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!

Helping Hands

The title, ‘Helping Hands’, might tempt you to believe that we are talking about some charity organization or movement aimed at the have-nots of our society benefitting from kind acts of the have’s. Let me set the record straight by stating, right at the outset, that we are not talking about any charitable initiatives here but alluding to a corporate strategy of Machiavellian proportions.

You see them all over the office – the kind hearted colleagues who are always willing to give you a hand. They will help move your desk, fetch you a cup of coffee, proof read your report, debug your code and even attend meetings in place of you! It all looks like a good natured party of sorts till the seasoned veterans enter the fray.

At the individual level, the ready-to-serve helper seems to materialize out of thin air whenever you are struggling with an impossible task or assignment.

“Hi buddy, I will help you put together the Sales Forecast – I just finished helping Amy with hers”

“I see that you are struggling with your budgets allocation. It is truly a beast unless you know the tricks to make the numbers balance. I can give you a hand”

“I just couldn’t help overhearing your grouchy manager rudely telling you to finish reviewing those contracts by this evening. What an insensitive human being, piling things on top of what you already have to deal with. Let us work on it together”

Sound familiar? While on the surface such camaraderie looks like a godsend to a battered soul, taking up such offers of unsolicited help quickly turns out to be a disaster because the ‘helper’ has no clue of the task involved (notwithstanding tall claims to the contrary) and you end up undoing their ‘help’ for many hours. And, to top it all, everyone in the office is made aware of how much assistance you received from the Good Samaritan!

At the higher echelons of management, this concept of offering help is used in a structured way to hog the limelight and build careers. Let us take a look at a meeting where the CEO is assigning an initiative to improve customer service to the Head of Customer Service (Stacy). A savvy manager from Marketing (Tom) could hijack the situation as follows:

CEO: So, Stacy ……. Let us get the show on the road. Contact all customers and tell them about our new initiatives and focus.

Stacy: OK, I will look into it and come up with ……..

Tom: Hi Stacy and others, I would love to help. You know, we had started something very similar in our own department and ……

Stacy (confused and surprised): Oh, but Tom, I am not aware that you guys were working on this.

Tom: I was referring to the research study undertaken by the Product Management group five years ago. We were helping them out but the project was canned after a few days.

Stacy: Oh, I see….

Tom: But, don’t worry, Stacy, we have started compiling a great database of all customers, by region, by market segment and a host of other factors.

Stacy (suspicious and skeptical): Yeah, I have seen that list. It is pretty outdated. I am not sure……

CEO: Stacy, this is a big initiative. Take all the help you can. Tom, thanks for your offer. Get right on it.

Tom: Any time, Sir.

Stacy (collapsing into her chair): Whatever……

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)

Doing Versus Getting It Done

“Let  me make one thing very clear – you are doing the job and I am the one getting it done”. These words, uttered by my manager in response to my naïve assurance to ‘get it done’, early in my career, decades ago, still resonate with a vengeance in my ears!

In the corporate world, you learn something very fast – you never do anything on your own and, to the extent possible, even avoid being a member of a team that does anything. Something to do with plausible deniability, auto-protection against failure and a host of other reasons. You always ‘get it done’. Hence the growth of myriad layers of organizational hierarchy aka middle management, coordinators and ‘touch-points’ in today’s corporate world. Even a simple task such as checking to see if it is raining outside seems to require an army of people who are – you guessed right – ‘getting it done’!

There are several variations to this theme of getting-it-done. Take the case of the much maligned concept of project management. A ‘project’ can be anything from ordering lunch for ten people to building a new office building. A seasoned project manager is capable of identifying the same number of activities and steps for completing both ‘projects’ by building in a whole host of intermediaries, each of who is getting it done through the others (in ‘Factorial N’ ways, for those who are statistically minded).

In the world of modern IT and software, you have one person writing the actual code for a feature in any system and a plethora of team leads, planners, release managers, testers, integrators, customer interface artists and what have you – who are all getting the job done, without really knowing what the job is. As an added bonus, multiple organization layers and mysterious stakeholders ensure that the job is never correctly defined or understood, which in turn provides stability for this structure to be never dismantled!

An interesting aspect of the getting-it-done phenomenon is that you don’t need to be remotely connected with what is being done. In an executive meeting to discuss and improve customer service, while the sales and customer support people are brainstorming ideas for improving response times for customer calls, the ever-entertaining and annoying head of payroll chips in with, “Guys, I know you are all busy and doing your best, so I will jump in and offer my services to coordinate and establish processes to provide measured responses commensurate with the type of incoming calls from customers – happy to get to the bottom of this and get this resolved!”. Needless to say, this is followed by stunned silence and a premature closure of the meeting.