I’m frustrated right now, and in the overall scheme of things I probably shouldn’t be. On top of being frustrated, I am feeling sad and helpless, emotions that in this case ARE appropriate in the larger context.
My frustration is caused by the fact that Mark’s manager called today (Sunday afternoon) to let him know that because of a decision made higher along the food chain in his company, Mark must report to work in an office an hour’s drive away tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. Before you roll your eyes and say, “So what—lots of people commute that far and further every single day,” I’d like to remind you that Mark has serious chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome that sometimes means bathroom sprints several times a day. Working from a “virtual” or home office has been the only reason he’s been able to remain employed for the past few years.
The sadness and helplessness stems from the fact that our neighbor is apparently in the final days of his long fight with cancer. We’re losing a terrific friend, an amazing person, and someone who has always been a great neighbor in every sense of the word. Ever since his diagnosis some years ago, we knew this time would come. Contemplating the world without him and the grief and loss being experienced by his family make our annoyance with the decree that Mark must drive to an office tomorrow morning seem pretty trivial.
And still, I must vent about the lesser issue at hand.
Mark works for a major Fortune 500 company. He’s good at his job as a project manager. In fact he’s outstanding. He’s a fast learner, therefore quick to retain and understand the quickly-evolving and highly technical nature of his industry. What clinches his value in his role, though, is his amazing ability to lead and motivate people and get them working together to get things done. He sees the big picture and what has to happen each step of the way for the project to coalesce, and by power of his personality, helps to make it happen. He lets people know they are valued, and in turn they work harder. I hear him on conference calls all the time. I have no idea what he is talking about, but his technical understanding and people skills are obvious. He cares about getting the job done, but he cares about people, too.
Here’s the thing. None of what he does, NONE of it requires that he be in an office building. In fact, the office building he’s been ordered to report to houses no one who even works in his group. Whether he’s here at home or in an office an hour away, he will sound exactly the same over the phone to the folks he works with daily. We live in Illinois. His manager and several others he interfaces with on a daily basis are in Minnesota. Others are located all over the United States. Commuting will NOT facilitate face-to-face communication with his coworkers, nor will it provide him access to anything he doesn’t already have in order to do his job: a computer, printer, desk phone, and cell phone. In fact, by going to an office in the city, he will be hampered by the lack of two extra monitors and other peripherals he’s purchased on his own so that he can work more efficiently.
Commuting an hour means that by the time Mark arrives at the office, he is guaranteed to be in pain. The hour he will spend driving in the morning and afternoon would normally be spent in his home office, reading and responding to e-mail while sitting in a high-quality, ergonomic office chair, typing on an ergonomic keyboard—items also purchased on his own so he could work with less discomfort. If he’s commuting he can’t take pain killers strong enough to stave off the pain caused by driving… because he’ll be driving, and said pain killers are contraindicated while “operating heavy machinery,” such as motor vehicles.
Working in an office means that the nap he takes around lunch time each day is out of the question. Normal office workers may go out to lunch or to the building cafeteria. Working at home, Mark takes a 30-45 minute nap and eats lunch at his desk, usually while on a conference call. The nap makes it possible for him to get through the afternoon and still be productive.
Working in an office also means that if he experiences one of his all-too-common bouts of serious, repetitive diarrhea, he has to deal with it in a public bathroom, in a public building. If he makes it to the office before it happens. If he makes it to the bathroom once he has made it to the office. At home, this isn’t such a big deal. It’s annoying, but a shower and fresh underwear are a few steps away if needed. He retains his dignity. He can keep working diligently with no one having to know that some days involve 12 hasty visits to the bathroom… before noon.
Working in an office means not only will he already be in pain when he arrives, he will also be tired. City driving used to be second nature to him. Now it wears him out, utterly.
He tried to get official clearance—a medical waiver, so to say—from the company a year or so ago so that his status as a “virtual employee” would be official. But the paperwork got hung up in bureaucracy. His manager didn’t mind him working from home, so Mark continued to do so. Now, apparently, the matter is out of his manager’s control.
Mark is trying to stay positive. I, however, have lost that battle. I’m just worried and angry. Worried about how sick and beat up he’ll feel adding the commute to his already high-stress job. Angry because it’s so pointless. Some jobs, like mine, mean you have to be somewhere specific to do the job. Others, like Mark’s are such that you can be anywhere as long as you have a phone and internet connection. But, because of someone’s whim, Mark is going to waste time, energy, fuel, and productivity to drive to a building where no one there even works with him.
You’d think a cutting-edge company like this one would encourage telecommuting among its employees. So they own a nearly-empty office building? Maybe they should sell it, and quit trying to justify the space. They’ll increase employee productivity, save money, and reduce their carbon footprint all in one shot.
I guess my deepest, darkest worry is that the added pain, fatigue and stress he’ll endure will accelerate the pace of his illness and thereby the time that elapses before the day when—like my dying neighbor’s wife—I too, will be clutching hospice paperwork and trying to comprehend it through a blur of helpless tears.
Come to think of it, that doesn’t seem so trivial.