Ways people annoy each other at work

I had an interesting conversation a while back with a colleague shortly after we all relocated to the same floor in our building. She was proposing reorganising the floor into large groups to foster talking, sharing, collaborating — all those buzz words of the modern workplace. 

As an introvert and a fairly reclusive one at that, I was horrified and could feel the panic rising at the mere prospect. 

I knew enough of the people on the floor, as well as what they did, to know this was not a good plan, quite apart from my personal feelings about it.  She is an extravert and naturally assumed everyone was like her, and it had clearly not occurred to her that others might want and need different things from their work space. 

I suggested she look around at what people did in their jobs and consider the conditions they required to do their best work. 

She had overlooked this point entirely in her enthusiasm. Most people on our floor are fairly introverted. The majority are analysts of one stripe or another, and if the prevalence of headphones is any indication, uninterrupted concentration is what they need and prefer. 

The need to not be interrupted is not universal. For several years (I have no idea how I survived so long) I worked with people who thrived on interruptions and considered their day dull beyond description without at least one every 30 minutes or so. If things got too quiet they generated their own interruptions. 

Needless to say, their interruptions were imposed equally on everyone around them. Some popular choices:

  • Loud conversations with anyone within sight (sight distance being determined by the length of the side of the floor)
  • Listening to voice mail messages on speakerphone 
  • Making calls on speakerphone
  • Describing aloud what they are doing on their computer and blaming said computer’s response for their own lack of know-how
  • Not muting the sound on their computer so every time they hit a wrong key, everyone hears. Repeated endlessly – see previous bullet
  • Similarly, their computer beeps or dings every time they receive an email
  • Text message alerts for every single message, doubly annoying when it’s an ongoing conversation 
  • Mobile phone ring tones that are turned up to the loudest setting and announce their music preference
  • Singing to themselves
  • Whistling tunelessly 
  • That Guy who has a very penetrating voice so that every conversation he has, be it on the phone or in person, is audible from the other end of the floor

Apart from finding all these things supremely annoying and distracting, my fundamental issue is — why do I need to be alerted every time something happens to someone else? 

Besides, it’s work: quit interfering with my ability to do it. 


Am I brave enough to live alone?

I’m reading Kate Bolick’s Spinster again. She describes working alongside an older and stylish widow whose self possession somewhat intimidates Bolick. Around the same time, she encounters a photograph of Maeve Brennan, and she finds herself drawn to the woman in the photo. 

The widow is “stylish and athletic, and makes all her own clothes”. She comes to work, writes her column [Bolick is working at The Atlantic], dresses in what sounds like an Audrey Hepburn wardrobe, and holds herself somewhat aloof. She is a woman living on her own terms, by her own rules. Her style and chic says she knows who she is and how she is. What’s not to emulate? 

At this point, Bolick confesses to not knowing how to dress herself for work, opting for ‘inconspicuous’. Oh, how I relate. 

The image of Brennan that Bolick spotted in the magazine is reproduced in the book. It shows a(nother) stylishly dressed woman sitting on a sofa looking over her shoulder towards the camera. She doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in the camera and it may be this that generates Bolick’s reaction. This woman is not here to please you or me: she’s busy living her own life. I too feel a pull looking at that photo, an inner voice saying “THAT is how I want to be.”

And then the other voice kicks in saying “you’ll never be all that.” I’ll never be stylish like that, and I’m not a writer (or, more generically, I don’t control the means of my production). How could I have that life?

Neither of these are the point of course. But they point to the bigger issue, namely that it takes courage to choose to be single. It’s easy enough to be single, but choosing it is a deliberate act that goes against deeply embedded cultural, familial and personal expectations, and these are hard to shed even when you feel strongly drawn to a single life. 

To make the decision to be true to one’s inner yearnings, in spite of the internal and external voices that urge conformity with social norms, and in spite of fear-driven disparagement of the self’s desire to change, takes great courage. It takes the courage of one’s convictions – that somewhat hackneyed phrase. 

I admire Bolick’s women even without knowing them, because they had the courage to declare their choice for a single life and then to live it fully and without apology. Actually, I don’t know this — I’m projecting onto them what I want them to be, because I need role models to give me courage. 

I’m still creeping around the edges peeking through my hands at my would-be life, still aiming for inconspicuous and making excuses for my lack of commitment. 

This is no way to live. I’m brave enough to live alone but I’m not yet brave enough to live alone. 

By way of a postscript: Wikipedia’s entry on Brennan makes for rather sad reading. She started out well and ended up badly. So as a role model, perhaps not the best choice, but her courage is still admirable. 

Coping with frustration & disappointment 

I was doing so well. I have started running again, and I was slowly building up. I could feel my legs and lungs getting stronger little by little. I was being careful not to overdo it in my enthusiasm and joy at being able to run again after 18 months away from it. 

And then on Friday morning I woke up hurting from my neck to my waist. My ribs felt like they’ve got a metal band around them, my sternum hurt to touch, my shoulders hurt to touch, the muscles in my back were tight and sore from protecting my shoulders all night (at least, I assume so). My scheduled morning run was off the cards. 

It’s been weeks since I had a bad day. I was feeling really good and thinking maybe I’d turned some kind of corner. Then Friday happened. 

This is one of the great frustrations of rheumatoid arthritis. It flares up without warning, leaving you feeling exhausted and in pain just when you had other plans. You lose control over your life to what seems like a cruelly arbitrary and capricious disease that makes it almost impossible to plan for anything. 

I do know it will pass. Voltaren makesthe pain bearable, and staying in bed avoids taxing my reserves, hopefully resulting in a quicker bounce back. 

But I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I’ve been eating well and healthily, I’ve been exercising in what I thought was a really measured and considered way, and this is how my body repays me? 

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, because for all my salads and running, I have been emotionally really taxed over the last few weeks. I’ve been absorbing the death of my colleague, and wrestling with some identity and self worth issues that have bubbled up again with a vengeance. It may just be that I have to have food, exercise and mental health all in good condition to fend off the RA outbursts. Maybe 2 out of 3 isn’t enough. 

This is one of those enduring challenges of living alone. You have to act as your own minder, and monitor your state carefully. When you’re part of a couple, one usually notices when the other starts to overdo it in one area, and can alert to the need for a behavioural correction. When you’re on your own, you have to monitor yourself and alert yourself to the need for a course correction. That’s not always easy to do. 

In my case, there appears to be very little time between the early warning and the arrival of the incoming. I might need to upgrade my  early warning system. 

Working without interruption

Last Saturday I spent about half a day at work, finishing one of those “urgent” projects needed for Monday. 

Although I wasn’t happy about having to go in, once there I made a lot of progress. I suspect the same task would have taken a full day’s effort had the office not been empty. 

Two things contributed to my productivity. One was of course the absence of interruptions. It’s not even the actual interruptions that are so distracting: it’s equally the chatter, ringing phones, bursts of laughter, the raised voice as someone calls across the desks, and That Guy with the really penetrating voice. 

The other reason I was productive was that I knew what needed doing, and could plan my work and follow my plan. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I work like this, and a real sense of satisfaction and mastery. Both are fundamental to my enjoyment of work. 

It really is a shame I mostly get to experience this on weekends. I did manage to get through a lot this week, and I did manage to carry over some of that concentration and focus to the rest of the week. So it is possible. The challenge is to make it the rule rather than the exception. 

Incidentally, that Monday morning meeting? It was rescheduled for Thursday. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened, with my having to work late or weekends only to have the urgently urgent thing be postponed. Every time it happens I want to remind them of the story of the boy who cried wolf. But there’s no point. It’s not their fault that the meetings get rescheduled and they can’t complain because those calling the meetings are politicians and when you’re in public service you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.  

Which is why my personal satisfaction from a job well done has to be my number  one priority. Working in a way that gives me satisfaction and professional pride is the only way to rise above the frustration and cynicism that could otherwise corrode my working life. 

Doing grief on your own

I thought I’d had enough unexpected events for now, but the unexpected is always to be expected. On Monday, a dear colleague and friend died suddenly of a heart attack while at work. He was 48 and has left behind a wife and 2 teenage sons.

First of all, 48 is far too young. It never sounded particularly young to me when I was on the young side of 40 but now those days are long gone and 48 is on the young side of me. And it’s just not right that someone should go so young.

In truth, to look at him you would describe him as “a heart attack waiting to happen”, and I suspect he feared? expected? he would go that way. He had been very active and fit in his younger days, continued to eat as he had then but discontinued the level of activity, and had probably got away with his vegetable-impoverished diet when he was younger only because he was young and fit.

I got a phone call at work telling me the news. My first reaction was to put my head in my hands and weep. My second reaction was to go find my friends and be with them. As it was close to the end of the day when we heard, we decided to go for a drink together. It felt right to gather, and for once the phrase “be there for one another” meant something to me. We didn’t do much apart from talk, but we were simply present with each other, drawing whatever it was we needed from the group.

News of his death came as a huge shock to everyone. In one of the eulogies, the speaker likened the impact of the news to the experience a few years back when a powerful earthquake shook the city and people responded in bewilderment, shock and disbelief.

I felt all that, but when I got home I was surprised to realise that what I was also feeling was loneliness. It’s something I rarely feel.

Five years ago at the time of the lethal Christchurch earthquake, I had been visiting a friend when the quake struck, and I have never been as afraid that I was going to die as I was that day. I’ve experienced thousands of earthquakes in my lifetime, some big, most small, but that was exceptionally violent and powerful.

I was staying not far out of town, and drove there some hours after the quake and spent the night on my own. I felt more lonely that night than I ever have before or since. All night, I was yearning for someone to tell me everything was going to be alright.

This, I realised, is the challenge of doing grief (or trauma of any kind) on your own: there isn’t anyone there to tell you it’s all going to be okay. You have to tell it to yourself, and frankly, it’s a stretch to believe yourself during times of great distress.

At first, I was surprised that my impulse had been to seek out my friends when shock, grief and loss struck again. Now, having reflected on it, I’m less surprised, and glad I did. Some things aren’t that easy to cope with when you’re on your own, and comfort sometimes comes best in the shape of friends.