Our cubicles were tucked away in a back corner, away from the swirl of brokers on phones and the TV monitors running CNBC and Fox all day long.
Even so, we kept our heads down, so as not to attract the attention of random conversationalists on their way to the bathroom, or worse, looking for someone to do their work. We looked busy, even if we weren’t, which was most days, especially in the early mornings when the activity on the trading desks was busiest. Our job was to update the web site and really, it only needed one person and Mac was the fastest, so the rest of us checked our Twitter feeds or tidied our desks or went for coffee at the Starbucks located in the lobby. From the 30th floor, a trip for a Venti Latte killed at least forty-five minutes.
At 1 p.m., a silent understanding reverberated across the floor–the Market was closed on the West coast. The brokers could do as they pleased. Some took naps in rooms with cots. Some went home to manage school pick-ups and daycare, or popped in for groceries before the evening rush. For web designers, this was our busiest time. Sure, we could have updated the web site with the latest sound-bites for broker’s conversations with irate customers or tinkered with the design during trading hours. But we worked best in the calm of less chatter, as our company was too cheap to spring for headsets that cancelled noise.
On this particular afternoon, everyone received a resounding ping on their devices, screens, and voicemails ordering us to dial a special conference line for an all-hands meeting. The brokers looked mystified–unspoken Corporate rules dictated that no meetings would be held between 1:00-2:00 p.m. Ever.
Since the message had the voice or signature of the head-honcho himself, they rubbed their eyes and dialed in, just like the rest of us.
The CEO’s voice cracked with emotion. Some of us mumbled the obvious question–why was this call so old-fashioned? Wouldn’t a rah-rah speech be more engaging on Zoom? But as his voice in our headsets droned on about short-falls in commissions and profits, we could feel it–that palpable foreboding that what we were about to hear would change everything.
“Effective immediately,” he said, “everyone will report to Oswald, a world-class AI intelligence and your new manager. Oswald, say a few words to your team.”
Before we could cheer the fact that we weren’t about to collect our final paychecks–or worse–be asked to hang out for 60 days and then collect our checks–a disembodied robot voice filled our heads.
“I am Oswald, your friendly AI Manager. I am happy to announce that I am not just your work assistant, but in control of every aspect of your working lives. Our company esteems and appreciates your efforts to add value to our shareholders and customers. My corrections are intended to support you in the important tasks most relevant to the company’s continued success.”
Oswald thoroughly and precisely outlined our new normal. His responsibilities included, but were not limited to:
*Assigning tasks and optimal completion times.
*Monitoring our progress through our computer’s built-in cameras, email activity, telephone conversations, and the specially designed Fit-Bit each of us was now required to wear, which would also track our vital signs to ensure optimum and peak performance at all times.
*Scheduling our individually-customized bathroom, hydration, and lunch breaks; coffee breaks for employees with a doctor’s note mandating regular caffeine intake would also be supported (mini coffee makers would be installed at each desk for those with proper authorization–additional bathroom breaks to compensate for frequent caffeine intake would not be supported at this time).
Oswald assured us of his 24/7 availability, in the office and remotely, to assist us with completing our tasks in an efficient and timely manner. If we did not complete our tasks in the time allocated, he would provide whatever assistance necessary, excluding performing the task itself, except in extreme situations. Employees working more than an 8 hour day with excellent efficiency and performance scores would be rewarded with a .05% increase in our net pay after 18 months. Employees not performing at optimum levels would face appropriate corrections, not excluding minor electrical reminders via FitBit or public shaming on Zoom.
“Are there any questions?”
Until a weak voice asked, “What about our naps between 1:00-2:00 p.m.?”
As Oswald explained that naps were not part of the new protocol, I quietly clicked the OFF button on my headset. My laptop camera’s green strobe aimed at my forehead, but for some reason, I didn’t care.
Starbucks had a Venti Latte with my name on it. And I wasn’t going to wait around for it to get cold.