It was an old college friend who introduced me to the concept of being “on the bench” in relation to work rather than sport. The company he was working for had simply run of projects but didn’t want to let him go. They continued to pay him and let him head off to China for a long cycling trip. Upon his return his company had managed to scrape some tasks together for him to work on.
My mind had already created a schedule with which to fill any enforced leisure time should the bench ever need warming with my bottom; it would primarily involve travel, the Far East but almost certainly would not require the use of a bicycle.
As the dot-com bubble was bursting, that schedule was hastily revisited whilst working at a company that had run out, not of money, but of strategic direction. It was a joint-venture company and neither parent company could decide how to proceed as the demand for web sites that offered zero-utility continued to plummet. A rather novel and drastic solution was found. It involved a rather large bench that could accommodate the entire company.
No new business was to be pursued. No new products were to be launched. No code changes would be made except for emergency fixes. Yet every single member of the company was to present themselves for work, everyday.
As the new regime set in, there was nothing to do and staff seemed to drift aimlessly about the offices. Colleagues would disappear to the washrooms with a newspaper under their arm and not surface again until it was read from cover to cover. Morale plummeted to the point where some colleagues would amble in at some time after 10 o’clock, place jackets over the back of chairs as an indication that they were “at work” and then head off to one of the many pubs surrounding the office. The jacket owners would stagger back into the office at around 5pm to collect their jackets. This began occurring almost every day, Monday to Friday. The attitude of our staff who inhabited these pubs was very much “if my boss is in the pub then it’s okay to stay” and quite often everyone’s bosses were in the pub too.
Whilst a few days of enforced idleness can be invigorating, the prospect of endless, empty days is dispiriting.
Thankfully IT is a cerebral activity. Collectively our department decided that we should seize this opportunity for continuing professional development; we would enhance our skills in order to make ourselves more employable at a time when demand for less-skilled IT expects was taking a nose dive.
Whilst not allowed to write production code nor buy new software, we could install open source software on development machines. We ensured that the production code had one hundred percent test coverage. We studied for vendor exams. Each section of our department would take turns explaining their role within the process. It was enlightening; where previously we believed other teams to be pedantic or obstructive, we learnt that they would invariably have valid reasons for their actions.
When there’s a chance for self-improvement, sometimes the first step is recognising that opportunity.