Corporate Communications During Lockdown

In the strange, surreal environment that exists today due to the pandemic, many of us are working from home and trying to adjust to a world devoid of ‘bio breaks’ during meetings and exchange of gossip through ‘water cooler conversations’. I would assume that I am not alone in voting ‘corporate communications’ as the most painful aspect of being confined to the four walls or, in the case of some lucky ones, the basement of your home.

I dread opening my Inbox every morning. There is a plethora of communications from my HR department on how to stay motivated, what training courses I can take while being under house-arrest, how I can energize myself, followed by how I can calm myself down. This feels like the time when I was five years old and my mother, grandmother and various other elders were teaching me how to become a good citizen. Comparison to death by a thousand paper cuts is not all that far-fetched.

Why is there an assumption that I need to be propped up constantly? And why is there the gross misconception that I have any less work now than before? Frankly, I have been so used to working from home over the years that I don’t need constant pats, more like blows, on the back to continue doing what I have been doing all my life.

Wait, there is more….as they say on those blessed commercials on TV. The ‘corporate’ office also encourages employees to communicate with one another to ‘stay in touch’. This is misconstrued by many eager-but-held-back-so-far-by-decency coworkers to unleash a hailstorm of their own. These take place by way of mass emails or through group chat facilities, paid for by the company on an emergency basis. The contents vary from photos of their pet snakes, videos of piano recitals by their toddlers, vivid descriptions of their dishwashing adventures and daily walks in the woods. I get it – people want to stay in touch. But what about actual work, at least as an afterthought?

In large organizations, you might start hearing from sections of the company which you never knew existed. You might get ‘guidelines’ from the Manager for Digital, peer-to-peer social media communications. You  might also hear from the Office Manager responsible for removing or repurposing unused furniture (who is using any office furniture now?). Or from the VP for global communications strategy – do I ever get a break?

Amidst all that is going on in the world today, one thing stands out, steady as a rock – the ability for the corporate giant to tie itself, and others, into knots!

Out of Office

People in various offices have been taking vacations (fondly referred to as PTO – paid-time-off, in case you did not know) for decades, if not centuries.  However, it is only in recent times (this century?) that this phenomenon has attained the status of a ceremony. Let me explain myself before you shoot me down.

People in large organizations (as well as small organizations pretending to be large organizations) have the need to know where their colleagues and coworkers are, on a given day, in order to palm off work or, if feeling kindly, ask for help. Fair enough that globally shared calendars are annotated with who is not available when.

Taking this a step forward, it is also understandable that you let people know about your unavailability when they try to contact you via phone or email. Enter the ubiquitous ‘out of office message’ (let us call it ‘oom’ to make it interesting!). Those who have spent enough time in the corporate world readily know that receiving a oom is equivalent to death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you are lucky, the oom could be a one-liner such as “I will be away from …. to ….; will respond upon return”, delivered at lightning speed in response to your email. But, more often than not, you are likely to get a multi-page essay on the following lines:

“Thank you for your email. I am sorry I am not able to be of assistance (did I ask for help?) as I am away exploring colleges for my son who is entering middle school next year (do I need this detail?). The Internet connection could be spotty at times as I am traveling through mountainous regions (someone, please shoot me!), but I will check my mail periodically…….. I will also check every night ……Thank you for your understanding (did I just pull out a bunch of my remaining hair?)……. Hope to catch up with you soon (no, no, never….)”.

There are variations and extensions to this popular corporate game. In a group email chain (a corporate norm, by the way), with everyone hitting the reply-all button, multiple copies of the delightful oom (perhaps from multiple people on PTO at the same time) are generated in no time. The more diligent veterans of the game do not fail to create an equivalent oom on their phone extension in case someone is still old-fashioned enough to contact them over phone.

The oom concept can also be used to brag about yourself and your domain of control, to emphasize your importance in the organization. Take a look at this elaborate oom:

Thanks for contacting me. I am away on vacation in the Himalayas (I bet you did not know I was a certified mountaineer). I know your call is important and needs urgent attention (even if you think otherwise). Please contact:

Joe at …, for Sales related matters

Amber at …, for Payments

Mary at …, for the Cafeteria menu

Ben at …, for HR related matters

Kate at …, for the upcoming Customer Conference related matters

My executive assistant, (Yes, I have an executive assistant), Liz at …, if you would like to wish me Happy Birthday (I will keep a count of people who did not wish me on my birthday)

(Unsaid disclaimer: I may not be in charge of all the things mentioned above)

The Email Shower

Nothing defines corporate life as well as the proliferation of email messages crisscrossing the length and breadth of an organization. So pervasive is the phenomenon that in many companies, or at least in sections of many companies, no one “talks” to anyone else in non-email mode.

Emails can be as powerful as a nuclear device – with a single stroke of a finger (or click of a mouse, if you will), you can destroy many a family weekend, a romantic dinner or even an entire vacation. All it takes is a one-liner, “Call me.   D” (for dramatic effect, the boss signs, if at all, with only the first initial), safely and securely, and in an untimely manner, delivered to your smart phone. Of course the boss is not available to take the call even after you have tried calling till your phone battery is dead.

There are many innovative uses of the email weapon, limited only by your imagination. Here are a few that come to my mind:

  • You prove you are working by the steady stream of well-timed emails
  • You preempt any deadlines by repeatedly promising to deliver anything and everything the following day
  • You create or redirect work to others so that you have time for, yes, more emails
  • You cause the company server to crash with larger than life attachments
  • You never delete any of the earlier messages in the thread and frequently refer to something that is hundreds of levels deep in the thread
  • You never ever forget to ‘reply all’

Emails are self-perpetuating in nature – an email begets another one (or more). Like a race to the bottom, there are email competitions as to who will outlast whom. Let us follow one such chain:

Liz: Brian, could you please email me the proposal that we sent to Allied Traders last week?

Brian: I am in a meeting for the next thirty minutes – marking this to Kate to take action.

Kate (to Brian and Liz): Got it. Will jump on it right away.

Liz: Thanks Brian and Kate.

Brian: Not a problem. Still busy at the meeting (while also acknowledging several other such emails)

Kate: Always happy to help, Brian.

Liz (after 3 minutes): Kate, any progress?

Kate: Liz, my computer just froze – will wait for the tech guy to show up.

Brian (still busy at the meeting): Kate, try rebooting in the meanwhile.

Jason (the tech guy): Which floor and section are you in? Your laptop does not seem to be registered with us.

Liz (email spray): Can anyone else help with the document – please….

Random Guy-1: I can probably fix Kate’s computer.

Brian: I am really sorry Liz, the meeting is going way beyond its scheduled time.

Liz: Thanks Brian – appreciate your concern.

Kate: Hey!!! My computer is up.

Brian: Good job, Kate.

Jason: Kate, could you please close your service call request?

Brian: Jason, I will take care of it, as soon as I am out of the meeting. Kate, please fetch Liz’s document as soon as possible.

Kate: I am on it……

Liz: I just got the document.

Kate: But I have not yet sent it.

Liz: Let me see…… Random Guy-3 sent it. Does anyone know who he is? Anyway, thanks everyone.

Brian: Thank you Liz.

Brian: Thank you Kate.

Kate: Thank you Brian – much appreciate your support.

Jason: Can someone please close the support ticket? Thanks.

Brain: On it buddy…..

Kate: Brian, thanks a lot for taking care of this ticket.

Brain: Not a problem Kate.

Kate: Thanks.

Brian: You are welcome.

(Random Guy-3, who actually sent the document, and is an inadvertent “cc” in all these exchanges, wonders, “What the hell is going on?”)