For those of you who are not corporate whores, an off-site can be anything from a formal, highly structured, ultra-professional meeting to an alcohol fuelled, demented invitation to a sexual harassment party. The invitation to this particular off site provided no clue as to which part of the spectrum on which the even would sit. It just said "Please join Irene Tam (Head of the division) for a one day off-site at the Ocean View Hotel" It provided further details around start/end times, transportation and other logistics, but no agenda, pre-reading requirements or other topical information. Given the many organisational changes that were taking place in the bank, I made the assumption that this would be the sort of off-site where the participants watched senior managers stand up at a podium and tell us stuff that we already knew. We would then ask non-confrontational questions to which they would give bland, non answers and then we would all go home. I was glad that I had remembered my i-phone and grateful to Sadie for having downloaded the Angry Birds app. At least I'd have something to do.
The invitation also told us that the dress was "smart casual". Smart casual is a term that used to cause my palms to sweat as soon as I read it. There is a smart casual uniform for guys--chinos and a button down shirt. Some blokes even go really outrageous and wear a shirt in a rebellious colour, maybe even hot pink if they are 100% sure of their own masculinity. Some women can also get away with wearing the male smart casual uniform. These women are usually very thin and have no breasts. The uniform can look really good on them. Unfortunately for those of us fuller figure girls, chinos and a button down make us look like new recruits at butch girl boot camp. We could go with nice black trousers and a suitable blouse, but this is veering very close to professional work wear, and we could then be perceived as uptight and unable to relax and be part of the gang (which, of course, would be true). Smart casual is a very, very tricky thing to get right, and I have spent many, many years working on my own uniform. In summer, this typically involves a simple, unlined sleeveless linen dress that comes to just below my knees, bare legs and either strappy sandals or ballet pumps. I always bring a little cardigan to go over it in case I get cold or (god forbid) everyone else ignored the dress code and went a little more formal. This uniform has generally served me well, and I trust it. Well, I did until recently.
As instructed, I met up with my colleagues at the designated location for us to pile into the coach hired to drive us to the hotel. The first think I noticed is that in Hong Kong, smart casual means jeans and trainers. The second thing I noticed is that I was the only person on the coach NOT in jeans and trainers. "That's OK", I sniffed. "I'm one of the more senior people here. I'll just set a good example of professional grooming".
We pulled up at the hotel, and we all piled out of the coach and into the conference centre. It looked pretty much like every other conference facility for every other off-site I had ever attended. I queued up for coffee, and that was pretty much like every other off-site I had ever attended. So far, so familiar. Then, after the coffee, where one normally picks up a little breakfast, there was nothing. Not a croissant, a mini danish or even a cookie that looks/tastes like cardboard. Very disappointing.
It was soon time to meander into the auditorium, where I took a seat next to some of my colleagues. We still hadn't seen an agenda so I had no idea who our guest speakers would be. Then two young, very chirpy and cheerful people introduced themselves as our facilitators and started to explain how the day would pan out. As they continued to talk, my heart began to pound. Waves of nausea swept over me. I felt dizzy and faint. The realisation hit me.....yes, this was a team building day.
I cannot even begin to describe the depth of my loathing for these sorts of events. In my experience, they are filled with a false bonhomie, and they never accomplish anything more than re-enforcing all of your pre-conceived notions of people. In my 25 years of corporate life, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed a team building workshop nor have I learned anything or had one contribute to any greater good. My worst fears were confirmed when they revealed that not only was the a team building workshop, but it was a PHYSICAL team building workshop. I have had to endure many of these things in the past, involving everything from mountain climbing to raft building, fire walking and hand standing. These should not be called team building events. They should be called humiliation events. Or breathtakingly scary events. Or events where your moron boss gets to show off that his pectoral muscles are bigger than his IQ.
I was highly conspicuous, and there was no place to hide. I had to grit my teeth and get on with it. The first exercise was the old favourite, "dollars and cents". Every man is worth $1.00. Every woman is worth 50 cents. No, I am not making this up. The facilitator shouts out an amount, say $6.50. You quickly have to form groups of people (teams?) that equal that amount. Anyone left over is out. Insulted by the lesser value, I herded all the women together. This wasn't difficult as there weren't many of us. That way we could form our own groups without the use of the guys. Soon, the guys resorted to physically dragging us away into their groups like cavemen at a prehistoric orgy. It wasn't pretty. Those guys who got out were made to select a piece of paper from a box. On the paper was a question that they had to answer. The questions included "who is the person you most respect at HSBC" and "tell us a secret". OK, please keep in mind we are in Hong Kong with about 100 Chinese people. How do you think they are going to answer those questions? Are they going to say the most respected person is their secretary because she is hot? Are they hell. This might happen in the UK (not in the US where you might get sued). Without exception, the most
The next activity is too difficult to describe in detail. Let it suffice to say that it involved four colleagues holding on to various parts of my body whilst I leaned over to grab a coloured ball that was about 4 feet away. For the life of me, I can not imagine a scenario at work where I am standing on one leg, someone in my team is holding me around the waist whilst another person is holding my other leg up in the air. While I am wearing a dress. I have experienced security alerts, massive cock-ups, epileptic fits and power outages, but in 25 years, I have never experienced anything in a bank in that required me to shave my legs and ensure that I had on nice panties. This was a first.
Many other similar events followed, and I have to say that my colleagues appeared to be having a blast. I could feel teams being built with every humiliating stunt. Maybe there is something to these events after all that mimics real life at work.