­rity per­son­nel are always the first to know who is about to be fired. Inside the ele­va­tor, I must use my badge again to get to the 10th floor. I head to the break­room first. If there’s fresh cof­fee already made, my boss has arrived ahead of me. If not, I start the cof­fee in the indus­trial cof­fee machine using pack­ets pur­chased in bulk. Mud, we call it, and every­one has their own fla­vored creamer lin­ing the door of the refrig­er­a­tor. I take my lunch with me to my desk rather than add it to the already packed shelves of week-old left­overs and lunch­bags. Our office build­ing also has a nice cafe­te­ria on the bot­tom floor, but for those of us on a bud­get, it’s eas­ier to bring lunch than pay the $6 — $12 for a burger or din­ner plate. I’m not a per­ma­nent employee, but instead a full-time, on-call temp (mean­ing I get a steady pay­check, but with­out ben­e­fits and on any given day I can be sent home when the work slows down. it’s a posi­tion that is becom­ing more com­mon with many cor­po­ra­tions.)

My day is typ­i­cal of any office posi­tion I’ve held in the past. Check email, fol­low up on ques­tions, con­cerns or prob­lems of man­agers, co-workers and so on. It’s pleas­ant in that our office is not a call-center. There is still the office pol­i­tics to deal with. Hier­ar­chies, and (often unnec­es­sary) pro­to­cols. This job must first be approved by that per­son — who has already seen and approved it three times before. That job requires the input of two other teams before it can even begin. Man­agers, super­vi­sors, VPs and oth­ers insist on meet­ings to dis­cuss the work­load that, more often than not, slow down the work­load. “Busi­ness casual” attire means dress slacks are ok, open-toed shoes are not, with Casual Fri­days allow­ing jeans and sneak­ers. The “com­pany” expects employ­ees’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mu­nity fundrais­ers, offer­ing incen­tives such as wear­ing jeans all week or half-days off (unpaid for temps like myself). In spite of the “cor­po­rate atmos­phere”, it’s a pleas­ant com­pany with much less polit­i­cal tugs-of-war than I’ve expe­ri­enced in the past. (I will always say “in spite of” when it comes to cor­po­rate atmos­phere. There is no cor­po­rate office any­where that runs smoothly, with­out plays for polit­i­cal power, head-butting, or in the worst sit­u­a­tions, peo­ple under­min­ing the work, posi­tion and even knowl­edge of co-workers. I’ve expe­ri­enced all of it — from the best to the worst. Teams and team goals will always clash with each other, as the very thing that makes a cor­po­ra­tion grow cre­ates sit­u­a­tions where the right hand is not always aware of the impact they have on the left hand, and vice-versa.)

Office life is what it is. You work with peo­ple you would not be friends with in any other aspect of your life, and your co-workers become your friends. Like with a fam­ily, you don’t get to choose who sits in the cubi­cle beside you. Either you get along or you don’t — and if you don’t, you grow weary of your job and every­thing about it. Noth­ing teaches diplo­macy bet­ter than work­ing in close prox­im­ity to sev­eral other cubi­cles. When peo­ple ask me how I can be friendly and open with strangers, the answer is that I have to do it with every new job, with each new office, in an end­less pos­si­bil­ity of poten­tial life-long friends or hos­tile envi­ron­ments sur­rounded by bit­ter employ­ees. Most fall some­where in the mid­dle.

There is noth­ing glam­orous about work­ing in a cubi­cle. It’s the desk-equivalent of assembly-line work. Each day the same as the last, run­ning into each other into an end­less blur. My job con­sists of pro­duc­tion work not taught or dreamed of in col­lege courses. Get it done fast, get it done right, and get it done on sched­ule. You don’t want to see errors come back from the qual­ity con­trol team. You don’t want to see last-minute changes come in from the cre­ative team. My nat­ural curios­ity and geeky ten­den­cies make me check in with the ana­lyt­ics team to see the results of my work. They’re more than happy to share, in spite of the fact that I have no con­trol over the con­tent of my work. I do what I’m given to work on, regard­less of whether it makes sense from a customer’s per­spec­tive. Com­pany poli­cies (and pol­i­tics, again) take prece­dence over cus­tomer expec­ta­tions. Office work­ers aren’t out there sav­ing people’s lives. We’re not cur­ing can­cer. We don’t typ­i­cally *do* any­thing that is life-changing or crit­i­cal for oth­ers. In some cases, our work is seen and noticed by the gen­eral pub­lic, both online and off; in other cases, it’s not. It may be noticed if it isn’t there, but it’s rarely actu­ally *missed*. I’m one of the lucky ones, that I truly enjoy the work that I do. Office work­ers go to work, spend all day in obscu­rity in a cubi­cle, and go home again. They come from all walks of life, all faiths, all races and all back­grounds. They have fam­i­lies and pets. They spend their week­ends with fam­ily, friends, alone… going to movies, play­ing sports, play­ing with their kids or their pets, work­ing on per­sonal projects, watch­ing TV, vol­un­teer­ing, car­ing for elderly par­ents… They blend together en masse dur­ing their com­mute and in build­ings across the coun­try. They harm no one. They are not a threat. These are the peo­ple — the ordi­nary peo­ple — who became a tar­get, hav­ing done noth­ing more than liv­ing their lives and going to their jobs.

Today, 9/11, we will again see TV spe­cials fol­low­ing the first respon­ders, com­mem­o­rat­ing the priest who refused to leave his post as chaos sur­rounded him. We will read arti­cle after arti­cle dis­cussing the impact on pol­i­tics, and jour­nal­ists urg­ing politi­cians to stop turn­ing the tragedy into a polit­i­cal agenda, while mak­ing it an agenda them­selves. First respon­ders, politi­cians, res­cuers all become the cen­tral focus across the coun­try, far removed from the offices them­selves that are no longer stand­ing. I sit in a cubi­cle even as I type this. Life goes on, the daily grind con­tin­ues, the com­mute is the same. Life in a war-torn coun­try, with gen­er­a­tion upon gen­er­a­tion of hate and mis­trust is fur­ther removed than even the build­ings that fell or the planes that crashed. I have no under­stand­ing of one reli­gion fight­ing another. Those are things for movies of the past about sol­diers fight­ing for ancient lands. If there is any mes­sage to my end­less ram­bling today, it isn’t about Peace. It’s about the names. The names of the office work­ers. The peo­ple who were just like me. The real mes­sage of 9/11 isn’t “beware of ter­ror­ism”, in spite of what politi­cians and jour­nal­ists would have us believe. The real mes­sage of 9/11 is Tol­er­ance. Under­stand­ing. And remem­ber­ing the names.