Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My Own Episode of Office Space

In May, my husband gave up his office. His boss hired a new executive director to join the small consulting company of fifteen employees. The new hire made director number six. Only five private offices line up in a row in the modest office space. The boss had already reserved space in a new office complex a few blocks away. Yet construction was delayed, as construction always seems to be. The business move couldn’t happen until late summer. In the meantime, the new director would start out a new job in a lowly cubicle.

“A guy shouldn’t have to start out a brand-new job in a make-shift desk. Let’s make him feel welcomed,” my husband said. He had stopped by his boss’s office on his way home. “Trade mine and the new hirers places until the move. He can have my office and I’ll take his cubicle.”

His boss had all kinds of objections at first. My husband is a “Communication Manger.” That means he oversees anything visual that comes out of the office- trade magazines, brochures, signs, emails, etc. He also does intensive creative work, such as designing logos for clients. Over two years, his boss had carefully carved out two hours in the morning as “non-interruption design time” for Jon. Moving into a wall-less cubicle among the noisy chatter of the nine women, the “meetings staff” who constantly had to answer ringing telephones and chat about potential site locations didn't seem remotely conducive to Jon’s focused artistic work. “You really need an office,” the boss said.

My husband insisted. “We should start out on the right foot. The first few weeks at a new job are the hardest. I already know my way around here. I’ll be fine. After all, it’s only for a few weeks.”

Each day this summer, my husband came home happy and relaxed. He loved that the new cubicle was a “micro-space.” “All of my design files are now within arm’s reach. I don’t have to get out of my chair anymore. Everything is so convenient.” Mostly, he loved his new interactions with his co-workers. Yes, it was too noisy and his design work had slowed down.

Yet the wall between the women who were “just meetings staff” and my husband “a manager” had tumbled down. By moving geographically, he’d become one of them. Because he was within earshot, people started coming to him with tiny design questions and computer problems. My husband felt more in the “flow.” Since he knew what other people were working on, now he could better anticipate what projects were about to land on his desk. Most surprisingly husband, the quiet guy who tended to hide in the back, became friends with the two women who sat on either side of him. My husband started chatting about work and life and of course, his Catholic faith.

The office trade was hard, but it was worth it.

I walked around this summer so proud of my husband. This is what Christian humility looks like. These are the gifts that it brings.

When the move to bigger office space finally happened last week, my husband didn’t get an office. I knew about that intellectually. For about two weeks, my husband has struggled with uncomfortable, human feelings toward his boss and co-workers. His boss informed him that the new situation was “working so well” that she wanted him to stay in a cubical when they moved into the new office building. There were various reasons proposed for “collaboration purposes” and “overseeing future design staff.” None of them made much sense. As my husband struggled with his natural feelings, I eagerly played the part of supportive spouse. “It’s her decision. She’s your boss. Your job is to do the best you can each day. In this economy, we should just be thankful that you have a steady job.”

On Monday he called me from his same cubical in the new office building. “The phones are turned on. I’m all moved in,” he said. “I . . . I like it.” There was a little hitch in his voice.

“Well, we are excited for you. We want to come and see you installed in your new space,” I said.

“You don’t need to, Honey. Really,” he said.

“I really, really want to,” I said. I turned the burner off of the tacos and sheparded three kids into the car.

The new office space is a palace. There’s a corporate cafeteria and a subzero fridge in the kitchen area. Lots of fancy chandelier lights in the meeting room and fresh blue paint on the walls. Maria said “Hi” for the first time, a delight to the secretary.

“Where’s your office? Where’s your office? We can’t wait to see it!” I said eagerly.

My husband lead me to the back, into a second interior office space. White plastic dividers wall dividers had created sixteen cubicals. There were pencils and sweaters of the front two chairs. My husband’s computer and Mother of Divine Mercy Icon sat in the far back.

“Looks good,” I said. (Empty, Empty, Pathetic Space, I thought.) Trying to salvage a difficult moment, I thought hard. “Who is sitting next to you?” I said brightly. “Kate, right?”

“No one. I’m all by myself back here,” he said. “At least, I’m right by the printer,” he said. “That’s a big plus.”

I follow my husband extended hand to the empty space behind him where the office printer will soon sit. At that’s when I see them. Directly behind my husband, behind the thirteen empty cubicles, sit five empty offices.

FIVE.

Empty.

Offices.

My husband, the “Director of Communications” now has our kids’ picture set up in a lowly whitewashed cubicle while five private offices sit unused behind him.

I stood there in silence, while all my kids raced around Daddy. I had to sallow bile.

Ignoring all the commotion, I walked in front of an empty office and I prayed. I made myself pray for his boss. I prayed and prayed for God to bless her. I prayed for all of his co-workers. I prayed for help in forgiving all of them.

I walked out of that office a mess and tried to sort out my feelings. If my husband had started out in a cubicle, it would have been fine. We were so grateful to finally have any paying work after a hard job hunt in New York City. The problem is that he used to have an office. He had a “real” space of his own. He had a space where he could hang his oil paintings and a door he could close when we came to visit during his lunch hour. He went to work each day in a tie and he had an office. Now he doesn’t.

The loss of an office is a psychological demotion.

My husband is fine. He went to Daily Mass on Tuesday and then went to confession. He received surprising advice from our priest. He expected the pries to say “suck it up.” Instead, the priest said “if the offices are really empty, you can go ask for one.” So my husband asked for an office. His boss wasn’t accommodating. I’m not sure what the end result will be. He came home last night, more at peace. “At least it’s clear that I want an office now. I did my part. The rest is in other people’s hands.”

My husband is too exhausted from allergies to read my blog anymore, so now I can gush about him freely!

I'm married to an extraordinary man. When I met him, he worked at a hospital laboratory and spent his nights painting fascinating oils based on the body’s capillary system. His MFA is from one of the top schools in the nation. His rigorious training shows up in the skill, speed, and originality of all of his design work. As a college professsor, he was adored by students and Department chairs. In this man’s head, there is an idea about the merger between science and art that is as unique as his fingerprint.

If my husband would reduce his paycheck, to the normal "starving artist" market level, he could go almost anywhere. He could take an internship at one of the hot design houses in New York City of Washington D.C. He could live off of stale almonds and paint giant canvases in freezing warehouse studios. If he didn't mind moving his family from one small town to another every two to three years, he could work his way up the tenure track as a college professor.

Instead, my husband broke out of the whole artist as "a solidary wolf" model in a pretty dramatic way. He got married. He started what we both hope will be a large family. Now, he takes his job as sole-provider seriously. He found a job with a steady paycheck in a city where we love to live.

Every weekday, my husband dresses himself on an oxford shirt, a hand-me down tie from my brother, and the snakeskin shoes I splurged on for Christmas. My husband walks to work, because we can't afford a second car. He walks to work because in July, someone stole the free bike he salvaged from the trash.

My husband's humble sacrifice didn’t start in May when he traded office space with a new hire. My husband’s sacrifice started when he married me.

St. Joseph the Worker, bless our husbands. Keep them safe from harm. Help them see the face of God in their workspace. May God bless them abundantly as they toil as faithful servants. A cubicle, an office, or an outdoor construction site always has equal dignity as part of God’s vineyard for a humble Catholic father.

4 comments:

Jen M said...

God Bless You, Jon, and your children. You are in my prayers.

Jennifer F. said...

What a touching tribute to a humble, hard working man!

Maria said...

What a great husband and father! The Lord will certainly bless him for his faithfulness, humily, and selflessness.

Wait...I think He already has...with a beautiful, loving wife. You two certainly deserve each other!

Anonymous said...

I found this blog post because I have a tag "Office Space Design". I've been away from office politics for so long that I'd totally forgotten how gut wrenching it can be. I suggest he self-document the problems that arise from no longer having office space and that he requested office space and was denied despite its availability. It sounds to me that he is trying to function in a poisoned workplace and may need a diary to protect himself from unlawful dismissal.