As I write this, I am sitting in a tiny, freezing cold waiting room at a surgical center.
One of my co-workers is having a procedure, and I am her “responsible party.” I felt awkward signing a paper stating as much, since that seems like a pretty bold statement to attest to in writing, but there it is. Next week, I am picking up another co-worker’s daughter to take her to school. A few weeks ago, I purchased a wedding gift for one of my partners; not a wedding gift for him, a gift for him and his wife to take to the wedding of people I don’t know. I have house-sat for multiple people in my office, babysat for many more, visited their family members in the hospital, and attended funerals for their loved ones.
This is a just a small sample of the regular way of things in our office. After ten years in the same firm, these people are far more than my co-workers. In many cases, they are far more than my friends. For many, if not most, they hold similar positions in my heart as my family. In two instances, they actually are my family, as I work with my dad and brother. I worry about them; I rejoice for their happiness, I despair for their hurts. I don’t go home at night and live my other, disconnected life, leaving them behind in the office. They are on my mind and in my thoughts more often than not.
And herein lays my occasional dilemma. I could most definitely make more money somewhere else. I live in Silicon Valley, and while the economy and job market is nothing like it once was, there are plenty of places to go. There are places that call, offers that have been made. And yet I stay. I am tied to these people in a way that goes much deeper than your average 9-5. I have worked hard over the past decade to foster the most open workplace that I can, to encourage empathy and camaraderie instead of competition and spite. We have weeded out those who wouldn’t or couldn’t fit into the tightly knit fold we had created. In a large office, difficult personalities can be avoided and sidestepped much of the time. In an office of 25, they cannot. Differences need to be dealt with, fights need to be mediated, and bitterness cannot be allowed to fester.
I am not always successful on those last points. I don’t want to be misleading; our office is not perfect. People can be dicks, resentments exist, and we don’t all get together for a group hug before we go home. Often, things are misconstrued as malice when they are nothing more than inconsideration. I try my best to keep things in perspective, and try to help others to do so as well. It is a struggle, and not one I always win. But I will always try.
And that is the promise I make to them every single day, either aloud or in my mind. I will always try to make it somewhere people feel heard, feel supported, and feel cared about. I often think of it as staying in a dysfunctional relationship where children are involved; you stay because leaving the child to fend for themselves is something you can’t in good conscience do. If I left, would the staff have the freedom and flexibility of their schedules that I allow? Would my replacement micro-manage them and make them feel ineffectual? If I was gone, who would look out for them when medical benefits go up, when partners are on a rampage, when the toilets clog up?
And so I stay. I cannot lie and say this is where I expected to be at this age. I would have never guessed I would still be doing this job. It is not fulfilling in any real and meaningful way, and I often feel underappreciated because I have created an environment that breeds being taken for granted. Because most people here have never known it to be any other way than how I manage it (or long since forgotten how it was before me), they assume this office is the way they all are. And while some may be, I don’t think many are. I don’t know many people who would feel able to ask their office manager to take them to the doctor or pick up their kid to take to school. It makes me feel good that they know they can count on me, but it also increases the hurt I feel when that is disregarded to be upset with me for petty bullshit, like why their calendar order was wrong – OH MY GOD HOW DARE I MAKE A MISTAKE!! How dare I take nearly 12 hours to have a replacement delivered!
In sum, many of them are spoiled, and I have no one to blame but myself. And I allow myself to be complacent, to stick with the devil I know instead of seeking out a new, better paying position. I stay because it allows me security and flexibility to take on volunteer projects that do fulfill me. I sit and envy those who are lucky enough to get paid to do what they love, and sometimes become jealous of those who make more money doing much less work and having MUCH less personal investment in the success of those in their office. But I am thankful to have a job in trying economic times when so many others are struggling to find work, any work. But I still wonder if I am doing myself any favors sometimes. And then I remember that almost everyone in my office would help me, stand by me, and fight for me when push came to shove, and I take comfort in knowing that that alone makes me very lucky indeed.