Are you there Paula?

The virus has caused many traditional office workers to have to learn new methods for online communications. Some weeks ago a friend was explaining the difficulties encountered during a work meeting and suggested it would make a good prompt for a short story. This is it. 😁

Sitting in stuffy offices at work, listening to someone rambling on was bad enough but who would have envisaged what would happen next? The MD came out with all the old cliches, while all we wanted to do was get back to our desks and get things finished so we could go home at a reasonable time and relax.

‘We need to show our team spirit.’
‘Think outside the box.’
‘Your contributions are appreciated and discussed at board level to make a better company for all of us.’
‘We’re all in this together.’
‘Our success is your success.’

Blah, blah. Eyes glazed over as soon as our boss started blurting out the same old rubbish we had heard a million times before. None of it meant anything except making the company profitable to increase his bonus. Initially most of the staff had been keen to come up with ideas and suggestions, but as they were all ignored the enthusiasm waned. Anyone who dared to criticise found themselves suddenly under scrutiny and given written warnings for the most minor offences, such as being two minutes late back from lunch, so we learnt to keep our mouths shut.

Case in point -Jenny, the new girl asked why staff meetings were held at 5.30, without paid overtime, instead of during normal working hours. Three weeks later she was gone. Everyone agreed with her sentiments, but had learnt from experience to keep quiet rather than offer support. Without a salary, mortgages and other financial commitments would be at risk, so we kept our heads down and whinged amongst ourselves beside the coffee machine. Even then, we were careful to keep our voices low in case there were hidden cameras recording our every move.

Then the virus hit.

‘In accordance with government directives the office will be closed, and salary payments cancelled with effect from the end of this month,’ the circulated mail informed us. ‘You will be compensated by claiming the appropriate government benefits, and the company will embrace the change by utilising online technology. Working from home does not mean skiving. Systems are being set up to send you daily targets by email, and online attendance at meetings is compulsory. You are required to complete the attached documentation by tomorrow, giving your contact email address. Non-compliance will be accepted as your letter of resignation.’

‘I don’t have Internet at home. The only email address I have is my work one. I don’t want to lose my job but I can’t afford to pay out for computers or any additional monthly payments. Is the company going to cover these costs? Can someone explain how it all works? I wasn’t brought up to understand all this technology.’

Betty, aged 53 has left the building. She was a dedicated employee, always cheerful and her home-made cakes brightened many a miserable Monday. The younger members of staff looked on her as a confidante when they had personal problems, and were only too willing to pitch in with occasional help if she had computer problems. A sad loss.

‘I’m not sure, but I understood the government pay out only applied if you were unable to work from home. If we can work remotely, doesn’t that mean we are still technically employed and should receive normal wages?’

Goodbye, Peter. It was nice knowing you.

And so it went on. As weeks dragged into months we learnt to adapt to the new regime, but instead of having more time through not having to commute, we were bombarded 24/7 with work directives, and as an international company a black mark appeared against our names for not responding to someone at 3 o’clock in the morning who was in a different time zone.

As the virus spread, the world and his wife resorted to being online for everything from shopping deliveries to chatting with friends. Internet connections suffered overload, and meetings became even more of a joke than when we had been able to tune out while attending physical gatherings.

Today’s meeetttingg is to adresss ….’

‘Sorry, I can’t hear you. Can you repeat that, please?’

‘You’ve gone fuzzy. Oh, Hi Simon, I can see you. Can you see me?’

‘Hi, Mandy. Yes, you’re clear as a bell. No, hang on, you’ve disappeared. I’ll type a message. Let me know if you get it.’

‘May I remind staff this is an important business meeting and not intended for idle chit-chat.’

‘Sorry sir, but you’ve faded again. I only caught a few words of what you were saying.’

‘John, you were employed to provide our technological expertise. If you can’t handle it, I’m sure there are plenty of others who would be only too willing to take your job.’

It was probably just as well John was able to mute his response.

‘Hi everyone. It’s Paula here. Some of you might remember me before I had to leave the company when I became ill. Lovely to connect with you all again.’

‘Hey, Paula. Brilliant to hear from you. We lost touch after you left but I heard your illness was terminal. How’s things going?’

‘Paula. I don’t believe it! Is it really you? Someone told me they had been to your funeral. What a terrible thing to say. How are you?’

‘John, I appear to have lost contact with the staff. Can you hear me? John? It’s important I relay my message to everyone. What are you doing about it?’

‘It would appear to be a fault at your end, Sir. All the others are visible and able to communicate. Even Paula has joined us.’

‘That is a security breach. Paula is no longer part of this company and should not have access to private meetings. In fact, I heard she had departed this earth. I’m holding you responsible for this, John. Now sort it out pronto. I’m wasting valuable time here.’

‘Sorry, Sir,’ John said before deliberately muting and blocking his boss, ‘you’re fading away again.’ He smiled as he reconnected with the other staff. Served the old codger right.

‘Hey, Paula. Great to hear from you. It looks like I’ve accidently lost the boss, so we’re all free to chat without his input. Let’s make the most of it people.’

‘Three cheers for John,’ Mandy said. ‘Paula, what are you doing here? I heard the same news about you. How did you manage to gate-crash the meeting? As you can see, the old goat hasn’t changed a bit.’

‘He’s the reason I’m here, Mandy,’ Paula replied. ‘What you heard about me was true, and I’ve been instructed to take him back with me. I shouldn’t really be chatting to you, but I couldn’t resist it when the path opened up and I found him here with you all. Got to go now. Someone at his house is dialling 999 for an ambulance but unfortunately they won’t get there in time. Massive heart attack. I must get off before I lose my wings. You’ll find things a lot easier when the new boss takes over. Take care everyone. Bye.’

‘Paula? Paula? Are you there, Paula?’

The connection had been lost. We’d have to wait and see what news the working week brings when we log in on Monday.

© Val Portelli January 2021

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my published book’ Spirit of Technology,’ available on Amazon


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