Friday, November 1, 2013

operation handshake explained

Dear Lionel,

I am very excited about this opportunity to finally tell with you all about Operation Handshake.  You know, the thing where you noticed me walking the entire open space once a week, stopping at each person's desk to shake his hand.  It has been a year since we parted ways as colleagues and I have always appreciated your curiosity regarding the mechanics of the operation.  I even remember the state machine that you drew up on the whiteboard in the conference room during my farewell party to describe to others how the operation worked based on the little that I had revealed.  You got some things right, and those that you did not, I will attempt to clarify below.  So bear with me since I have never given this much spotlight in writing to any of my operations before.

Before proceeding, I want to take this moment to let you know how much I cherished the moments that we spent working together (well, to be more accurate, the moments that we spent at work together).  You were a great guy to bother, if not for your inviting desk decorated with Dilbert comic strips. I felt elated to practice my English with you and always admired your ability to speak the language very well.  Above all though, it was your openness, your enthusiasm, and your sense of humor that I will remember the most.  How did you do it so naturally?

Anyway, the explanation that follows is for you, buddy.  I love you man!

The inspiration

The idea for the operation was a convergence of several things.  Firstly, there was the practice of shaking hands at work.  It seemed too French to go shake the hand of each person in the team upon arriving at work in the morning.  The subject even came up occasionally in conversation, inside and outside of work.  I was quite amused by the whole thing.  I had never experienced, thought, or discussed anything of the sort while working in the U.S..  While most people in our team did not actually shake hands in the morning, the practice had already left an impression on me.  I have Joao in particular to thank for this.  He was very disciplined during his first couple of weeks at work about going to shake the hand of everyone in the room (the one that I shared with him before we moved to the open space).  I even expressed my gratitude to him in his greeting card during his farewell party.  At the time, Operation Handshake was in its infancy.

Then there was the workplace culture.  Whenever a colleague shook hands, he usually did not bother going beyond his team.  And the open space was shared by several small teams, but each person clung to his team; note that I was far from being the exception.  Outside of work requirements and random gatherings by the coffee machine, there was not much interaction among members of different teams.  It resembled the French society but on a much smaller scale, where people spent virtually the whole time with the people that they already knew.  I mean, it was great, except that there were other people too with whom we shared the open space.  I thought that things could be more interesting if we took the time to go meet colleagues that we weren't used to talking to, just to greet them or to acknowledge their presence in some sense, without the context of a project.  I also imagined that a more open workplace would help to ease inevitable tensions and to prevent false assumptions that colleagues tend to have.

Yet the primary motivation for kicking off this operation was personal.  I felt invisible at work.  Maybe I did not need to have that sentiment, being the English-speaking foreigner that could also speak French well, that was curious about French culture, that was kind of a cool guy, and whose jokes were somewhat funny.  But that was how I felt.  Beyond my efforts to always abide by some unspoken French code of conduct ("le code", in the words of my friend Mélodie), I shrunk myself and what made me different out of habit ‒ I had been doing so for years.  So I felt the need to stop making myself invisible and consequently feeling bad about myself.

Not wanting to ask everyone to look at me nor wanting to strive to gain attention, this idea came to mind.  Somehow.  No one else was doing something like it.  It seemed fitting given the combination of factors mentioned above.  I loved it, and did not want to let it die.  Such had been the fate of other similar ideas that I had conceived, and this probably because they were different from what most people did.

I wanted therefore to accept what made me different instead of rejecting it by not letting it show.  Truth be told, many of the most enjoyable moments in my life were those where I had expressed my difference.  So why try to hide it, right?  The best way that I came up with to go about things was obviously to show my difference, to make sure everyone had a chance to know about it.  I mean, if you believed that everyone kept seeing your difference and that you were enjoying being different, there would be no more reason to hide your difference from anyone, right?  Thus, I felt it necessary to target as many people as possible for the operation.

Since I had difficulty expressing my difference in the midst of certain people, I also wanted to perceive each person in the open space in the same way as any other person.  Without seeking to become friends with him, I wanted most of all to not see him as an obstacle.  So whether he was someone that I liked, or someone that I liked less, or someone that I knew hardly or not at all, I was going to go over to offer him a handshake.

Being public was also key.  Like I said, I wanted to give everyone the chance to see me doing something unusual in order to become desensitized to the feeling that everyone was looking at me.  The thought of that feeling had often prevented me from expressing myself in certain situations, and I wanted to get rid of it.

The procedure

The operation as you may remember it involved me arriving at work one morning during the week and walking the entire open space to greet each person by shaking hands with him until I sat down at my desk.  It was that simple.

The details

But it was also complex, of course.

It included several details, and I did my best to make them easy to remember.  I quickly learned that the lot of details made the game more fun.

Regularity. I sought to go shaking hands once a week.  I figured that one day a week was good enough spacing.  I certainly did not want to program myself to shake hands everyday.  Neither did I want to become too predictable.  And yes, I did not want to bother people too often either.  As far as the choice of day, there was nothing special really, contrary to what you all were thinking.  The whole thing was largely dependent on my mood.  That said, if it was Thursday afternoon and I still hadn't run the operation all week for some reason, I would plan on running it the following morning, whether my mood was cooperating or not.

Timing. I planned on arriving by 9:30am; sometimes after 9:15am but always before 9:45am.  I even timed my departure from home to be on time, waiting occasionally in a seat in front of the RER platform if I was too early!  Regarding the choice of time, 9:30am seemed reasonable.  I estimated that the open space would have a decent amount of people at that time (at least half the capacity) and that most of them would not yet be too absorbed in their work.

Entrances. It took a while to get the system of entering the open space worked out.  Not that I was even thinking about that when I launched the operation.  I just noticed that I was moving always in the same direction and therefore I decided to vary things up.  I ended up taking one of the two entrances one week, and the other one the following week.  When I started covering the adjacent open space (see below), I had four entrances to play with, two per open space.  So I continued the same system of alternating entrances, though in a clockwise direction.  That kept matters simple, since I had to only remember the entrance that I took the previous week to figure out which one to take on a given week.

Handwashing. I washed my hands in the restroom before showtime.  It is only the right thing to do before shaking dozens of hands in a matter of a few minutes!  I got around to washing my hands afterwards as well.

Scope 1. Once I was getting comfortable with the operation in our open space, I decided to branch out to the adjacent one.  In other words, I would go there to shake the hands of people who we saw much less, who we knew much less, and with whom we worked much less, if ever at all.  The strangeness of that idea was too alluring to pass up.  Besides, I wanted to keep my spirits up by thinking bigger.

Scope 2. Over time, after taking about 5-10 quick minutes of a given day of the week to visit about 40 people on average in two open spaces, I was once again used to the operation as it was and thought about taking it a step further.  So I traded in quantity for quality.  I decided to visit one open space on one day of the week, and the other on another day of the same week.  I figured that this would allow me time to chat briefly with the people that I greeted, if they were so inclined for a chat.  I can assure you that not everyone was!

Conversation. Quite naturally, the time to engage in conversations came.  Even if I found myself on occasion already chatting with people during my visit, I felt the urge to structure things a bit.  So I decided to prompt conversations with specific people each week, in addition to the spontaneous chats.  Since I was not really at ease with conversing with unfamiliar people or with certain people that I knew, I settled on asking "Ca va ?" ("How are things?") after the handshake and seeing where that led to.  The few reactions that I got have been pretty much forgotten since and, in any case, this part remains the least developed of the operation.  I am glad however for having tried.

The results

The results were incredible.  You know, Handshake became my first successful operation and the only one for a long while, if we define success by the fact that I went through with it every week without fail.  Whenever I realized that I was on a winning streak, I became more motivated to ensure that the streak continued, even while seeking new challenges within the operation.

Yes, it took effort to keep the streak going.  Why?  Because there was a certain stage fright that was often present, notably in the early stages of the operation.  After all, I was coming out of my quiet and comfortable corner, to which I had confined myself for a long time to avoid bothering anyone, to begin approaching each person in the open space in a regular and unusual way, exposing myself to public scrutiny in the process.  Some people must have turned heads.  Nevertheless, it was not always easy getting into the mindset necessary to accomplish the task.  Most of the time, I heard voices in my head trying to dissuade me, saying things like "Why are you doing this?  There is no point", "Do you know how weird it's going to be?", "You don't work with those people; you don't even know them.  Why are you going to bother them ‒ just to shake their hand?  They will not be pleased at all."  The voices were so persuasive that I had the shivers in the restroom after washing my hands, carrying not much else in mind but the weight of the duty that had chosen to fulfill.  In order to calm myself in these moments since I was getting acquainted with them regularly, I kept in my pocket a piece of paper on which I had written within the comfort of my apartment.  It had words of encouragement and purpose to remind me how my unwanted feelings would persist if not worsen had I refused to take action.  Fortunately, I was able to do take action, each time, in spite of the fear.  At some point, the fear that had escalated began to diminish.

One of the turning points that I truly cherished was that when I started doing la bise ("cheek kisses") with the ladies.  After so many handshakes, the ice had broken and it had suddenly become natural to advance to the bise stage with them.

It was also amusing how some people, a few of whom that I did not know well, would stop by at my desk during the day to shake my hand and then continue on their journey without having said a single word to me.  I took it as a compliment, a sign that the operation was appreciated.  It just brightened my day.  In fact, you were one of these people!

Among the many gifts that you guys gave me during my farewell party, the antiseptic soap was one of those that I found quite touching.  I have hardly used it!  I may just keep it as a souvenir of good times.

I wonder sometimes if my initiative helped improve the lives of others at work, even if a little.  What do you think?

For my part, I just felt that I was more like the person that I wanted to be.  I started to enjoy the time spent at work more.  I felt more open, more spontaneous, more assertive, and certainly less invisible.  More visible?  Who knows.  But I felt good, and better among you guys.  It was sad that it came to an end, but such is life.

Until next time dude.  Make sure that you forward this "algorithm" to François.


Monsieur Conf.

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