Blackberry Burn Unit
I work in a place that makes me want to shove everyone’s precious little blackberry up their arse. Scores of articles by business gurus have been written about what an electronic albatross blackberries are in a workplace. It compounds the ill-effects of those with an inability to prioritize and communicate effectively, rendering their blackberry use a veritable Bermuda Triangle for organizational productivity. The relentless, exhausting, and unbalanced work life of the white-collar employee point to a single villain: the blackberry.
One of the big reasons I have resisted calls to advance to the management ranks where I work is my dread for having to carry Satan’s Anvil around after hours. Throughout my career I’ve had various assignments where part of the job was letting my masters affix that mobile noose around my neck. Inevitably, after a couple weeks, usually in the late evening, I would crack. A snide e-mail; a “did you get my message” text or a witless jab would compel me to throw the little buzzing bastard into something – a wall, a couch, a floor, the toilet – hoping its destruction would make the nightmare cease. Kudos to RIM, their blackberries are much more durable than an iPhone
For me, a blackberry is an obvious productivity winner in the right hands. And there’s the rub, isn’t it? The problem with blackberries isn’t the blackberry itself. It’s the way people use it, like they’re a thirteen year old who ate seventeen bowls of smarties. This is especially acute after hours. It should come with an instruction manual to prevent its irresponsible use as a torture device against co-workers. To be truly educational, it would have to be titled something like, “Remember, if Everything is Urgent, Nothing is Urgent.”
Anyone who is an underling in a large, hierarchical organization has had their soul crushed under the stampede of elephantine stupidity that afflicts senior managers with a blackberry in their hands. For example, a Director where I work, let’s call him Stu, takes his blackberry into the bathroom with him Monday evening. There, he gets an e-mail from Joe who says “hey, did you know that such-and-such is on the agenda for the meeting of the Big Cheeses next Monday?”
After a panicked squeeze of his anal sphincter, Stu responds “We’re on it.” He resolutely flushes the toilet, as if he’s about to storm the ramparts on D-Day, and sends a frantic e-mail to my Manager saying, “Get your minion edmund to get me that that thing by Friday, cuz he writes good and knows stuff. Priority.”
I get to the office Tuesday morning, open my e-mail and see the message from my Manager. “Can you do this thing by Friday?”
I roll my eyes when I see the times the e-mail exchanges below hers took place. Relieved, I know I can do the thing by the end of Wednesday without affecting other deadlines. I’ll beat my deadline for this task by miles. Then, I reconsider turning it in early. That’ll only give people extra time to start pushing more Sisyphean boulders up the hill and watching them roll over my soul on the way down. Nope, better to stick to their deadline.
For me, the issue is never whether I can do the work, it’s always how much time my plantation owners have decided to give me to write the report they always believe should be in hand moments after they’ve decided they want it. Most of them, because they’ve spent years pseudo-writing on blackberries, are barely literate. They have forgotten the mental energy and effort that goes into writing coherently.
Like an obedient slave, I say “Yes, Mem’sahib, I’ll get that report done along with the other ten reports that were urgent yesterday.” I get back to my cubicle, poised for hours of frenzied tapping on my keyboard.
It turns out that, amidst the thirty-six conversations Joe was having between dinner, his nightly bowel movement, and Late Night talk shows, he mysteriously got confused about the thing the Big Cheeses were going to talk about. The thing was actually needed sooner than expected. My boss stopped me as I was about to break for breakfast and said that thing wasn’t due Friday, it was due in two hours.
“Say what now massa?” I said, stopping in the middle of joyfully humming gospel tunes as I was loosening the chains on my ankles.
“Stu got confused and Joe needs it by noon. Is that going to be a problem, boy?”
She didn’t say ‘boy’ but she may as well have. Nobody gave a flying fig about whether the request was a problem for me. In a toxic, blackberry-addicted culture everyone’s got problems.
“YES IT IS GOING TO BE A FUCKING PROBLEM! I NEED THE NUMBERS FROM FINANCE BEFORE I CAN START!” I said, among other things that would leave a long-haul trucker beaming with pride. It was a volcanic eruption that singed everyone in the vicinity and burned my boss to a crisp. I dressed her in gauze and sent her to the local burn unit for treatment.
I am usually fairly Zen in the office. I’m the guy who meditates; who does yoga; who doesn’t let work get under his skin. But there isn’t a mantra in the world to restrain my warrior spirit when high-ranking people thoughtlessly stir up panic because they’re in the throes of a wicked blackberry overdose. When they’re tripping out, they mete out unclear, aimless tasks in the heat of the moment, using brusque language and terse tone; passive aggressively instilling urgency among underlings. This, they believe, is how they’ll get what they want, when they want it.
When it hits my inbox it just looks like someone believes my life is at his beck and call. We both know his grasp of the thing he is paid to be in command of is far more shallow than mine, so a part of me desires to go Shaolin Temple on his ego. Nobody owns my black ass, especially when folks higher up need it to cover their flank. The next best thing to giving a beat-down for that kind of disrespect is to unleash scatological invective around the office so everyone, especially Stu and Joe, knows my Zen is being messed with.
Deep-down I hope Stu, Joe, and others like him are not intentionally trying to be assholes. I suspect they honestly believe everyone will attach the same degree of urgency as they do to the random thoughts popping up in their mind when they’re sitting on the porcelain throne. They fail to consider how easily an issue might seem to be “hot button” while in the vulnerable position of having their pants around their ankles and their hides laid bare. They should stop reacting to their fears in haste, and allow the time for wisdom to intervene. Ultimately, issues emerging on a blackberry will come to be synonymous with the other thing that appears when a man is sitting on the toilet, and can be dispensed with in a way befitting of them both: with a flush.
Alas, I am well aware the sub-text of this affected busy-ness. When people aren’t at the office, leering at their blackberry provides a legitimate escape from the perils of domesticity. At home or in the grocery store, big-wigs are just Regular Joes to their friends, family, and disgruntled wage slaves who bag their groceries without an iota of awe for their rank at the office. Without people to boss around or sycophants to kiss their rings, they feel unimportant, taken for granted, and ineffectual. So, out comes the blackberry, and within moments of opening the first e-mail, the feeling of indispensability to their organization is just the fix their ego craved.
I don’t necessarily blame the Stus and Joes of this world for needlessly escalating issues left, right, and centre. I blame blackberry for not writing up that instruction manual. I blame them for failing to install a kill-switch to shut the device off when the tone of discussion crescendoes and the content is below a minimum threshold of relevance. They could have cautioned Managers that abuse of the device has a hallucinogenic effect, causing them to see fire and brimstone between the lines of mundane “FYI” e-mails.
The blackberry can turn a trickle of pithy, pointless, uninformed exchanges into a cascading wave of collective anxiety, and then into a flash flood that destroys all the towns and villages in its path. Each successive e-mail ignited by a passing comment sent to a distribution list fuels the fury. Users become mad, jabbing pins in their eyes with every opened e-mail. The investment of time and ego into the exchanges renders everyone blind as they throw a well-heeled operation into the inferno ignited by the tinder of mediocrity and the spark of thumbs typing unintelligible e-mails.
The ubiquity of this phenomenon suggests there are too many executives incapable of effectively vetting the countless issues hitting their desk. The resort to delegating all those after-hours e-mails without thinking any of them through is a failure to take full responsibility of their role as arbiters of organizational priorities. In the aggregate, such behaviour becomes a budgetary drain. Nobody – taxpayers, shareholders, or stakeholders – should abide this management style because it ignores the mandate to utilize an organization’s finite resources for purposeful ends.
Too many high-ranking folks with blackberries are oblivious to an obvious fact of human nature arising from the asymmetry in pay and level between they and their underlings. They seem to think that, because they tethered themselves to a little computer that delivers them so many problems at inopportune times, those of us below must deal with the consequences. On this point, their emotions get the better of their common sense. No executive should wish to demonstrate how out of their depth they are by delegating to underlings issues they should easily dispense with. In delegating everything downward, it appears as though they are ill-equipped to say “this is a non-issue, and the buck stops here.”
I grant, it takes intestinal fortitude and good judgement to do that. Theoretically, this is why executives are so well-compensated. When reactive, blackberry-induced issues from on high pile up on my desk for ultimate resolution it sends two messages. First, it suggests that others want me to devote as much time and energy to the organization as they do, because there’s no way I can do all I am asked in regular business hours. It’s a contemptuous proposition considering I am not paid for that level of commitment and purposely remain in a lower-level position to avoid it.
Second, it tells me that executives believe the buck stops with me, not them. If that’s the case, they can hand me the keys to their office, endorse their paycheque and give it to me, and erase their name from the top box of the org chart and write mine in its place. Oh yeah, and I’ll take their blackberry too. I will place it under the wheels of my car and drive over it.
There’s a reason France banned the use of work blackberries after certain hours in the evening. The way people have come to utilize what was supposed to be a time-management and productivity tool has become the epitome of twenty-first century lunacy. If it keeps up, my organization will have to install a burn unit for the infernos created by the urgency-obsession of those whose blackberry use smothers an organization’s most vital resource: the time, energy, and motivation of its skilled employees.