A Curious situation
It was early September 2009 and I’d been working at Curious Group for almost a month when I got an unexpected call on a Saturday evening from Robert, the technical director. He asked if I could make an “off-site company meeting” the following afternoon and, although his demeanour was as cheerful as ever, he made it obvious that it was very important that I should attend. Without hesitation I said I’d see him the following day at the chosen venue, a bar called Home in Glasgow’s Merchant City, and the brief call came to an end.
My mind began running through all the possible scenarios that would require me to attend an off-site meeting on a weekend after less than a month with the company. The knot of tension in the pit of my stomach grew tighter as the results came in. None of the outcomes had an especially rosy outcome.
From the day I started, I’d been tasked with learning a handful of object-oriented programming patterns. It had been educational, sure, but it wasn’t exactly productive and maybe I wasn’t delivering on the promise I’d shown in my interview. The fact was I really needed the job and there’d already been a process snafu that meant I had been paid a week late. That had stretched my scant resources pretty thin, so redundancy without notice would leave me in a perilous position. I swallowed hard at the prospect of having the rug pulled from underneath me when tomorrow came.
Firing up my laptop, I spotted one of the senior developers, Iain, was on Skype. It was probably unprofessional to do so, but I threw caution to the wind and asked him outright if I should be concerned about losing my job. Iain assured me that it “wasn’t like that” and that he’d be there the following day, too, and told me to try not to worry about it. That lowered my heart rate a little, but I didn’t exactly get a great sleep that night.
Setting off for Glasgow the next day, I took my laptop so I could do some freelance work on the train. I figured that, should the worst happen, I could always invoice for that and it would keep the wolf from the door for a couple of weeks at least.
Home, I decided, had a daft name and I wasn’t even sure where it was, so I took my time walking there when I got off the train. My reflection returned a worried glance from the glass frontage as I neared the door and, stepping inside, I scanned the room to get my bearings. That was when I recognised a handful of people from the creative team standing at the bar, along with one of the managers I had been introduced to when I started but hadn’t had much to do with since.
Okay, I told myself; perhaps this is a legitimate company meeting after all. Maybe everyone else had known all along and I just didn’t get the invite because I was new or something. The level of tension in my stomach dropped several notches even if my face was probably still a mask of concern.
As I approached the bar I was greeted by the man I thought to be a manager of some sort (he wasn’t really), Chad, who offered to buy me a drink and told me not to look so worried. That was easier for him to say than for me to do. Probably because he sounded Canadian and I don’t think they’re especially renowned for worrying about anything.
We had an area booked up on the mezzanine level and when I got to the top of the stairs I found practically everyone else I had seen around the office, with a couple of exceptions. The lovely office manager girl that had a habit of answering the phone in different accents and the guy who sat across from me that talked at length, daily, about fantasy football were both absent. In the moment I didn’t think much of it. Maybe they couldn’t make it.
When the stragglers had gathered, Dan Kersh, the director of the digital department, stood to address us. He smiled, matter-of-factly as he explained that The Curious Group was in deep trouble financially and would likely be going into liquidation imminently. He had discovered the predicament months before, had resigned and was no longer with the company. The penny dropped in the back of my head that I hadn’t actually seen Dan in the office since the week I started.
Dan continued to expand on how the business was definitely going under and, despite us being the only profitable department (he gave figures, his math seemed on point), we were unlikely to be paid for the current working month.
This particular scenario, where one of Glasgow’s biggest agencies went tits up within a month of me stepping through the front door, hadn’t actually been among those that flooded my head after the previous night’s phone call. In short, the revelation felt completely surreal.
As Dan spoke, those of us who hadn’t zoned out in disbelief looked at each other nervously. Except for our technical director. He just sat there, smirking like this was a highly amusing jape and he couldn’t wait for the rest of us to catch up so he wouldn’t be alone in finding it hysterical.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more bonkers, the master plan was revealed. We, the digital department, were going to sit tight at our desks on Monday as if nothing was wrong and, after our line managers and heads of department had resigned during the course of the day, the rest of us would then be in “an untenable position” that meant we could all write to the CEO of the company and dissolve our contracts. At that point we would be free to step into the same role with a new company that Dan was hastily setting up and, somehow, we’d be keeping all our existing clients.
Having already dissolved a contract and left a job earlier that summer, this was familiar territory. Except beforehand I’d done so whilst acting on the advice of a lawyer. Sitting drinking a pint in a pub, taking direction from a man I’d only known a month, well, this seemed like the opposite end of the scale.
Yet I quickly made my mind up that I’d go along with the plan, sketchy as it was, for the simple fact that I didn’t have to be there. I’d been in the job mere weeks and I doubt I had any tangible worth to either the collapsing Curious Group or to whatever the new company would be called. At least not immediately.
“You seem quite shocked!” The grinning technical director said as he approached me.
“Yes. Because I am.” I admitted. “Why am I here? There are people missing and for some reason, I’m here.” I asked.
“Well, for a start we wanted to see the look on your face!” He laughed, “and, also, I was sick of interviewing people so I figured you should come along.”
I shrugged in agreement. Those were fair enough reasons and, if the place was about to go up in smoke anyway, I didn’t really have anything t lose by following the path to where ever it took me.
Robert conceded that yes, there were some people missing and that was either because we couldn’t take them (the office manager was also the CEO’s PA) or it wasn’t thought that they’d be an asset to the new company and we couldn’t afford any passengers.
Dan fielded some questions from a couple of concerned people from the creative team. Nobody on the tech team seemed to have anything pressing to find out. With the ceremonial part of learning my new job was about to evaporate out of the way, we all treated the occasion as an impromptu works’ night out.
After staying out hours longer than was sensible and spending money I really shouldn’t have, I crawled back home late on Sunday evening and went to bed wondering how Monday was going to unfold.
Practicing my best poker face during the commute, I went into the office and acted as if nothing untoward had happened the day before. The guy who sat opposite me that hadn’t been there arrived at his desk and talked about the football results, asked how my fantasy team had got on, told me how he had fared and after the usual morning coffee had been consumed, we got on with our tasks at hand.
Except I couldn’t concentrate on mine. I kept looking around the room in anticipation of everything kicking off. But, as the morning wore on, I began wondering if the events of Sunday had just been an incredibly lucid dream. Then Emma, a junior web designer who sat at the opposite end of the table, was the first to blink, popping up on a Skype chat fit to burst with nervous excitement.
Emma was everything I wasn’t; Young, confident, beautiful, brimming with talent and potential and, if this all went tragically wrong, I reckoned she’d have a new job with another agency before the week was out. I, on the other hand, was more expensive, a bit rusty, entering my late 30’s, had a legal dispute with my previous employer hanging over my head, a mortgage to pay on a house in Liverpool and rent & bills to pay on a house in Helensburgh, as well as a family to support.
I figured that from her perspective this was quite an exciting game to play, whilst for me, it was like being a pawn in a game where the object was to mentally torture the pieces. With each moment that passed the tension and anxiety slowly built, like the volume knob being turned up on an amplifier with nothing yet to play.
As we rattled away on our keyboards exchanging messages, the guy opposite me left his desk to take a phone call. When he returned, he powered down his machine, put his jacket on and packed his bag. I looked at him quizzically and asked if everything was okay.
“Sick baby at home and… erm… sick dog as well, so I have to go.” He said, unconvincingly, then hefted his bag and left, adding a “See you tomorrow.”
That, I thought, was unlikely. His sudden departure seemed entirely too timely to be coincidental. I’d only known the guy a month, but the knowledge that he had a young baby at home and was just about to lose his job added a slight burden of guilt to my load. And still, I told myself, it could have been me on the outside looking in.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the first domino to fall, but it was the first visible sign that the plan outlined on Sunday was taking shape. This was confirmed a short time later when the creative director stood, packed up and walked out of the office at a determined pace.
The chat between Emma and I became more fervent as normally mundane events seemed intrinsically linked to the now unstoppable chain of events taking place behind the scenes. Someone would stand to go and make a coffee or head to the meeting room behind us to make a phone call and we’d hold our breaths as if each insignificant occurrence was the tipping point.
Aside from the keyboard chatter, it was practically silent when with sudden intensity the CEO of the company burst out of his office, stormed to the desk area and yelled to the room “Where the hell is Stephen Paul?!”
Those of us in the workforce who didn’t jump out of their skin froze in alarm, offering expressions that said “search me?” accompanied by a barely detectable shrug. The silent response ticked by for a few seconds until one brave soul said that our creative director had left the office a short time ago.
“Well when you see him, tell him I’m looking for him!” The CEO boomed in response, turned on his heel and slammed his office door behind him, triggering a jolt amongst those in the room that weren’t used to this kind of thing.
I wasn’t sure I could take much more of the ratcheting suspense as lunchtime beckoned. I didn’t feel like eating or leaving the office when I might come back to find the circus had run away from me. Holding out until hunger got the best of me, I darted out to grab a meal deal and returned to find nothing had changed.
It was mid-afternoon before a manager of some sort called for us all to gather in the “red room.” This was a red themed room directly behind me where people had meetings or brainstormed, I imagined. Everyone filtered in and sat or stood in apprehension, lips pursed or chewing a cuticle whilst wondering what new twist might be unveiled.
The manager, Adrian James his name was, looked like he had probably played rugby at a private school. He had a broad frame, but his manner was calm and he spoke softly with authority when he told us that the CEO was now aware of what was happening and there wouldn’t be any fuss. What he needed us to do was go back to our desks and write letters of resignation, then forward them on to him and he’d deal with collating them all and handing them over to the CEO.
Adrian noted that we all looked very worried, but said that although this seemed like a very big thing right now, we shouldn’t stress about it and in a few weeks or months time it wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. I liked that he said that – it seemed to release the tension somewhat in those of us who had been anxiously anticipating some big confrontation.
Light-hearted conversation broke out around the office as we returned to our desks and people smiled in relief. The senior developer, Iain, said that, as Dan had mentioned yesterday, all we had to do was write a paragraph saying that the resignation of senior management had made our positions untenable and as it was clear the company was in trouble we were resigning in order to seek alternative employment.
Daring to be different, I strived to write my resignation letter without using the word “untenable” and several people requested a copy of it so they could do the same. As we all hit send on the emails with our resignation letters attached, the mood in the room became a slightly delirious cocktail of relief and excitement.
There was no turning back now. Some people left in short order after sending their resignation, but a few of us held on until we had somewhere to go, awaiting word on what the world held for us when we walked out of the grand doors of the sandstone Curious building for the final time.