There is no “I” in Team

“I had never really worked as part of a team before. Most of the jobs I’d had in the past were for really small ventures or working directly for just one person, like the old parliamentarian. So, I expected things to be different at PEWE and in some ways I was looking forward to it. Josephina certainly loved to extol the virtues of teamwork and never failed to remind us of how we were here to work together.  Eager to try it, I offered to stay behind during the holidays and let my colleagues take the time off, Josephina included. In turn, I would take the week after the holidays off to visit some friends and family.

Given that I wasn’t in a very high position, (we were categorised by numbers: I was a four, whereas Josephina was an eight, the Chief of PEWE was a ten), I didn’t expect to be running the office. No. I had thought it was just a matter of having a body at a desk, as usual. Needless to say, I was surprised when on the first day of holidays, Josephina sent a message around, unbeknownst to me, to all of PEWE informing them that she had left me in charge and should anyone need anything at all, please see me. At first, I was flattered, but really I was just concerned about the amount of unanticipated responsibility that had just been thrown at me. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem accepting responsibility, but when it comes to work, additional responsibilities, especially the sort that comes by surprise, are essentially just unpaid raises, the type not recognised by anybody but yourself.

As soon as Josephina and the Senior Manager were out of the office, the team’s administrative assistant stopped showing up for work. Oddly, she would notify her cube mate, Allison, another younger lady who shared the half-walled workspace with her, but not me. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, Ariel was a ‘crat brat: the self-entitled child of a high ranking civil servant, in this case one who worked at PISS.” Lia looked knowingly at the Agent seated across her, who nodded in understanding of what one of her boss’ children would probably be like for a colleague, and for the first time with a look that verged on genuine.

“Of course, Josephina never truly left the office. Every day I received e-mails with directions and inquiries about the remaining staff at work. She asked directly about Ariel’s attendance, and upon discovering that she had not been coming to work or reporting to me about it, Josephina sent a stern e-mail to her, copying me, instructing Ariel to inform both of us should she not be there. Not a great approach to building a team, I might add.

Some times Josephina would call and pressure me to delegate. She’d say if they don’t look like they are doing enough give them some more work. Delegate! On the days Ariel did show up to work for a few hours, she sat gossiping loudly to her cube mate. They both spoke in that affected Valley Girl whine so popular with today’s youth, except Allison was a year older than me, and Ariel but three years younger – I was 29 at the time. A little too old, in my opinion, to be behaving like that, but what to do, they are the norm these days.

It annoyed me that I was working, while these two sat there discussing Ariel’s errant boyfriend, who, later I learned, had knocked her up with twins and ran off to another city, or so she claimed. She would bemoan to Allison, in a not very discrete voice so that the whole of PEWE could hear, that she wasn’t sure what she would do, essentially announcing to the world that she might yet have an abortion. We’re a pretty progressive country, Plebeia, but as you are aware abortion still remains a controversial issue, especially with that religious right. Moreover, there was something odd in a woman wanting to tell the world about her mistake. It isn’t that easy to get pregnant, so getting accidentally knocked-up in your mid-twenties was pretty stupid. Sharing with your colleagues that you might undergo an incredibly invasive and personal procedure to rectify that mishap – it isn’t quite something I can understand.

In any event, under pressure from Josephina I would get up and walk the distance down the corridor dividing the labyrinth of cubicles to stop in front of the one shared by Ariel and Allison. The pair would stop their discussion, which I had involuntarily been subjected to given the volume at which it had been conducted, and stare at me with self-satisfied smiles. They neither pretended to work nor seemed to care that they had been caught not doing anything productive. Allison, a blonde with long thin hair so light it bordered on a pale straw yellow, would fold her hands on her desk and look up at me, blinking her heavily coloured eyelids in a failed attempt at being coquettish. Ariel, a larger more voluptuous build, would sit with her typically vacant stare that seemed to involve her upturned Grecian nose pulling her top lip open to expose her front teeth and gaping mouth, like a vacuous weasel or something. I would inquire politely, but clearly lacking any authority, as to what they were both working on. Allison, at least, would come up with something, but Ariel wasn’t quick enough.

One day, seeing that Ariel had nothing to do, I asked her to create some form thank you letters for future use. Josephina was obsessed with thank you letters, and the Senior Manager had asked me to create some templates. It wasn’t rocket science, and having so many other things left for me to do, I thought I’d ask Ariel. Moreover, being the administrative assistant, it seemed like a job that should fall under her purview. Of course, she could do it, she gushed, happily showing me all the documents she had clearly copied and taken with her from the last job she had held, also inside of PEWE.  I quickly noticed that all of the many thank you letters she claimed to have as examples were the same but addressed to different people, but whatever, this wasn’t a difficult task. After I finished explaining to her that we would probably need letters for every conceivable support group with which we might work on an event, such as transportation companies, hotels, decorators et cetera, I moved to return to my workspace. As I left, I heard her whine Um, like LEE-uuhh, could you like, uh, send me an email asking me to do this, so like I, don’t forget er sum-thing?”

Lia sighed at length as if blowing out cigarette smoke, the exact same way she did the day this had occurred. Raising her eyebrows and screwing up her face a bit, Lia looked at the Agent, “I know it’s nothing, but as it became more and more apparent that Ariel was incompetent, I increasingly got saddled with the work Josephina didn’t trust her to do, like drafting e-mails and writing other correspondence.” Lia took a sip from her forgotten coffee, and in finding it bitter, added some more raw sugar from a little packet stored with other types in a plain white bowl on the diner table. “On one hand, I was expected to act as a manager, on the other, I had to do the grunt work – all in addition to my existing job, which was coordinating meetings for the Plebeian ministers.

The Agent, interjecting as if nonchalant, inquired “Lia, did you need a security clearance for any of this?”

Lia laughed, “I’m sure you know already that my security clearance is still pending from eight months ago, and if you really did your homework, you’d know too that it wasn’t even submitted by Josephina and PEWE. I had it submitted through another department for an entirely different job. I don’t even think that I had the basic security check completed, because I never received a confirmation or expiry date for it. Frankly, I’m not sure most of our team had security clearance. Josephina didn’t care about that, just like she didn’t care about money. She knew everyone, but Allison, before she hired them. You want a case study in nepotism; it’s Josephina’s hiring practices. Most of the girls, and Josephina only ever hired women, came, like I did, from the House of Plebeians where Josephina once worked, or they were recommended by the Chief of PEWE.  One of the women didn’t even have Plebeian citizenship!  What did it matter if they would be hanging around ministers from some of the most important countries in the world? If they were connected to Josephina or the Chief, surely they were OK.”

The Agent grimaced. “I see.”

“It’s no different than the House of Plebeians,” Lia continued, “there they only do a simple background check and staff have access to just about everything related to government.” Seeing that the Agent was betraying slight signs of being uncomfortable, Lia returned to her story. “Anyway, on the last week of the holidays, Allison was taking some time off. She had been assigned to handle part of the big meeting I was working on, coming up in about three months from then. We had three weeks to organise a tour of the facilities for the meeting. Staff from the foreign missions involved in the meeting and delegates from those countries were all to attend.  It wasn’t a huge production, but it was the first time I had ever done one and I was already feeling the heat from Josephina. Thinking that Allison would continue preparations in my absence the following week, I continued to work while she was away, drafting presentations Josephina would make and schedules for the day’s events. (Did you know we draft scenarios down to the most minute of details – 11:45, Lia to call bus driver for pick up at front door in 5 minutes?)  Essentially, all that had to be completed in the week I was to be away were the packages handed out to participants with hard copies of these documents and hotel room listings. Again, it isn’t a difficult task, just time consuming.

While I was gone to the city, I received an email. We all carry Crackberries, and vacation or not, we are expected to have them on us at all times and more importantly, respond to messages as proof that we in fact are carrying them. I made the unfortunate mistake of looking at mine while enjoying a post-holiday dinner at good friends. The email was from Allison saying, she just couldn’t handle preparing the packages for the advance visit the following week as she had to get her priorities straight. The Senior Manager agreed. And with that, I was left without support and about three days to prepare all the printed material for the tour. With all the other tasks associated with such an event, it would typically take me about a week to complete.

So, the next week when I was back, I worked until nine in the evening every night, while Allison left around 4:30. One day, particularly pressed for time, I asked her to include a list of guest rooms and meetings spaces we would be seeing at the various venues to include in the agenda. I copied the Senior Manager on the message, as by then we were told to always copy at least one person higher up the food chain. The task involved putting in order and rewriting in more refined words, the list provided to us by the staff at the two hotels and private club. As Allison had already left work for the day, her response via Crackberry was abrupt: I think the emails from the venues are pretty self-explanatory.

At this point, I was beginning to seethe. When the Senior Manager sent an email to both Allison and me praising our hard work on the upcoming visit, I lost it and blurted out, I can’t believe you just said that. Of course, the Senior Manager could hear me; we shared the same dreary workspace. Surprised she asked me what I meant. I readily explained how little work Allison had been contributing lately, as sanctioned by the Senior Manager herself, and pointed out how she had left every day on time, it was then seven in the evening. The Senior Manager taking it upon herself to rectify the situation then sends a message to Allison, asking if she had completed the task alluded to in the request I had sent. Not five minutes later did I receive a phone call from a now seething Allison.

Hello, I answered.

Hi. It’s Allison. She snapped. Um, I just got a message from the Senior Manager asking about the agenda.

I was annoyed, and knowing better than to have waited on Allison, I had gone ahead and done the work myself knowing that I would be working even later that evening. Still irritated I cut her off, don’t worry, it’s already done.

That’s what I thought, she tossed out in disgust, it wasn’t very hard.

Without thinking I responded, yes, that’s exactly the point, Allison. You could have done it when I asked.

Are you mad at me? Was her short response.

I couldn’t believe it. Were we children? Was I mad at her? Frustrated yes, but did I care anything for her emotionally, no. To be mad would entail that there was something personal about this. There was work to be done, and I was stuck doing it. So I said, no, I am not mad at you. I am frustrated. It is seven o’clock at night and I am still at work with a pile of things to do. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back at it. It was met with what seemed like radio silence, so I added in as friendly a tone as possible, so, I’ll see you tomorrow then?

Again, dead air, until finally Allison barked Fine. Goodbye. And hung up.

Almost immediately, the Senior Manager’s phone rang. I shot her a look and said don’t you dare pick that up. It’s Allison and she’s calling because of that email you sent.

It had just been another typical evening of paradise at PEWE. At the time, I had hoped that it was an anomaly, but my doubts were increased later that week at the visit.

Part of my job had been to liaise with the foreign missions, providing details about the upcoming tour and meeting. It was my favourite part of the job. As the visit had gone really well, many of the diplomats were coming up to me with congratulations towards the end of the program. The Senior Manager, who had been standing with Josephina, overheard one of these well wishes. Quickly, as if to counteract any sort of misconception from developing, she swooped in and corrected the Dip, Thank you, sir, but it was really more of a team effort.

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