The Art of Office Warfare: Explained

Danger equals Opportunity

Bob Kaiser was a newly hired management trainee for a large multinational corporation and today was going to be the day his formal career officially began. As his eyes reluctantly opened that morning; he had suffered a tough night of intermittent sleep combined with a persistent pre-occupation focused on his new job but no apparent alcohol-induced damage. Despite the best efforts of his roommates, who had insisted the night before to send him out of the relatively safe world of academics with a rum-fueled flourish.

When his eyes opened, there was neither violation of light and sound. Things seemed fine and considering the amount of sleep he didn’t get and the amount of alcohol he did, he felt surprisingly energetic. With no hangover or lingering illness from his last immature evening amongst his unemployed circle of friends, Bob woke up and gingerly stepped around the prone and unconscious bodies which littered both his room and outside hallway and headed for the bathroom for only traditional tasks. He wasn’t sure why he felt as good as he did: it might have been adrenaline masking internal damage or the novelty of gainful employment but the reason didn’t matter. It was time to take all the privileges and obligations of his degree and begin to grow up.

He shaved quickly, with no noticeable blood draws, and entered the shower. The water immediately emerged at the perfect temperature and it felt good to rinse the remnants of his shaving adventure and the general shame which always had a tendency to collect around him after a night of drinking, down the drain. As he wiped his face, he was impressed with the overall smoothness; he had done a great job with no rogue hairs remaining. While marveling his handiwork, his elbow brushed against the large communal container of generic shampoo. The almost-full object fueled by gravity, picked up speed and hurdled towards the shower floor. Instinctively, he raised his foot and caught the half-gallon container in the crook of his foot.

Cradling the shampoo jug like a cylindrical soccer ball, he gently lowered the shampoo to the floor, marveled at his newfound dexterity and watched all his potential problems disappear again. He had never played soccer or hacky-sack but he had impressively demonstrated some new foot-related skill, saving both his pride and likely several phalanges. The container weighed at least four pounds and its fall from sixish feet would have caused some kind of damage but thanks to some outside force, he was back on top with a clean slate of circumstances, a squeaky clean body and something finally in common with Edison Arantes do Nascimento.

He put on his new suit, which had lain undisturbed from yesterday as well as his new shirt, tie and his new shoes. The shoes were especially shiny due to his decision a day earlier to add another personal shoeshine layer on top of the already impressive patina which was compliments from the shoe company. To protect himself from embarrassing pratfalls, he took the advice of his father and worn the shoes briefly outside the day before to slightly scuff the soles before he introduced the smoothness to the slick carpeted floors of his new employer. The combination of pristine leather soles and shiny, uniform floors surrounded by low pile carpets is guaranteed to create pedestrian havoc to both the uninitiated and ignorant. He was that kind of guy anymore: he was a graduate of a recognizable Midwestern university and after twenty-two years, it was time to contribute to society with some tangible value yet to be determined.

Once dressed, he wandered into the kitchen, grabbed a large plastic cup and reached into the freezer to prepare something cold to drink. As he reached into the ice bin, an ice cube popped out of his hand and began to arc downward to the floor. As he watched it descend, he realized that every time he reached into the ice bin, an ice cube usually escaped his grasp, hit the floor and shattered; causing him to spend several minutes chasing down the melting pieces. However, this time was different because he spotted the descending ice cube and instinctively reached out with his foot and for the second time in his life, his foot caught and easily cradled the slippery object.

Bob couldn’t believe it; the ice cube lay nestled in the top collar portion of his new shoe. He easily picked it out and dropped it into sink with a mystified look. In his entire life, he never came remotely close of doing anything with his feet except transport his body but twice in five minutes, he had demonstrated an ambulatory adroitness that, until recently, was not possible. It was finally time to leave for work but he made a conscious effort to remember this morning for further review once he returned home.

The first day at work was a blur; dozen’s of signatures were followed with several videos and generic PowerPoint™ presentations. However, although the content was dull and derivative, he kept himself occupied by observing his fellow trainees and making up stories about their sordid past and all the glamorous reasons they had joined the company. The presenter droned on while reading the orientation presentation verbatim. Some of his fellow trainees perpetuated the agony by reading quietly along with both the approved main points and the less-known but equally banal talking points. Bob was so happy to be employed, he forced himself to listen with an open but disengaged mind and soon it was time for his free lunch on the company.

He sat in a formal dining room in his new suit and enjoyed an adult lunch complete with cloth napkins and assumed rules of etiquette. The company tradition stated that senior management attended the trainee lunch as the final illusion of seeking input before throwing them out in the less caring world of their peers. He engaged in superficial small talk with the senior executive assigned to his table and was relieved that he had avoided spilling food or saying something stupid or inflammatory for the entire hour. After lunch, he was delivered to his newly assigned cubicle with the vague instructions of reading all the distributed material and awaiting his formal orders.

With nothing to do, he dutifully filled out all his remaining paperwork and actually read the employee manual. To prove compliance, he actually took notes on his recently issued note pads and filed them away in his completely empty file cabinet. The manual, coming in just under one hundred pages (excluding cover and the table of contents) was a long-winded regurgitation of all things internal. The contributing authors came from all disciplines; human resources, safety, facilities, legal and marketing. Each chapter was written by different people, resulting in a one-two-three-four punch of literary apocalypse; mundane content combining with conflicting grammar, pace and style. Bob, being new and foolish, slogged through the entire manual and make an effort to either memorize or understand each topic for no other reason except to kill time until his first position and or task was assigned. He felt that if he had passed Statistics, anything was possible, and this manual did its hard copy best to dull all remaining and engaged synapses.

Bob as re-reading for the tenth time a paragraph on coordination of benefit plans when the kotsu-kotsu sound of the approaching footsteps broke into his subconscious. The environment of people whirling and scooting to different departments added to his inventory of slightly recognizable but still unique sounds but the footsteps rose above the white noise cacophony. The sound was finally categorized and thanks to the theories of Christian Doppler, Bob easily estimated that the walker was still a hundred meters away from his cubicle. The consistent report of the heel sound was well paced and the sound implied a heel of moderate substance and an owner who walked with an elegant purpose. By the time the sound source walked by, his assumptions were confirmed: she was professional, stylish and completely void of nonsense.

She was obviously on her way to some pre-determined meeting; arms cradling a portfolio and laser pointer, her eyes were focused straight ahead and the world lay itself open to her energy and power. As Bob peeked over the cubicle wall, the impression he gathered was he was looking at a person that didn’t make a practice out of sleeping late and it appeared she had no time for the infirmed or the slow minded.

“Wow, she seems like a real pistol.”

Bob was surprised that he had heard his own voice because that kind of comment usually remained as inner dialogue. Only hours after attending his first harassment seminar, he was obviously embarrassed with his lack of verbal control and hoped that the comment would disappear into the omnipresent audial clutter which surrounded his cube farm. He looked around, seeing no one, and began to quietly descend back into his anonymous space to actually wipe his brow.

“No, kidding” came a comment from a few cubes away. The intrusive sound startled Bob back into reality. The person, probably male, supported his breach in civility but Bob was not going to press his luck with further conversation. He had bigger issues to deal with; starting with inactivating his inner dialogue function. This had to be turned on and after many years of saying whatever crossed his mind, Bob knew that it was going to be decades before he would stop thinking those thoughts but today was the day to at least crank down the volume.

That cube housed another new trainee who was lured out of his box in much the same way he did. Although relieved that his observations were eventually confirmed, he felt a bit disappointed that he couldn’t keep his immature mouth shut for at least one day as a supposed adult. He wasn't a complete Neanderthal and basically agreed with all the compliance information from the morning but her beauty surprised him enough to allow the comment to escape. He decided not to engage in a cell block chat about the local talent and felt this was the best time to go through his required tasks for the day. As a trainee, he had no formal responsibilities and was told to wait until he was assigned to one of the many business groups. In the interim time, he continued to read the employee manuals, complete all paperwork, company intranet,get familiar with the building’s layout and general housekeeping rules. If the time to assign grew longer, he would be able to do the second-tier responsibilities including reading the company’s library of marketing materials under the guise of product knowledge development while the HR toadies scrambled to find a manager looking for another set of well-meaning but generally incompetent hands. Only a very few trainees were subjected to reading this mind-numbing pile of marketing drivel and Bob had no interest in joined the team of walking dead unless Ms. Kotsu-Kotsu was involved.

He continued to re-read the section on coordination of benefits but it was written so poorly and saturated with senseless jargon. The concept was poorly presented and full of arcane examples but as a new employee, he was afraid that he would give the wrong impression if he implied ignorance or worse, disinterest. It took several hours before Bob realized that some concepts were best left alone but due to his heads-down effort, he kept reading it repeatedly until it was unintentionally memorized. In light of things unknown, the ability to memorize was at least comforting but his head was now filled with information of unknown value or destination. In college, this skill was elevated to an art once he knew the gift was available through a small period of intense effort. He learned an entire semester of geology (over a weekend) in this manner and reconciled this strategy by assuming that it was unlikely that he would seek employment someday as a Geologist.

The rest of the day remained quietly uneventful and his formal orders never came. As a student, he made an effort to remain focused for only a few hours during the day but with his new job, he had to maintain a higher than usual level of concentration which exhausted him by mid-afternoon. At the end of the day, he packed away all his papers into the middle desk drawer and walked out with the rest of the cube farm. He had debated whether to bring a briefcase that day but couldn’t get himself to do it as he felt it was going to be equivalent to a little girl’s first purse. Instead of several hundred tissues, he would have placed the morning's newspaper and a few blank legal pads in the briefcase to get it requisite heft. It was worth the risk and he didn't even know what the risk was going to look like. He decided it was time to leave early so he stashed his coat in an empty office by the door; after a few more minutes, he got up and walked purposely out of the area. This ruse was to give any interested viewers the impression he was off to a meeting. His work area appeared engaged so he went around the corner, grabbed his coat and went home.

When he got home, his roommates started to ask him questions.

“So, are all kinds of good looking women working there?”

“There are many pretty women there but I haven’t noticed many. I have had my head down trying to read all the stuff they gave me.” Bob was surprised that the voice of the morning presenter had come out of his mouth when trying to appease his horny roommates. Their collective smiles cautioned him not to tell the story of the loud-walking beauty; it would send the roomies into requests for choking detail that did not exist. Going to college allowed Bob and his roommates to gaze overtly at all the women that surrounded them on a daily basis but having a job was the major leagues: you didn't know any of the stories of your teammates or your opponents but they must have done something good to be there and relying on your ignorance was not good strategy to embrace. Just the rookie major leaguer, Bob had to show up early, listen to his teammates, work hard and keep his head down. This was not the place for stupidity, or at least not yet.

“Like what?”

“Like the coordination of benefits clause in my health insurance packet.”

“Would you say there are fifty pretty ones?”

“I see you guys have different priorities than me.”

By this time, the basketball game came on the television and the topic quickly changed to matters athletic. Bob didn’t care as all he wanted to do was sit quietly and watch a game without caring who was going to win. The teams were both good but he had lost the fervor of screaming blindly for one team to win versus another because it really didn’t matter who won. He was not considered a better person because his allegiance to some winning team was pure and honorable. Bob had dutifully rooted for teams in his life but the never-ending saga that was big time sports never allowed one to savor the victory for too long. His alma mater was never known for athletic prowess so most of his rooting was pointed to schools that he felt were impressive and he didn’t have to waste time bleeding a particular color combination. This game was particularly relaxing because now, as a working adult, it was time to relax. He had figured out that a day in the work world was similar to a semester’s effort in a class; he didn’t know what was important or what he may be tested on eventually but he needed to show up everyday and pay attention. When the day was over, he was done with no further obligations to do additional work or studying. There would come a day or two in his career in which he had to work late but once he was home, with no looming tasks ahead.

After the game, the roommates decided to go out for a few drinks. Their classes were not starting until mid-morning so there was plenty of time to go out and have fun. Bob surprised his friends by declining the opportunity to go and drink as he had consistently done for three years.

“I have to be at work by eight o’clock,” said Bob. “I will pass.”

“Oh, come on Bob. Just go out for one drink.”

“It is safe to say, that isn’t going to happen. If I go out, which I won’t, I will be guilted into staying around for a few more and all of a sudden, I get three hours of sleep. Last night was my last workday hurrah and myself, my dignity and my eyebrows will remain intact.” Everyone, but especially Bob, was surprised with the completeness of his answer. The roommates continued to pester him but their hearts weren’t in it for the long haul. They wanted to get to the bar and didn’t want to burn a lot of bar time arguing with him: they didn't understand the depth of his insights but their priorities still existed and it was time for action. After a few more minutes of exchanging lighthearted obscenities, the roommates went out on the town and Bob went to bed safe and sound. However, as he fell asleep, he remembered an incident several years earlier, when he had made the mistake of passing out the night before a significant social engagement with his old girlfriend. After a night of drinking, Bob discovered that both of his eyebrows were shaved off, leaving him with a perpetual look of confusion. The girlfriend, soon to be described as the ex-girlfriend, found even less humor in the situation and took every opportunity to point out to Bob her opinion of his friends. Bob understood both sides of the dilemma and eventually sided with his friends: it was his fault and he suffered the consequences without complaint or resentment. In fact, as the years went on, their act was viewed more and more of an act of kindness and was only referenced in a non-positive way when a point needed to be made.

It had been a long day so there was no problem falling asleep. Bob’s fatigue and ability to sleep through almost anything allowed him to get the critical sleep he needed and in the morning, he woke up a few minutes before his alarm was set to go off. He turned off the alarm, grabbed his second best suit and had a quiet breakfast all by himself. Luckily the job was downtown on a main bus line so he hopped on the empty bus and headed downtown. The bus route went right through campus so routes out of campus in the morning and into campus at night were historically empty.

Bob walked into work on time and browsed his email account. There were a few standard messages coming from the Human Resources department but no formal marching orders. Curious but somewhat relieved, Bob got a cup of coffee and focused in on reading all the assigned information. The content was as dull as the day before and some of the novelty of the new job began to wear out. His slightly reduced level of commitment in reading all the assigned material manifested this reality. He began pondering if he should begin downloading a few personal programs, such as Instant Messenger, as the desktop/IT policies were somewhat vague on the subject. At least with a few outlets to the outside world, he could more easily pass the time but again, decided to approach his new world with quiet caution as he had no idea where the real rules started and ended.

“How was your evening?”

A female voice in a nearby cubicle filled Bob’s ears. It surprised him as he thought he only neighbor was the nearby pervert from yesterday’s conversation about the mysterious Ms. Kotsu Kotsu. The voice was coming from the cube next to his but he still wasn’t sure if she was attempting to engage in a neighborly chat or she was busy talking to one of her friends. He quietly peered over the top of his cubicle and saw no one except some guy staring out the window so he quietly sat back down and listened intently for the next message. After sitting still for ten minutes, no second message was forthcoming so he went back to his make-busy tasks to continue to kill time until his formal orders arrived. He was positive that it was a female voice and he was somewhat sure it came from that direction but without any hope or agenda, he remained stationary and forced himself to begin reading the employee manual again.

Bob was quietly checking his emails and browsing the web for lack of better things to do. He had filled out all his paperwork, read all the provided documentation and stone-cold memorized the coordination of benefits passage. He tried to look busy but he was becoming slightly worried that his marching orders had still not arrived. As he quietly worked at appearing busy, his first legitimate, work-related email arrived with a head-snapping tone. As it was his first incoming email, he had not realized (until that moment) that his speakers were turned up all the way. He quickly pulled out the speaker wire instead of wasting critical time trying to find the volume control.

Once composed, he saw that the email had finally arrived from the Human Resources department: his marching orders were here. Bob quickly opened the email and could tell immediately that the email was standard, templated language that had been used hundreds of time before. Other than his name and cube location, the first three paragraphs were general boilerplate yammering of a general welcome, standard conditions of employment and the importance of ethics in business. The fourth paragraph, consisting of only two sentences, informed Bob that he was going to be assigned to the Transportation/Logistics department. Bob had no idea what that department did nor did he have any idea why it was assumed that he could contribute to the overall good of the group. As a liberal arts graduate, Bob embraced the art of essay writing and avoided hard answers of true and false and specific numbers whenever possible. He was a big picture guy with a big picture view of the world and with his new calling of Logistics only five minutes old, he began to have some doubts about his career direction.

The first thing he did was search on the words “Transportation, Logistics” and discovered approximately 23,200,000 separate hits. Somewhat relieved that the new career had some opportunity, he visited a few sites and determined that this group dealt with moving things from place to place and the related science behind making those moves as elegant as possible. The group was located on the far side of the main building and he felt that it would be worthwhile to wander over there and see what was going on.

Once he arrived at the front of the department, he was surprised at how quiet things appeared: people were staring at their screens and maps of the United States and many of the larger states were everywhere he looked. He surmised that luckily he didn’t know what was going on so he kept his observations to a minimum but was heartened the Logistic folks appeared professional looking and didn’t seem to look like truck drivers. By the time he returned to his temporary cube, another email was waiting. It was an exact copy of the last email but the line that “his supervisor’s name would be forthcoming” had been replaced with “and your supervisor is Ronald Pittman, extension 324.” Bob smiled a bit at the alliteration but decided to stop internally smirking because mocking his future boss seemed to be his first bad idea as a Management Trainee.

He composed himself and called the extension. At the first ring, it picked up and he heard a most unique voice say, “Rittman.” Bob was a bit startled at the brevity and it took a few seconds to collect his thoughts to finally respond.

“Mr. Rittman?” My name is Bob Kaiser and I was just informed to contact you.”

“What about, Bob?”

“I am your new Management Trainee. I have been assigned to the Transportation/Logistics group and I am supposed to contact you. Which I am doing right now.” Bob quickly pulled up the email to quote verbatim if further qualifying questions were on the horizon but Rittman's next question gave him the impression that he was not concerned, just curious.

“Really? They assigned me a Trainee?”

“Yes, sir. Evidentially.”

“Well, why don’t you show up tomorrow at 8 am and we will figure this out.”

“Do I have to bring anything?”

“Do you have anything that could make you a better Transportation/Logistics professional?”

“No. This is my second day.”

“I would suggest showing up on time. We will have everything else. If you need any passwords for your email account or you have benefit information, bring that along so you can finally file it away in your assigned cubicle.”

“Yes, sir. Being on time is already part of my plan." Bob didn't want to add that but since Rittman made the comment, but he wanted him to know that timeliness was already something he had in his bag.

Bob hung up the phone and began to say goodbye to his first office of his working life. The nature of the business made the workspace spartan and devoid of tchotchke. He gathered up his paperwork, made a note of his sign-on password and called it a day. Tomorrow was show time and the arena was Logistics: the area he was leaving was too transient anyway: the hotel cubes were usually reserved for traveling employees to check emails or to make some calls while they were on the road usually used these cubes so Bob didn't feel his sixteen hour legacy would have much impact on the space going forward. However the thought of spending any more time in the companies' equivalent to a bus station forced Bob into adding a new note to bring along some disinfectant for his next home.

On his way home, he felt relieved because the career question was going to quickly end. For the last several months, ranging from the pre-graduation transition until an hour ago, he was unable to describe his career plans. Once he got hired, he only postponed the question briefly as the answer of “management trainee” would result in another question of specific employment duties and responsibilities. Now he could look his inquisitors in the face and say, “I am in the transportation and logistics game.”

Walking in the door of his apartment, he was disappointed to find all roommates gone to places undetermined. A note was scribbled on the kitchen white board that they were attending a pre-game party on the far side of campus and encouraged his attendance. Yesterday he would have considered it because no obligations existed for a yet-to-be trainee but tonight he would search the web and learn as much as he could about his new career. He grabbed a beer, ordered a pizza and began his research. After a whole pizza and several beers, he learned transportation and logistics was a fancy name for a simple concept. The art and science of moving things from point A to point B was transportation and logistics; it was further defined as the efficient planning arm of that desired movement and management state. He did some other research but definitely felt that he could contribute to the good of the group, if given the chance.

The next day, he was fifteen minutes early and wandered around the area until he found Rittman’s office and a nearby cubicle that was noticeably empty. He assumed it was his cubicle but didn’t want to start poorly so he stood in front of Rittman’s door until he showed up exactly at eight o’clock. He decided not to tell his new boss about his early arrival so he introduced himself, shook his hand and waited for instructions.

Ron smiled and said, “Your cubicle is there” and pointed to the cube that Bob had already checked out.

“Thank you, I will start setting up my office.” This time Bob had more than the newspaper and lunch in his briefcase: he had his orientation material as well.

“Come back in about fifteen minutes. We can talk about your day.”

He put away his two files, recorded a voice mail message per his orientation manual, checked his email on the newly issued desktop and wrote down his new direct dial number and placed it in his pocket. As he prepared to walk into his new bosses’ office for the first time, he heard the distinctive voice again.

“Welcome aboard.”

Using triangulation, Bob determined that the source of the voice was two cubicles away but when he walked over to the area, no one was to be seen. He wandered back to his desk to pick up another legal pad, in case this was going to be a long meeting, and walked to Rittman’s door. The distance between the two areas was less than twenty feet and Bob continually looked around in hopes of seeing and establishing eye contact with the owner of the mysterious voice. Much to his disappointment, he covered the twenty feet in a few seconds and lost any additional chance to flush her out with his mobile surveillance.

Rittman waved him in and motioned to a large conference table. He was on the phone but his non-verbal instructions to take a seat were very clear and Bob immediately complied. On the table was a stack of user manuals, industry magazines and a crystal tennis ball. While Bob waited for the phone call to conclude, he looked around his bosses’ office; there were several maps on the wall with clearly marked transportation routes, several small-scale models of long-haul trucks and a few tennis trophies quietly tucked in the back. As he quietly waited at the table, he began to politely thumb through the assembled material and recognized two books that he was considering purchasing: A Practical Guild to Logistics and Transportation Concepts Refined.

He was heartened that he found the books and made a mental note to purchase the books by himself if they were not forthcoming from his boss. Rittman finally got off the phone and came over and shook hands.

“Welcome aboard,” said Ron Rittman. He was sipping a large cup of coffee and the logo appeared to represent some national trucker hauling or container company.

“Thank you,” said Bob. “I appreciate you contacting me and I look forward to learning all about logistics and transportation. From the MUTCD to LTL’s, I want to learn.” Thus, in the middle of his first full week of work, Bob Kaiser uttered his first grown-up sentence.  The new boss smiled, he appreciated the moxie of his new charge. Rittman sat himself down and dramatically brought his coffee cup down to the desk surface to begin the discussion.

The cup struck the crystal tennis ball and sent it rolling quickly towards the end of the conference table. Both attendees froze for a moment but inexplicability, Bob stuck his foot out and caught the orb several inches above a stripe of marble floor that made up the back edge of Rittman’s office.

“Nice catch, kid,” said Rittman. “Now, come over here and let's get to work.”

Today's battlegrounds are not in some far-away land but located in generic office buildings around metro areas across the country. Now, Sun Tzu would likely have some ideas with copier machine strategy but you know what, he wouldn't know a scanner if it bit him on his sword.

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