Earlier this month we chatted about the lack of privacy in the workplace. And about how most workplaces constantly bombard you with that most hideous of distractions: co-workers.
Subsequently, several of you told me your own personal methods for synthesising solitude in your cubicles and at your workstations.
Noise-cancelling headphones was a rather popular suggestion. One reader told me how he sat in office the whole day with headphones plugged into his ears streaming a constant playlist of…nothing. Utter silence. Yet the headphones functioned like an invisible force field. Time-wasters would walk up to him, perhaps even say something irrelevant such as, “Boss, apparently they are restructuring marketing and Prakash is being transferred to Chennai. We’re thinking of throwing a curd rice party to commemorate the…” and then suddenly realize that nobody was listening.
The demoralized distracter would then slink away, sniffing out more amenable prey, usually in the branding or corporate communications teams. As commenter Praneeth Burra posted on the columns page: “It makes sense, you see, your eyes always have that monitor in front of them, it is the ears that are jobless when you are at work, so why not plug them and deny them the privilege of being distracted?”
A most succinct observation. In fact, I have been using the earphone approach for years on public transport, planes and trains. Especially on planes, where the close physical proximity provided by cramped seats and social proximity suggested by budget fares force some people to be unduly social.
A few years ago I even tried wearing noise-cancelling earphones to find solace during large family functions. But the missus put a stop to that after her sari got entangled in the wires of my Sennheiser whilst she was lobbing handfuls of rice over her head onto her parents. (This is a traditional Punjabi wedding ritual, whereby the bride is telling the world that she may have married a Malayali but she would instantly run back home if forced to eat rice-based delicacies three times a day. Such are the primitive ways of the appam-less north.)
One other reader had an even simpler strategy. Lunch. I immediately slapped my forehead in disgust. This was a strategy I’ve been using for years, and should have mentioned in that column.
I will now.
Five years ago, when I first started working at this newspaper, I was part of the Mumbai office. The office is located near the railway station in Dadar east. It is surrounded by numerous eateries, most of dubious repute. However, over time I’d developed a lunch ritual that involved stepping out of the office, choosing one of three or four regular haunts, and settling down for a meal. Alone.
While the quality of my meal was open to fluctuations, my solitude was not. As much as possible I would try to slip out stealthily without anyone noticing or asking to join in. If anyone seemed prone to unwelcome sociableness, I would swoop in and offer to “bring something parcelled when I come?”
En route I would pick up a copy of GQ or Esquire from the editor’s stack, or my iPod, or even a printout of a story I was working on. And then I would vanish.
Only to reappear moments later in front of a plate of porotta and chicken curry, chowmein, pav bhaji, terrible set dosa or tamarind-ish rice.
Those were, without a doubt, my favourite 30-40 minutes of my working day. Those lunches were also deeply therapeutic. Not only was I reaping nourishment and inevitable future cardiac arrest, but also distance from cubicle crises and a brief change of context.
On days when my mornings were wrought with conflict, missed deadlines and inter-personal turbulence, I would yearn for my lunch break. To get away from it all.
Almost always I’d return rejuvenated, heart-lightened and even more creative. At least once a week, as I spooned something into my mouth, I had a brilliant breakthrough idea for a new story, or a new story angle. I have no idea if it was the food, the service (ha!), the ambience or the general vitality of Dadar.
Since then I’ve tried, with varying success, to own lunch wherever my work takes me. Even when I work from home, which is something I’ve started doing a lot more of in the last three years, I try to grab lunch outside. When I attend conferences I try to avoid the communal lunch buffets and step out of the hotel or exhibition hall for a bite.
So much so that the very idea of a working lunch with other people makes my skin crawl. I feel as if it is an invasion of something sacred and holy and personal.
A lone lunch, then, is one way of finding a little solitude at the workplace. It is not a cure for all those distractions, but at least a reprieve from it. If you find your average work day becoming a deluge of worry, why not find a safe haven every noon? Just you and a plate of appams. Or rotis. Whatever works for you, you savage.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama