When Mr. Davenport walked in Jeremy knew the game WAS OVER. It had been almost six months since he’d made the audacious move and it was time for the Piper to be paid. In the few seconds that it took for the big boss to enter his little cubicle everything he’d caused to happen spun through Jeremy’s mind.
After two years of working for the insurance company Jeremy was surprised and proud to find that he was being promoted and made a manager of an entire department. Mr. Davenport had informed him of this by calling him to his office, having him sit down on the settee opposite his opulent desk and telling him how impressed the company was over the progress he’d made in a very short time. But Jeremy knew that he’d worked very hard in those two years – much harder than his compatriots who’d been hired at the same time. Not only had he gone to the Insurance Institute at night to study and finish a number of advanced insurance courses but he’d even come into the city on weekends and worked virtually alone in the office at learning the underwriting craft. As a matter of fact it had not been all that difficult because he was an introverted and shy person, had few friends outside of the office and lived the life of a young bachelor. He was tall and slender with dark, curly hair and a face sufficiently handsome to cause the young girls at the company to give him a second look whenever he passed by. At the office he was always attired in inexpensive but attractive, carefully selected single breasted suits and wearing polished wingtips. His family was still in the little farming community a couple of hundred miles up-state and he rarely took time to visit them.
He was made the manager of the special risk unit whose small group of raters and underwriters were given the job of handling the dregs and drabs of the business that flowed into their office - those risks that the other underwriters were not trained in or didn’t want to insure as part of the business package they were offering to a large customer. It was a job that Jeremy felt he was uniquely suited for. He knew many aspects of underwriting property and casualty insurance and had always been curious about how businesses were run and took great satisfaction in solving especially difficult underwriting assignments.
Twenty people now reported to him, about equally divided by the sexes and most all young with just a few older employees in the group. His enthusiasm was considerably dampened, however, when he first met with the unit in their separate office quarters.
At first he couldn't find it. Finally, walking through one of the corridors on the second floor, he met a member of the building service staff and asked him where it was. It was in the lowest level of the building which was built on a hillside and had a basement that had windows on one side but not on the other. His department’s quarters were on the side that didn’t have any windows. It was dank, dark, lacked enough room and was poorly furnished. The manager he was replacing had a desk in the far corner of the crowded area. It would be impossible for him to have a meeting with one of his staff out of earshot from the remainder of them. This was not good.
Other than for some theoretical training in the subject that was part of the business curriculum he’d endured in his undergraduate studies, Jeremy had never had any practical experience in managing people before and this bothered him considerably. But he’d mostly always had an up-beat attitude and the first thing he did was sit down with “his” staff and have a long visit. He gave them information on his background and then asked a bunch of questions about the kind of work they did, the type of business that they usually ran into and the like. He also told them that over the next few days he’d like to visit with each of them separately to get to know them better. At one point he asked if there were any concerns or questions they had and that’s what started a deluge of complaints; all about the office space they were in. When the grumbling and complaining reached a point that he could no longer stand he said loudly, so all could hear, “OK, folks. That’s enough. I’m just as unhappy with this location as you all are. But let’s not let what I’m going to label a temporary situation keep us from doing our work. Let’s settle down, get organized and start working on today’s submissions. The more efficient and effective we show others that we can and will be will help improve our work environment and I promise you that I will see to it that it will indeed be improved!”
So, he had some challenges to face – learning how to handle people who worked for him while doing so in a less than desirable environment. There was no question but that the morale of his department was suffering.
When he got home after work he sat down with a beer and thought about what he’d told his staff. “Yeah, great,” he thought. “Easy to say that but how am I going to hold to my promise. And if I don’t they won’t think much of me.”
He was wondering what he should have for dinner when the phone rang. It was one of his few friends; Michael had been in a computer class with Jeremy at the upstate college they’d attended and had moved to the city to make his mark. He’d done extremely well having successfully created and established an internet company that was growing substantially and had been noticed by business writers at both the N.Y. Times and the Wall Street Journal.
“Hey. How’s it going, Jerry?” Michael said, and before Jeremy could answer he continued, “ Wanna go for a beer and pizza?”
“Sure,” answered Jeremy. Maybe if he told Michael about his problem he’d have some suggestions. “Where do you want to go? Our usual spot or someplace else? I can be out of here in about fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah, O.K. lets go to Mimo’s, See you in about half an hour,” was Michael’s response followed by the silence of his turned off cell phone.
Michael was already at a table in the restaurant when Jeremy got there. The difference in appearance between the two was almost comical. Michael was short, a little on the dumpy side with unkempt dishwater blond hair and a cherub’s face. He was dressed in jeans and a slightly soiled flannel shirt. No one would take him for the successful business man that he was, nor for one who had acquired multi-millions from his early experiences in Silicon Valley.
While drinking their beer and waiting for their pizza order to arrive at their table Jeremy told Michael all about his woes and disappointment in his office location. Michael asked him why he just didn’t go to his boss and ask him to move him somewhere else but Jeremy said he was afraid that such an act on his part would tarnish his recently acquired reputation. He did admit, however, that although this might make him look like a wimp in Michael’s eyes, he’d be willing to try some other ploy as long as he didn’t have to actual face his boss. Michael then began to interrogate Jeremy about his job and the company he worked for. He wanted details about everything - the organization of the company, what the different departments did, how did his department fit into the scheme of things, what kind of electronic equipment did they use in their work – it went on and on and Jeremy began to become embarrassed because they had long finished eating and the waiter was hovering around them like a raptor. Finally Michael realized that his friend was obviously ready to leave so he suggested they take a walk and talk some more outside. When they did so, Michael just had a few more questions and then said. “O.K., Jerry. I have an idea how we may solve your dilemma. At the same time you’ll be able to help me with a problem too. Here’s what we can do, working together …………”
Some six months after that fateful conversation the CEO of Jeremy’s company, Henry Davenport, called his secretary into his office. She could see that, although usually mild mannered, he was obviously annoyed.
“Dammit, Shirley,” he started out. “I’m still trying to find that Jeremy Stanton. As I told you earlier, when I first came in this morning I went down to the special risk department and found just a storage room. I came back up and called building services and they told me that special risk had moved out of that space and Jeremy had told them it could be used for some other purpose. That’s when I asked you to track him down but you've told me you've had no luck either?”
Shirley said, “I tried calling him but kept getting his voice mail and I’ve left messages twice for him to call back but he hasn't yet. I can try a few other things; give me a little bit longer.”
A short while later Shirley came back into Davenport’s office and reported, “There’s something very strange going on, Mr. Davenport, I think I may have a clue as to where Mr. Stanton is but I can’t seem to find his department.”
“What?” was Davenport’s shocked reaction. “You’re telling me now his whole department has disappeared?”
“I don’t know,” she said with concern. “No one seems to have seen anyone from that department for quite a while. I checked with Mr. Howe because, as Senior V.P. of Insurance operations, he’s the one Stanton reports to and he’s told me that Stanton has been attending his weekly staff meetings and he’s gotten memos and reports from him and also has had a number of telephone conversations but he’s had no reason to visit Stanton’s department and just assumed they were still located in the basement.”
“This is unbelievable,” said Davenport shaking his head. “How can we have lost a whole department? They've got to be around here somewhere. I tell you Shirley, I’ve been lax about making walk-arounds through our headquarters. I used to do it more frequently but have been so busy I’ve let that necessary activity fall by the wayside. I wonder what else has disappeared around here. But special risk has to be around here somewhere. The reason I wanted to talk to Stanton is that I wanted to congratulate him. According to our last reports, in the six months since he’s taken over the department they've done extremely well. He’s cut expenses by a whopping 30% while production has increased substantially. I’ve gotten some good comments from marketing on how helpful and effective special risks has become. So, there’s got to be somebody somewhere doing something! You said you might have an idea where Stanton is?
“Yes, sir” Shirley responded. “The secretary for our audit department manager, Mr. Whelan, told me that some time ago someone asked permission to use one of their unoccupied cubicles at the far end of their space for a while and they told him he could. She couldn’t remember his name but, when I described what Stanton looked like she said it might have been him.”
“O.K. Shirley, the thing I’m going to do right now is go down there and see if he’s there and solve this mystery,” said Davenport with determination as he hoisted himself out of his chair and headed for the door.
So there stood Davenport at the entrance to the little cubicle looking at the young man who was staring back with wide open eyes and a look of almost terror.
“Mr. Stanton, I presume?” asked Davenport.
“Yyy..ess, Sir,” stammered Jeremy as he started to stand up.
“Sit down, sit down young man. You and I have to have a little talk.”
Jeremy sat back down and waited for the explosion.“First of all, what the hell are you doing here and what in all damnation has happened to your department?”
“Well sir, it’s kind of a long story. I work here at this desk which audit allows me to use and my department, well they’re not here, that is they are but they aren’t ….you see, I have this friend, Michael and he and I worked out this deal and he …but I don’t know if you want to hear all this, and …..
“You just go right ahead Jeremy, tell me all about it, I’ve got plenty of time to listen.”
So Jeremy took a deep breath and started in telling him all about it.
It took him nearly an hour while Davenport listened carefully and then he started asking a bunch of questions, It was near the time the office would be closing before he was satisfied that he had the whole story.
“Well, Jeremy, that’s quite a tale. I don’t now at this point whether to fire you on the spot or give you a medal. You see, I had been looking for you since yesterday and my secretary and I were both upset because we couldn’t find you or your department. But, the effects of what your department is doing are quite evident and that’s why I wanted to talk to you. The latest data we have for the past six month’s show that you and your people have performed remarkably well – much better than just about every other department in the company and much better than it’s ever performed before under the management of others. It’s always been a difficult part of our business to handle and run successfully – most years showing little or no profit or growth – and you seem to have turned that around in a very short span of time. So, looking at the outcome of your shenanigans, I’d have to opt for a medal but not checking with your superiors and keeping them advised is not a very good idea, Tell you what – let’s both of us think about this overnight and then, first thing tomorrow, come up to see me and we will work out what we’ll do next. And that’s what they did.
A long but busy month later Jeremy walked into the lobby of his home office building in the morning at opening time and saw Michael standing at the receptionist’s desk already waiting for him. For a minute he almost didn’t recognize him. He had on tan chinos and a blue sport coat over a light blue shirt with no tie and, in place of his usual running shoes, he had on a pair of highly polished penny loafers. But most surprising was the fact that he’d combed his hair.
After commenting on his unexpected attire, which resulted in a broad grin on Michael’s part, Jeremy asked, “Well, are you ready for our dog and pony show?”
“You betcha”, said Michael with his Sarah Palin impersonation. “How about you?”
“I surely am,” said Jeremy, “I’ve been running hot, cold, nervous and panicky this whole time but right now I’m just excited and raring to go.”
They walked down a first floor hall to a small auditorium the company used for larger meetings and educational purposes. When they entered they saw that the room was almost filled. In the first row seats at floor level was the entire Board of Directors and another man Jeremy recognized as a psychology consultant hired by the company.. The remainder, in higher tiers, contained the senior and mid-level managers of the company. Also in the first row were a few empty seats. Michael and Jeremy settled themselves in the empty seats and were then facing a small podium in back of which, where a movie screen would ordinarily lowered, there were instead two of the largest flat TV screens Jeremy had ever seen.
Just a minute later Mr. Davenport walked in and went to the podium while the buzz of quiet conversation that had filled the room immediately was replaced by complete silence.
“Good morning everybody,” he opened and continued. “I’ve convened this unusual meeting in order to apprise you of an unusual event that has occurred in the company. As we progress through it please keep an open mind, don’t jump to conclusions and remember that we want our company to be ever more successful in serving our customers, in growing profitably and in providing our employees an enjoyable workplace. These three objectives are not always simple to reach and maintain but we all strive hard to find the means to do so. After you’ve heard our presentation we’ll all put our heads together and debate the potential of a new one of those means."
"This whole thing started because one of our managers was unhappy. He was a new manager, young and for the first time in his career responsible for a department composed of other employees. When he first met them he was appalled at their working conditions. There are very few undesirable locations in our complex but the one he found himself in was in one of the worst. He didn’t think it was right - that there must be some other place his department could be located. He made some quiet and admittedly timid attempts to find a place to move to but found no one to help him. Being brand new to his responsibility it is understandable that he did not feel it would be good for his career to start kicking down doors so he gave up, mentally prepared to manage a group of unhappy co-workers and do the best he could until, one day, he had lunch with a friend from college. I’d like Jeremy Stanton, manager of our Special Risk department, to tell you what happened then."
Davenport walked to one of the empty seats up front and Jeremy replaced him at the podium. In spite of what he’d said earlier, he now was nervous again but he took a deep breath and began.
“Hi everyone, for those of you that don’t know me, I’ve been with the company for two and a half years having started as a rater and, after a stint as an underwriter in the commercial marketing department I was offered the job I have now. I feel very honored to have been given this responsibility and was impressed and delighted when I first met my staff – they are a wonderful group. But, Mr. Davenport was correct, when I saw the quarters they had been working in I knew I had to do something about finding some other place for us to work and I did. Many of you probably already know that they don’t seem to be around anymore. You’ve been in contact with them as the daily work is accomplished but you don’t know where they are located. And the reason for their having become invisible is my good friend Michael – that’s him sitting over there – Michael Suter. After I’ve described to you where my staff is I’ll have Michael explain what he came up with as a solution to our working conditions problem. But first, let me introduce my staff. I’ve gathered them together and they are joining us for this presentation.
Jeremy pushed button on a small black box that sat on the podium and one of the large TV screens in back of him turned on. Its screen was divided into eighteen boxes and there was an audible gasp from the audience as they realized what was occupying the boxes. They each contained a “character” - a computer designed individual; many in the audience who were familiar with the “virtual reality” concept recognized them as avatars.
“Welcome to the show,” said Jeremy.
There was a cacophony of overlapping responses from the screen, “Hi everyone”, “See ya Jerry”, “Hello there”, “Great to be there”.
Then Jerry introduced them each by their first name. “Betty” was a perky young blond girl, “Tony” had a bright red Mohawk and a “Rolling Stones” sweat shirt, “George” looked like a college professor with a Van Dyke beard and a monocle, “Mary” seemed like a nice looking but traditionally dressed young lady except for the fact she was wearing what appeared to be a diamond tiara. The gamut ran from the bizarre to the ordinary. When he had finished with the introductions, leaving his audience in a total state of confusion, he explained, “Yes, you are looking at a “virtual” staff. Our department takes on this form for certain occasions and, to be frank, for fun. Now I’ll reintroduce you to them as they really exist.
The second TV flicked on and it also contained eighteen boxes but each was occupied by a real individual. Jeremy quickly went through the introductions again. The staff members were in the same boxes as they were located in the first screen and Jeremy exchanged a few words with each showing that they could see him and each other and could converse.
“Now you may have guessed where my staff is,” Jeremy said to the audience. “They are all at home and that’s where they have been for the past six months. That’s why nobody has been able to find them. I know you have a bunch of questions but before we get to them I’d like Mike to explain what role he’s played in this and then we, Mr. Davenport, Michael and I will answer all your questions. Michael Suter and I were classmates at college and he is the one I turned to for help in looking for a way to change how my department could do business and improve their morale. He is the Chairman of the Board and CEO of Conceptreal – you may have heard of them, they are an up and coming internet focused company and are doing some fascinating things that are bringing us into a much different twenty-first century business world. But, he’s better at explaining this than I am so, Michael come up here and enlighten us.”
Michael came up to the podium while Jeremy sat down. “I should start by explaining what my company does,” he began. “We specialize in helping businesses operate more efficiently and at less expense, a must in today’s world where profit margins are slim and competition is coming from all over the world. And, to accomplish this we design what you might call a discrete high-tech solution for each one of our clients. Although we look at everything the client does and how he does it we concentrate on two of their high expense items – labor and real estate, the so called ‘brick and mortar’ expense. One of our on-going projects is specifically applicable to office type work environments and is based on replacing office locations with at-home resources and possibly the use of virtual reality techniques. Those of you who are familiar with the popular “Second Life”, “Planet Calypso” or “The Palace” internet sites may realize what we have in mind.”
“When Jeremy first talked to me about his problem I was pleasantly surprised because it was exactly the type of situation we were looking at for that project. What started out as a couple of cold beers and sharing a pizza turned into an all-nighter as we discussed how we could change things for the better. Well, OK, maybe more than just a couple of beers and maybe that helped the mental juices flow because before the night was over we had a solid plan and an agreement on how to move forward.”
“First, we arranged to sit down with his whole staff and feel them out for their reaction of where we were heading. I have to tell you, every one of them, without exception, was willing to give it a shot. Then I brought in a couple of my people and we established Jeremy’s department as a Beta group to be used to test some of the programs our company had developed or were in the process of doing so. It was this act, by the way, that was to be my compensation for the work we would be doing for Jeremy. We had not had such a group before and felt it would be perfect for the testing we would need to do. We then gave each member of the group a high end computer, one that is much more powerful than those ordinarily used in business applications. It had to be so in order to run our programs. On a pre-established date all members of Jeremy’s department stayed home where they were joined by one of our technicians who spent every day with them for the next week. After that, the technicians are available at any time, day or night, to help with advice or even hands-on.”
“Jeremy somehow managed to set himself up here at the office where I understand he spends about half his time seeing to it that the normal paper work and communications for his department continue. The rest of the time he works out of his house too with the same equipment his staff uses. The programs we have designed for them makes it possible to do all the work they would ordinarily do in the office but do it faster and more effectively at home. In addition they can message and talk to each other individually or in a group with the help of their web cams. This also makes it possible for Jeremy to meet with any one or all of them at any time. They may work whenever they want to except when Jeremy may message them for a meeting at a certain time however, they are expected to work a minimum amount of time during a seven day week. They can allocate this time as they see fit but, for absences away from the computer for more than one day of a weekday they have to notify Jeremy. Their actual time is easily kept track of through the use of the computer both by the clock and by key strokes.”
“Meetings and day-to-day communications among themselves are done both in reality, that is by Skype and web cam and in virtual reality in an office environment we have created for their use. We have assigned certain periods during which virtual reality is to be used and this allows us to maintain a running test and observation process over both procedures. At this point in time I cannot tell you what the results of these tests are showing but I can report without hesitation that Jeremy’s staff seems to be having great fun with both. This should suffice for now to give you a general description of what we’re doing but I’ll be available to answer all your questions at the end of this presentation. Now I’d like to turn the podium over to Mr. Davenport.”
Davenport then announced, “I want you to meet one more person who has a great interest in Jeremy’s project. Some of you already know him. Dr. Johansen is a clinical psychologist who is under contract to our firm to help us with evaluating officers, managers and other employees and suggest improvements in personnel relationships., Dr. Johansen would you please take over.”
The Doctor was a tall, thin elderly man with a shock of pure white hair, a tidy goatee and an open, friendly face that lent credence to his overall demeanor, and reputation, of having a good nature. “Um, yes,” he started. “Mr. Davenport is right and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this “test” as Michael calls it. In my estimation, Jeremy’s unit is perfectly suited for the type of change they are working at bringing about. The “working from home” concept is of course not new and there have been many studies done that reveal both its attributes and its problems. There is no question that it can be accomplished and, indeed, has already proven itself successful in this instance. However, using a virtual reality “habitat” or GMUKS approach is a new and unique idea. That acronym, by the way, stands for “graphical multi-user konversations” in the language of the geeks. It has already brought about the emergence of a new member of our profession – the cyber psychologist. There are many questions that must be explored and answered including such as ‘Can exposure to virtual reality become addictive?’; ‘To what extent are emotions affected by inter-relationships in a virtual reality world?’; ‘What means and to what degree should activities engaged in and methods used be monitored?’ – and the list goes on. I wouldn’t be surprised if you decide to have a cyber psychologist on your payroll in the future. Like Michael did, I too will be available to answer your questions. Mr. Davenport, will you take the gavel back?”
“O.K., there you have it in a nutshell,” said Davenport. A brief explanation of what we’re looking at. Some of you are probably wondering why we are even considering this. Well, here’s the reason why. Since Jeremy made this change six months ago, without anyone’s approval I might add which should have him in really big trouble, the following has been the result: (1) the expenses of maintaining his department have decreased by thirty percent (2) his staff has been reduced by two – one member retired and one was let go – and they have not been replaced. (3) in spite of that, he has been able to handle a twenty-five percent increase in work load (4) the work accomplished has been done with a degree of accuracy and efficiency that has resulted in numerous laudatory comments by others in the company, (5) the capacity for additional work has increased to the extent that we are seriously considering accepting special risk business from outside brokers, some of whom have already contacted us for that purpose, (6) all of this has been done at no cost to our company because Michael has been generous in adopting us as a beta group. Of course if this project is totally adopted and expanded we would become a regular client of his company.” (7) Dr. Johansen has informed me that he has never seen a group in a company where the morale has been as high as that existing in Jeremy’s department.”
“There are many things to think about. How far should we expand this movement? There are many functions that would not lend themselves to this type of arrangement but there also many others that do. Think of how our branch and regional offices might be organized? Our home office is now housed in a number of large buildings; maybe some day it will be in one small building used only occasionally while our officers and managers are meeting at a virtual board room in a virtual outer space habitat. So now, while we still have all of you here including Jeremy’s staff on the monitor, I’ll have our little focus group here in front begin answering your questions. I’ll moderate. Please raise your hand if you have a question and I’ll try to take them in order.”
Two hours later Jeremy, thoroughly exhausted from the expenditure of nervous energy, and Michael were walking out of the building. “Let the games begin,” said Michael.
“Yeah,” answered Jeremy, “It should be interesting; did you notice that our VP of Human Resources did not seem happy.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” answered Michael. “But she’ll come around when she sees how sophisticated our monitoring procedure is. Even though some of her flock will be scattered, she’ll have much better observation of it.”
“Well, one thing is certain,” commented Jeremy with a grin. “I haven’t been fired yet and I’m out of that stinking basement.”