Nicki and I ran the back office of the organization, but our shared work station was situated in the front office. We were a crew of 25 crammed into 3,000 square feet on one level, pretty much working at bunk desks and feeling like sardines in a can. While the others had cubicles (though tight) or offices (though shared), we worked at a ramshackle amalgam of used particle board and dusty padded fabric that had been dropped in the middle of the building lobby. If Nicki backed her chair out too fast, she ran the risk of slamming into my legs, positioned four feet away at my stand-up desk. If I leaned too hard on my computer platform, the whole works creaked and threatened to collapse. We each faced a building entrance, and all day long visitors and colleagues streamed through the doors, constantly interrupting and disrupting our space. Our work station sucked, and we had the worst of a bad situation. Yet we were consistently the most positive people on staff. We chose to own that public space and create a welcoming, friendly, upbeat vibe we hoped would radiate through the office and change the culture. We called ourselves “The Positivity Committee” and formalized our program through targeted, strategic acts of kindness.
Nicki considers herself an empath, sensing and often experiencing the feelings of others, just from being in the same room. I consider myself emotional Teflon, and my struggle to access my own feelings, not to mention those of others, is well documented on this blog. However, I have a low tolerance for negativity and bad behavior, which we often saw from our very public vantage point. We decided that instead of continually defining the problem (i.e. griping about the behavior of others), we needed to model the solution and invite people to show their best selves. If for no other reason than to protect our work space.
We knew much of the negativity and bad behavior was a direct result of cramming 25 people into a small space for 40+ hours a week. Familiarity breeds contempt, oh yes it does. We had two toilets, one fridge, and zero privacy. People walked out into the parking lot to make phone calls. Forget about having a sensitive in-person conversation. There was nowhere to do it. So we suffered. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, because a donor had stepped up with the cash to buy us a new, bigger, better building, a deal that would be done in about a year’s time. If we could just hang in together, and not let things get too contentious and gross, we could make the move and keep things on the level. Nicki and I got to work.
We looked up from our screens every time someone opened the door, breaking into big grins and greeting them enthusiastically. We used people’s names. We got up or walked over to hold doors. We asked people how they were and listened. Sometimes when we were in a silly mood and someone we really liked walked in we’d chant their name while fist-pumping. It was a cheesy move, yet anyone in the vicinity invariably cracked up, especially the celebrant. We walked that tiny circular floor plan with smiles on our faces, saying hello to anyone we had to squeeze by in the narrow hallways, which were lined with desks. If people started gossiping or venting (that old cloak for shit-talking), we moved on. We starved the negative. We worked.
Now, you have to understand The Positivity Committee was the joint effort of an extrovert who derived energy with each interaction and an introvert who expended energy with each. It was worth it to the empath/introvert to direct her limited interpersonal energy toward these ends, because she knew a higher vibe among the staff would be a savings over time–less negative energy to absorb. And the extrovert…hell, she just liked talking to people.
There were some, however, who could not be moved. They would grunt in response to our greetings, or exit in a flash, backs receding before we could look up. They were the tough nuts, generally the folks who were driving everyone else insane with their obstinacy, negativity, passive aggression, you get the picture. We sensed we were going to have bring them into the high vibe era kicking and screaming, by holding them close. (Big, big believer in keep your friends close and your enemies closer). They needed to be reminded they were surrounded by people, and that they were people too. Because you see, when people are showing their worst, much of the time it’s due to a loss of connection with others. We decided to zero in on this group and watch them closely for signs of life. We decided to buy a bunch of fabulous, artisanal, small-batch screen printed and letterpress cards, which we would inscribe with positive messages stemming from specific examples, about the individual. We would sign them “Your Positivity Committee” and deliver them in secret.
We made a list of the tough nuts and each week picked one, watched and found good things to point out. We each took half the card and wrote our positive musings. Sometimes we couldn’t resist and did a card for one of our favorite people, who was following our lead and acting infallibly high vibe. I had a stack of business card-sized prints that said, “you are doing a great fucking job” and sometimes when I couldn’t quite get the words together for a card I’d prop one in that person’s keyboard when they had stepped away from their desk. Always, I inscribed the back with our salutation.
Here’s where it got interesting. We were a staff of over-sharers, a given considering our industry. The building was so small you could hear most conversations. It was the kind of place where when flowers were delivered, everyone knew from whom, to whom, and why within a half hour. But not one person talked about the underground communications from The Positivity Committee. Not to us, not to each other (that we could hear). It was fascinating.
It also appeared to be working. We noticed everyone was saying “good morning” to each other, and that people walked through the doors with an automatic “hello”. They started coming into the lobby to hang out, flinging themselves into the hideous brown Naugahyde chairs there, having a chat with us, Their Positivity Committee. Our Monday morning staff meetings, where 25 people crammed themselves into a conference room the size of a shoebox, overflowing out into the hall, bumping into people coming out of the single seat bathrooms, which abutted the conference room, (ugh) became light, friendly affairs with copious bursts of laughter. There was a collective understanding, soon widely spoken about, that we were all in it together, hanging in with each other until the big move. It started to feel important that we all help each other out, get each other through this trying and painful growth period.
Our last weeks in the place I started taking cell phone pics of all the broken, outdated, scuffed, dented, staved-in Craigslist Free-looking stuff we called furniture, equipment, and decor. People gleefully posed for exaggerated shots documenting our awful working conditions–five people to a cubicle; a door flung open, trapping a person at a corner desk. I made it into a Snapfish book entitled “The Book of Remembrance”, passing it around for staff signatures like a yearbook. We presented it to the CEO the day we moved into the new building, a day full of shared joy and awe over our two-level, 12,000 square foot new digs. The book was the final act of the Committee, now that we had shifted into the high vibe era, every last one of us. We made it so in case anyone tried to go back to the bad old days, in mood or behavior, we could bust it out saying, remember the way we were?