Take your boss to the heart of the action

I took the caption from an article at the HBR website, which reminded me of this incident. I must admit, though, that I was really not tactful enough to think this through and plan it with any outcome in mind —  it just turned out this way.

A few years ago, I was the sole representative for this software firm that had opened a branch in Singapore. The sales guy had quit, and I — who had initially been sent as pre-sales tech support — had to double up for him. Practically every other week, I would take an overnight train to Kuala Lumpur, meet with the client there, discuss the project during the day, code in the evening, and pretend that the work had been done overnight by the shoemaker’s elves 🙂

As long as the sales rep had been around, we had rented a room in a business centre. With him gone, we decided to vacate the room, since this cramped little space cost $800. I suggested a ‘hotdesk’ at the same business centre — it would be a roomy open desk to seat me (plus an occasional visitor), and it would cost $400, including the Internet and other facilities. My boss (who sat in India) decided that to save on expenses, we would maintain just a virtual office with the business centre for about $175 a month, and that I would operate out of home. (The saving between a hotdesk and a virtual office, therefore, was only $225.) I was fine with working out of home, but I told him that the company should pay for my Internet connection. He said no and, as a matter of principle, I refused to get it — after all, this was an expense for official purposes. (For non-official purposes, I did not need a 24×7 Internet connection — I used to check my e-mail at a friend’s place once or twice a week. There were no smartphones in those days.)

Naturally, it was not easy to piggyback on someone’s exposed Wi-Fi (and I discovered many years later that it was illegal too!), so connectivity became a problem, and I scheduled a call with the CEO to explain the practical difficulties I was facing — no Internet, no printer, no scanner, no fax. Upon hearing this, the CEO asked my boss to make a trip to Singapore to investigate if there was any merit in my complaint.

My boss arrived on his two-day trip. He said that this would not be his only trip; he planned on visiting every couple of months to “keep an eye” on me.

We first visited the business centre to pick up the snail mail that had arrived over the last few days. We then headed off to look for a browsing centre. He refused to surf at the first place ($2 an hour) because he found the cubicles too tiny and suffocating. We then got to know that a Singtel prepaid card would cost $33. Alternatively, Singtel offered a $15 card, but that would run for only 5 hours from the time you activated it. My boss gasped when he heard these prices, considering that a monthly Internet connection cost about $70 then.

Now, Singapore is designed for walkers. Because I am so accustomed to walking and because I usually protect my head with a cap/ scarf, the walk did not bother me in the least — and it never occurred to me to think of it from a sedentary person’s perspective.  We had been walking all over the place in the hot sun (these distances were too short for a cab ride), and he had been lugging that heavy laptop plus all his important papers.  After some more enquiries, he groaned, “Nandita, my shoulders are breaking! Please, let’s just settle down somewhere; I can’t take this anymore!”  Finally, he checked mail at some gaming/browsing centre in the Bugis Junction mall, at a princely $15 per hour.

As we stepped out of there, his mind was made up — at least, he would have a work desk and free Internet whenever he visited. We signed the papers that very day. The next day, I started working out of the hotdesk at the business centre!

[BTW, for real-life stories that involve and influence people, my favourite books are Made to Stick and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, both written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.]

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