I have never understood the point in corporate team building days. After all, the moment a 'team' leaves the office, they cease to exist. As soon as they swing through the double-doors, they unravel. Outside the office, the hierarchy dissolves and you are just left with a batch of indifferent acquaintances.
The actual aim of the team building day is never quite clear. We assume it is something to do with bonding, but can never be sure. It is no longer enough to have cordial relations in the office, we must now be actual friends. We can blame this muddled exercise on the modern mania for 'employee engagement'. Everybody expects their team to go above and beyond. It is not sufficient to merely do our jobs - we must demonstrably enjoy ourselves at the same time.
Last week, our company cleaned up the banks of the Thames. This onerous task was my idea. It was our part of our renewed 'wellbeing strategy'. We wanted to knock our drug-addled bankers into shape (so they could make us more money). None of them came, however, so we were left with an assortment of support staff - all of whom had been pressed into attending.
"Thank you for your support, everyone." I stood with my arms wide - the wind ruffling my hair.
It was an unseasonably cold morning on the riverside. My colleagues were huddled in a tight formation, shuffling against the breeze. I had asked them to come in 'work clothes' but for office workers this had little meaning. They had turned up in wax jackets, tweed caps, and Hunter wellies. It felt more like a gathering of landed gentry than a work crew.
"When are we having lunch?" Said a voice at the back.
"Good question, Fran, I think around one."
There was a quiet groan.
"But they are bringing us soup and rolls at ten...I think." A gust of wind blew me forward. "If not, I'm sure Laura wouldn't mind picking something up."
Laura was the Chairman's PA. She narrowed her eyes, no doubt making a caustic mental note. Charlotte from Finance pushed to the front.
"Can we just get started?" She said.
"We're just waiting on the guys."
The guys were the men from the charity facilitating the event. They were supposed to show us how to clear the junk safely, and turn us on to environmentalism (good luck with that, I thought). After another twenty minutes they arrived in a white transit van.
"Sorry everyone," said one of the men, as he ambled over smoking a roll-up. He had long dreadlocks. And was white.
"No problem," I said. But it was a problem.
"I'm Mike," the dreadlocked man said, "Mike Love." He grinned; the name was clearly part of his shtick.
After receiving some rather broad instructions, we were divided into groups. Mine was disappointingly male. My task, however, brought me into regular contact with an all-female group. I had already decided to seize the opportunity to impress. Our mandate was to pick up rubbish on the river bank and dump it in the large crates provided. I was charged with carrying the larger objects. The female group chatted idly as they worked. My group were all business, silent and solitary, periodically checking their BlackBerrys. I started hauling chunky metallic items, my gloves and donkey jacket adding to my brawny image. Hauling a rusted metal box onto my shoulders, I headed towards the crate.
"Well, check you out." Charlotte stood holding a small piece of driftwood.
"Yes, I'm a working class hero." I attempted a salute but the box slipped.
"Careful," she said. "You don't want to overdo it."
She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder and lit a cigarette. We had gone out on a date once, and now she hated me. Despite the animosity, she looked good. Exhaling smoke into the wind, Charlotte resembled a young Bridget Bardot.
"You know me." I winked. "I don't know my limits."
"It would seem so..." She screwed up her face.
"Oh god, what's that on your neck?"
I threw the box down.
"What?" I felt my neck, it was wet and greasy. I looked at my hand, it was black with oil.
"Jesus, you've got it all over you."
I rubbed my neck again, instinctively, spreading the slick. Charlotte pulled out a small makeup mirror.
"Look!" She held it up. I had smeared the black gunk onto my cheek.
The slick gave me the look of a nightmarish man-beast.
"Disgusting." She said.
Moments later the rest of her group called her over for a group photo. The young women were lined up in their Hunter wellies. There was not a single dud among them. Charlotte pulled out her phone and quickly snapped me before galloping off, laughing. I turned to face the Thames. It was a blustery day and the wind bit into my gut. The oil on my face felt icy. It's ok, I thought, I will wash this away. I pulled my jacket collar up against the wind. I will wash it all away.