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"THE AWAY DAY"


Most organisations have away days and, while they are usually away, they are often more than a day. For at least one of the participants in this particular away day, that was a real problem – not that anyone else at the event appreciated this, still less knew who or why.

“OK, guys. We're going to make a start. Please can you make your way into the conference room and find a place at one of the tables.” The announcement was made by the Assistant to the Head of Human Resources, an extrovert and affable woman called Jackie.

The company was doing well and now occupied three floors of its central London office. This away day in a hotel close to Heathrow Airport had become an annual event for team-building and strategising.

Around 80 staff shuffled their way into the large and bright conference room where ten circular tables awaited them. Hugh, a wheelchair user, found that his new colleague Benjamin was helpfully holding open one of the swing doors. A heavily pregnant Julie waddled into the room and was grateful that young Charlotte carried her coffee and biscuits into the room for her.

Once everyone was seated and the buzz had abated, the event was opened by the Head of HR who had organised it. Debbie explained the timetable and set out housekeeping matters like the location of the toilets and the procedures in the event of a fire. Then she handed over to the facilitator, a rather buxom and exuberant woman called Janet.

“Good morning, everyone. We're going to start with a short, friendly exercise that will give each of you a chance to talk – and to listen – and to get to know a colleague rather better. What I want you to do is to find someone you don't really know very well. That may well involve you moving tables. So let's do that first and then I'll explain the rest of the exercise.”

There was a lot of chatter and a fair amount of moving around, but wheelchair user Hugh and pregnant Julie stayed put and let others do the bouncing about. Charlotte and Benjamin had fairly naturally chosen each other: they were both young and new to the company and they were in related functions – she in sales, he in marketing.

When Janet was satisfied that everyone was suitably paired up, she continued with her exposition. “Now decide with your partner who will go first. That person will do the talking and the other person will do the listening - and I mean listening. Most of us are very poor listeners, but I want the listener to really listen – no interrupting, no thinking about what you're going to say, no mentally planning what you're going to do at the weekend.”

It was clear from the expressions on people's faces that the exercise was already proving intriguing. Janet went on: “Now I'll give the talker a few minutes. Then I'll sound a bell and you'll exchange roles and the person who was doing the listening will do the talking for a few minutes. OK? I know – you're all wondering what you're going to be talking about. Don't worry; this is a simple exercise. You're going to talk about something you know well: yourself.”

She paused for effect and then continued: “I want you to introduce yourself by talking about your first name. Do you know why your parents chose it? Do you like it? Are you called any other name? That sort of thing. Right: those of you going first – off you go!”

Charlotte went first. She was an intense young woman with light-framed glasses but fresh-faced with a slight gap between her two front teeth. She was wearing a cross-over fuschia top that made the best of her smallish breasts. Benjamin made sure that he held her eyes as she spoke and really tried to concentrate.

“Hi, I'm Charlotte. I believe that it was my mother who chose my name. She's an English teacher and loves the work of the Brontë sisters and 'Jane Eyre' is one of her favourite novels. I think that secretly my father wanted a boy and, when the family started to call me Charlie, he kind of got one. I studied English too - at Durham University. At uni, my group of special girlfriends took to calling me Lotte but, at work, everyone calls me Charlie. I like my name. When I want to be a bit posh, I go with Charlotte; most of the time, I use Charlie which I think is a nice, friendly sort of name.”

There was a gentle tingling of a tiny bell. “OK, everyone! Time's up. Now change over. The person doing the talking, start ... now!”

It was Benjamin's turn. He was tall and well-built, good-looking in a Jim Carey sort of way. Charlotte couldn't help noticing that, although this was a 'dress down' kind of event and most of the guys were wearing jeans, he was still rather smart in his beige chinos and shirt with button-down collar. As she leaned forward to hear him in the hub-bub, she appreciated his after-shave.

“So I'm Benjamin. When I was young, my mother and father called me young Benjie. Then, in my early teens, I suddenly shot up in height and they switched to calling me Big Ben. As you can guess, my parents are a bit wacky with an odd sense of humour. Apparently they called me Benjamin and my brother William because there used to be a children's television programme called 'Bill And Ben'. How daft is that, eh? But I'm cool with Ben. It's a short, strong name – a lot stronger than I usually feel.”

The bell tingled. “Right! Time's up again. I hope that you found that fun and that you're going to enjoy the rest of the day.”

“That was different” noted Charlie. “I rather liked that. But I seriously doubt that the rest of the day will be as entertaining.”
“Well, we could create our own bit of fun” suggested Ben.
“Really? How?”
“I'm sure the day is going to be full of management-speak. We could have a competition. Each of us could choose a word or expression we think will keep coming up and the winner is the one whose expression pops up most often.”
“OK. That sounds like a laugh. You choose first, Ben.”

He thought for a moment. “Right. I've got it. Any reference to 'moving forward' or 'going forward'. I can't stand the expression. It's utterly meaningless. What's the alternative? Freezing time? Going back in time?”
“Good choice. But I'm going to go with any reference to a perfect solution: any variation on 'a magic bullet' or 'a silver bullet'. Like your phrases, they're meaningless. Everyone knows that there's no simple solution, so why keep going on that there isn't one?”
“Right: you're on. Set phrases to stun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know. 'Star Trek'. Oh, never mind ...”

The company had been formed by its Managing Director Sebastian Knight, a genuinely charismatic figure who inspired enormous confidence and loyalty. He would conclude the final session tomorrow when he would make an address than everyone knew would be up-lifting and visionary. His number two – David Edmonds, Head of Operations – made sure that all the company's systems, from the accounts to IT, worked brilliantly but he must have had a charisma by-pass and spoke in a language that he seemed to have absorbed from reading too many management textbooks and attending too many leadership courses.

He took over from Janet the facilitator. “Listen up, people. This has been a great year for the company and we've done it by putting the customer up front and centre. But next year has to be better still. We're on a journey and we need to commit ourselves to continuous improvement. We're in this space because we want to be the best – but we're not there yet. We're facing tough competition, we have real challenges, and there's no silver bullet.”

Charlie looked over at Ben, nodded and grinned.

The Head of Ops ploughed on, using a PowerPoint presentation to show historic sales figures and projections, cost-saving programmes, and revenue generation projects.

“Some of these are ball-park figures but they are directionally correct. It's clear that we have some issues around our costs. Every department will need to find its own way to take out costs. There's no one-size-fits-all. What matters is the bottom line. Otherwise, if we let them do it, the competition will eat our lunch. But I'm confident that we can make it happen and that the company will see even greater success moving forward.”

It was Ben's turn to catch Charlie's eye. He silently mouthed the words “One all”.

The rest of the day was a whirl of presentations, workshops and break-out sessions, the room became a forest of flip charts, felt tip pens, and Post-it notes, and the walls agglutinated with report back summaries and brainstorming outputs. You could feel the energy and sometimes smell the sweat.

Towards the end of the day, 'silver bullets' were outgunning 'going forwards' by three to two.

Before dinner, Janet the facilitator announced that the day would conclude with an exercise on teamwork that she called “the magic stick”. She produced a set of long, thin garden sticks which she assured everyone contained “special energy”. Each stick was assigned to eight bewildered participants who were informed that they had to hold the stick aloft with their fingers outstretched and then lower the stick to the ground with all sixteen sets of fingers permanently touching the stick. If any set of fingers ceased to be in contact with the stick, the whole team was disqualified. Other staff members were to observe a group and offer appropriate advice on how to get the stick to the floor.

To everyone's amazement, the sticks went up, not down, as the teams of eight struggled to ensure that both sets of fingers stayed in contact with a stick that did indeed seem to have extraordinary energy. It was equal parts fun and frustration but, for Ben and Charlie in the same team, it was an unexpected opportunity to get close and personal. Their stick may not have touched the ground but their fingers and bodies did sometimes make contact which appeared to generate a different kind of energy.

Everyone was ready for dinner when it was served and afterwards most people repaired to the bar but, as the evening grew later and later, fewer and fewer were left. By midnight, the bar had closed and only a hardened few continued to chat and laugh.

Charlie had spent much of the evening with a bunch of other young women in a noisy discussion that concluded with nominations for 'best recent girly film' - “Mamma Mia” was the consensus winner. The last of her colleagues had just drifted off to her room. Meanwhile Ben debated football with the lads in finance and they utterly failed to reach any consensus on which team would win the season's Premier League title. But he too was now alone as he nursed his last pint.

Charlie had decided that Ben was too reserved with women to make a move, so she sidled over to his corner and sat opposite him. At work, she'd always found him a little strange: incredibly conscientious in his work with an unbelievably neat desk, a bit socially awkward, and seemingly reluctant to join in the occasional trips that some of the staff went on, like the weekend in France last month. When a colleague had offered him a place in the Gallic cottage, Ben had been quite dismissive. But today she'd seen a new side to him. He was friendlier and funnier than she'd thought. Yet there was still that air of vulnerability.

“Long day, Ben. You not tired?” she asked.
“No. I'm fine” he asserted.
“You don't look that fine. Actually you look exhausted.”
“I suppose I am a bit wacked. It's been pretty intense.”
“So, how come you haven't gone to bed yet?”
“It's, er, complicated.”
“I'm listening.”
“I'm not sure you'd understand.”
“Try me, Ben.”

“OK, well, er.” he hesitated and then blurted out: “I have OCD. Obsessive compulsive disorder.”
“Oooh.” She was caught off guard, but quickly recovered. “And how does it affect you?”
“The worst part of it is to do with electricity.”
She was mystified. “Electricity? What's the problem with electricity?”
“Well. I need to check that all the electric appliances in my room – my bedroom or my hotel room – are disconnected and switched off.”
“And when you've done that, are you OK?”
“No.” He knew she wouldn't understand. “I have to do it again and again – and then again. So it takes me absolutely ages to get to sleep.”
“What do you mean by 'ages'? How long?”
“At home, it often takes around an hour. In a new place like this hotel, it might take me two hours before I can sleep. I'm doing something called cognitive behavioural therapy – but it's slow going.”
“That's awful. But how did this start?”
“Oh, Charlie – that's a whole other story.”

Ben felt a tremendous sense of relief from having shared what he regarded as his dark secret, a hidden condition that blighted his life in so many ways. It was like a heavy, black cloak had slipped from his shoulders. He hadn't expected that it would be Charlie to whom he would make such a revelation. He'd thought of her as aloof, detached. She always seemed to be disappearing. Even today, she'd left the room a couple of times during exercises. Maybe she was having her period, he thought.

Charlie was aware than Ben had shared something very personal with her and felt encouraged to reciprocate his confiding in her.
“That sounds tough, Ben.” She made a conscious effort to keep talking. “But you're not the only one with a problem with this away day.”
“Sorry? What do you mean?”
“It's hard for me too. Because I have Crohn's Disease.”
Ben looked perplexed. “I've heard of it but I really don't know anything about it. What is it?”

“It's a type of inflammatory bowel disease. It hit me out of the blue during my last year at university.”
“And how does that affect you?”
“This is embarrassing.”
“Look, I understand if you'd rather not talk about it.”
“No. You told me about your OCD. I'll tell you about my Crohn's. I suffer stomach pains and flatulence and lots of diarrhea. It's been getting worse and I'm going to have an operation soon. But there's no cure and I'll probably be on medication for the rest of my life. It's horrible but I'll just have to learn to live around it.”
“That must be so difficult for you. But what causes it?”
“They really don't know. But I think I feel worse when I'm in an unfamiliar location – like this. You know, not being sure about access to toilets ...”
She felt somehow lighter for having shared this – like she'd exchanged boots for slippers.

“Wow – we're a right pair, aren't we?”
“I suppose so, but then lots of people have conditions that colleagues and even friends don't know about.”
“That's true. I've got an uncle with a form of chronic leukaemia and nobody at his work knows. Sometimes he needs to take some sick leave but he prefers not to tell his mates the reason. He just gets on with it.”
“I know what you mean. A cousin of mine suffers depression but she's never told people at her company and even her friends would be amazed. She takes the medication and she copes.”

Ben looked contemplative. “Really we have no idea what's going on in people's lives, do we? As a result, we're too quick to judge. If we knew, we might make allowances.”
Charlie picked up the theme. “Well, we don't know and I guess a lot of the time we can't know – but we could still make allowances.”
“You're right there.”
“If only there were a silver bullet.” She smiled.
“Or a magic stick.” He grinned.
Charlie hated the way her condition took away much of the element of control in her life - like a competent swimmer who is suddenly pulled under the water by an unseen force. She thought that she had seen a shoreline but found herself wincing in pain. “I'm sorry, Ben. I'm going to have to leave you. See you in the morning.”

And with that he was totally alone in the bar. He really didn't want to go up to his room where there were so many lights, switches, plugs, the television, the electric clock, the electric kettle, the radio/alarm, the mini fridge, the wi-fi connection ... He shook with fear just thinking of it. He was a gladiator entering the arena but, however many opponents he slaughted, they would keep coming and, however tired he felt, he would have to keep defending himself.

It was next morning in the breakfast room of the hotel.

Charlie was already tucking into a traditional cooked fare when Ben joined her.
“You look absolutely awful, Ben. Bad night?”
“I'm tempted to say shocking.” He summoned up a smile. “What about you?”
“Shitty”. She grimaced.
“Well, we can't give up now. We still haven't sorted out that magic stick.”

Throughout the morning, the company away day continued with more presentations and workshops. By the end of the formal sessions, the 'moving forwards' had moved so far forwards that they just pipped the 'magic bullets'. Then, before the break for lunch, they were invited to revisit “the magic stick”. You would think that eight intelligent people could do something as simple as taking a stick to the ground but it was amazing how complicated most of them made such a straightforward exercise. It turned out that it was all about working together, listening to advice, and trying new approaches.

After lunch, the final session of the event was an address from the MD Sebastian Knight. It may not have been Barack Obama with his “Yes we can” speech, but he was almost evangelical about the prospects for the company and – as he intended – everyone left on a high. The away day had had a galvanising effect which is what he wanted.

Ben and Charlie stood outside the hotel entrance waiting for a colleague to bring up his car and drive them into town. They became increasingly aware of the wail of a siren on an ambulance and were surprised when the vehicle pulled off the road in front of the hotel and bounced up to the entrance. Two crew members jumped out and dashed into the hotel with a stretcher. A few minutes later they were back outside and Charlie and Ben saw that the stretcher was occupied by Head of Operations David Edmonds, anxiously followed by HR Director Debbie.

When she saw her two young colleagues, she explained: “Poor David. Apparently he forgot his diabetes tablets at home and thought he could manage without them for a couple of days.” She looked puzzled. “You know something? I've worked with David for four years and I never knew he had diabetes.”
Ben looked down at Charlie and whispered: “Well, what do yuh know.”

The ambulance sped away and they resumed their waiting for the errant friend. Ben slowly turned to Charlie.
“One evening next week. Do you fancy staying on in town? I'd love to take you to dinner.”
“I'd really like that Ben.” There was an interval. “But sometimes when I eat ... well, you know ...”
“That's OK, Charlie. He beamed. “I'll make allowances.”


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 7 November 2009

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