Two weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit a watch factory in a cold but beautiful mountain valley an hour-and-a-half away from Geneva.
Wait. I am perhaps conveying the wrong sort of mental image here. Perhaps, when I say factory, you are thinking of loud, greasy machines, people in dirty overalls, delivery challan books, and a Malayali fellow sitting on strike outside the main gate. A high-end Swiss watch factory is absolutely nothing like that. (Except for the striking Malayali outside. Which, like taxation, is inevitable.)
This particular workshop, which belongs to Vacheron Constantin, is clean, mostly quiet and meticulously organized. The company only makes something like 15,000 watches a year and makes each one with the requisite care and attention to detail. Which is why the watches can each cost around $10,000. And upwards. Severely upwards.
Now the point of telling you this is not to boast about the fact that I went to Switzerland, or copiously handled watches that I am many phone-taps away from affording.
Our economy is booming. I am sure most of you have so many visas that you carry your passport in its own little briefcase.
No. I want to talk about someone I met at the watch factory. Let us mutually agree to call her an ordinary Swiss name. Such as Heidi.
Heidi has worked at the Vacheron factory for almost two decades. She sits in a small room, along with an understudy, and takes care of one specific step in the watch-making process. The step involves machining tiny overlapping circular dots into the surface of metal watch parts. This leaves the surface with a wonderful three-dimensional visual texture; like tiny, shimmering fish scales.
In the business it is called “perlage”.
For all its beauty, however, perlage-ing is a remarkably repetitive job. While the exact process might change when it comes to settings—diameter of tool, pressure of application, spacing between dots—the process itself is unchanging. Press. Apply dot. Press. Apply dot. Press. Apply dot.
And Heidi has been doing it for two decades. In the same room. Every day. Day after day.
“Don’t you get bored of doing this Heidi?” I asked her.
A translator conveyed my question.
“Of course,” she said, “but mostly Camembert and sometimes Gouda.”
One new translator later I got a better answer: “Of course not. I love this job. I love leaving my mark on every watch that leaves our factory. I’ve never ever got bored of it. When I see the product… I feel very proud.”
Heidi, who is usually left alone with her tools, answered softly but firmly.
And I believed her. There wasn’t an HR chap standing in a corner making subtle gestures at her. She actually meant what she said.
Later, I spoke to another staffer about this. He told me that there are several such people in the workshop. “They are the people the company really runs on. The dependable, quiet people.”
This set me thinking.
When I look back over the various things we discuss in this column each week, I realize that we are always talking about the outliers in our companies. Or about ways in which we can become outliers ourselves.
How to get promoted. How to make more money. How to give everything up and become a dotcom/hospitality entrepreneur. How to sabotage that MBA campus recruit’s fast-track career. How to retire to the hills, open a Mohanlal-themed bed-and-breakfast and retire in peace and quiet. Things like that. But hardly ever about the Heidi people. The quiet lemmings that seem to exist almost entirely under the cubicle culture radar.
This, I say with shame, is grave injustice. Where would we be without the faceless dude or dudette who clears our bills, keeps the factory clean, backs up the servers, proofreads the column, or orders new uniforms every year like clock work?
Working in utter and complete chaos, that’s where.
So if you are one of those unsung lemmings who go about minding their own business, crib little, and believe in “less talk, more work”, then thank you very much indeed. Yes it is a pity that the squeaky wheels and empty vessels end up getting the most bonus. But at least I am hoping your quiet prima donna-free lives are peaceful and without tensions.
You just can’t put a price on peace of mind and contentment, can you?
Alternatively, if you’re a prima donna, then it won’t hurt to occasionally seek out the Heidis in your department or on your floor and have a little chat with them. (But not for too long, please. They, unlike you, have serious work to do.)
I am not saying that this has to become some popular social movement —“Brethren! Let us all send pink formal shirts to all the Heidis!”—but it’d be nice to give them a few moments of fame.
You will do this? God promise? Very good.
Homework: In 2006, a man went to a BBC office for a job interview. Unfortunately things did not go according to plan. I want you to go to Youtube and search for the term “Guy Goma interview”. Enjoy. Have a great weekend.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous articles go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama