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Corporate Corral: Conferencing in Captivity

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Beth Anstandig

I just got off a weekly conference call with members of the Circle Up team. The call often runs well over an hour but, today, we wrapped in 45 minutes. And I’m a little sad.  I miss my team. We tend to digress, rarely have an agenda, joke around a fair amount, and get a lot done.  At least, we plan to get a lot done. We talk, we listen, we genuinely enjoy each other. And we believe in the work Circle Up does.

But Circle Up is not my first job.  Not by a long shot. I have arrived here after at least two career pivots and a series of unfortunate engagements (unfortunate for me, unfortunate for my employers). As I stumbled my way through those positions, I didn’t have the wherewithal to really reflect on why things just didn’t seem to be working out. Now, I have a more open pasture to graze in and have joined a herd of like-minded grazers, and I’m beginning to reenter my body in a way that the corporate corral just didn’t allow.

In each of my jobs — in libraries public and academic, in law firms, in tech companies — I occupied a single seat. I have occupied cubicles and offices. I have shared a row of tables. I believe I have been situated in virtually every different configuration known to the corporate worker and all of them shared this single fact:  I was responsible for holding down one chair and one job. I had one stall, one paddock, one flake of hay to work through. And I was responsible for not ranging far away from it.

This, I’ve come to realize through my work with Circle Up, is not the way we’re supposed to work.  Or live. We are no more meant to spend 8-12 hours alone behind a desk than a horse alone in a stall.  At the risk of sounding too technical, I’ll just say — we get weird. 

We start gnawing on the walls and scratching at the gate. And, on what could be the happy occasion that we are asked to join others for a meeting of minds, we show up in the conference room either bucking and kicking out against the freedom or quietly sequestered in the chair furthest away from others with our noses firmly bent to the ground.  

In this corporate captivity, we turn conferences into round-ups, with ourselves as the quarry.  

The spirit of collaboration — that which likely sparked the creation of the corporation in question — is not present.  In its place is a spirit of self-preservation, as a conference room full of chairs quietly watches the clock and waits to return to its stalls. Agendas are covered. Ideas are trotted out. Lives pass by.

I had one other job that felt the way that Circle Up does. For a while, I worked as a product marketing manager for a legal technology company. Sure, I thought that what we sold was pretty cool, and I enjoyed writing and talking about it, but the end product was not what made the job feel good. It was the team. I worked with four people directly and we radiated out to another 20-30 people. And we talked and we created as a herd. We valued each others’ input, we changed directions nimbly as needed, and all doors were open. My seat rolled easily into other offices and vice-versa. Sure, I had a stall to go into and regroup when I needed it, but I was expected to be in the pasture with everyone else.  

I mention this position because I believe that what I’ve found with Circle Up is unique but not impossible to find elsewhere. The main requirement is a desire that everyone meet in the pasture. If the workplace values collaboration, the employees will learn to collaborate. In my experience, workplaces by and large value workers in their seats. And they get unhappy workers who struggle with collaboration.

In contrast, I hang up from a conference call today and I wish the call had gone longer. Having tried both ways, I know which way I want to live my life. I’m going back out to the pasture. I hope you’ll all find a way to join me there.

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