As an investment banker I used to work very long hours (I still do) and we were almost always allowed to be reimbursed for dinner and transport expenses if we worked past a certain time (usually 9:00pm).
Some times I would claim for these expenses, but other times I would not. And people found that puzzling.
As I grew older and stayed longer in the office, I discovered that some of the most simple pleasures at the end of a hard day’s work was simply just to take a 10-minute stroll away from the office or use the public commute back home, enjoying the outdoor air in the process. Taking the taxi on the other hand constantly nauseated me because of the enclosure and motion. It was partly because of that, I did not usually claim for any transportation reimbursement.
Likewise for meals and per diem allowances: Unless absolutely necessary such as dining with professional parties such as clients as part of the job, I would then claim for these meals. But I know of people who would go the full length to obtain all recoverable expenses as long as it was within the organisation’s HR policy. There’s nothing technically wrong with that. The rules that were set that way by the folks up there are also the same rules that are part of broader staff retention strategy, that is: To keep employees happy and contented so that they know they are well fed and taken care off.
It was only in my later years in banking that I realised making these claims were also a deeper cultivation of a subtle employee-mentality. By attempting to ‘milk’ the system and extract the maximum benefits, one subjects himself/herself to the dependency on the little privileged comforts of life. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I believe the banks wanted you to do that.
In Nassim Taleb’s words:
“Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you strong evidence of submission. Evidence of submission is displayed by the employee’s going through years depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day, his ritualistic and punctual arrival at an office, his denying himself his own schedule, and his not having beaten up anyone on the way back home after a bad day. He is an obedient, housebroken dog.”
So should one day I am unable to afford the ‘luxury’ of going home in a cab or rely on someone to pay for my meals, I would never feel insecure.
Reaffirming point #36 in my forty takeaways last year:
Most of the people around me keep trying to tell me what's good for me or how I should use my money and resources without really wanting to listen to what I really want to do with them.
Their great plans are manifested in the monologue they have with me on whatsapp / wechat. From these conversations, I can tell that they want me to 'agree' with them. And agreement means I nod, concur and tell them that what they say is correct.
However, my points of view, my current circumstances are irrelevant.
Never judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. So why should anyone impose what they think I should do just because it has worked for them, without truly being in my current position and going through what I have gone through? It's really absurd that these same people claim to have high EQ but they'd never really demonstrated empathy and asked me the simple question of: "What are your plans?"
More than ten years ago before COVID-19, I recall most of my days (and nights) spent in the office working on ppt slides and having discussions with my VPs and directors. Occasionally when they wanted to work directly on the numbers or show me how something was done, they would come over and sit at my desk space, typing away at my computer while I stood and watched how it was done. It was a simple gesture - fixing a problem right when and where it was needed, in person. And that simple gesture didn't only solve the problem (whether it was a glitch in the model or some formatting on powerpoint), it also demonstrated leadership right then and there.
Today this is very different. No more in-person consultations and discussions, no more live demonstrations. Everything is done over Zoom. No more personal touch. There's a Chinese saying: "fighting the bull from across the mountain" (隔山打牛), which basically translates to trying to solve a problem from afar.
So right now, that's how a lot of things are - both for businesses and down to the professionals working away at their desks (or from home). Clients and suppliers trying to deal with new normal of doing deals virtually without a handshake or sighting of the product. Employees and their line managers trying to make a project or a pitchbook work while being separated hundreds and thousands of kilometers, connected only by email or whatsapp / wechat. To take the challenge up a notch, imagine the difficulty of new joiners who may have never seen their bosses, co-workers and their office desks.
Leadership and management in a virtual world is extremely difficult. It's difficult to show how things done. Difficult to foster camaraderie without a working lunch, chugging a few beers or simply just hanging out after work. Hard to show charisma and motivate others when you don't (in this case, can't) show up in person. Lots of things get lost in translation when you don't see, don't talk directly to the other party. Doing business across the front office to back office gets incredibly difficult.
Zoom calls can only do much in facilitating communication in a physically disconnected world. But in order to restore the current situation back to equilibrium or the good ol' days, we'll eventually need to be able to go out and travel, meet people and forge collective experiences together.