(A short story based on a long nightmare)

I was assigned a new project for a big tech company I really liked and had worked with before. I had established a good rapport with the client, proven my expertise and was therefore given all the responsibility for running it from start to finish. Excited about it, I agreed to cancel my holidays so as to fully commit and dedicate all my time to deliver the best results.

The kick-off meeting took place over Zoom as had become the norm in times of global pandemics. A couple of junior people from my team were with me in the office and helped set up the call but as it happens, the connection wasn’t great. Although we were able join the call on our side, we didn’t see anyone else. I asked my junior team members to look into what was happening and update me on confirmed attendees. While we were waiting, I tried to refresh my memory of who was who: Katie was the American researcher based in Berlin, Pierre was the French guy currently somewhere on the West Coast, 8 hours behind us, Michelle was the Nigerian-American girl in charge of innovation. There were a few others I didn’t know or only remembered vaguely.

In a few minutes, the internet was back on and we were able to kick the project off. I had a weird feeling about the meeting but I didn’t let myself get into a vicious circle of self-doubt. After all, feeling insecure on Zoom calls where people join with their videos turned off and their mics muted, is quite normal. The inability to see what they’re thinking and feeling is too unsettling for me and I often find more comfort in staring at my own image – or, in this case, the image of our team. Having that mirror-image up on the wall, ensures everyone is looking into the camera and follows Zoom’s instructions on how to enhance our facial expressions with natural smiles or augmented gimmicks to capture attention. That is, in case there are real people on the other side. One no longer knows who an avatar actually refers to – whether it’s an individual person, their human assistant, an artificial assistant. Sometimes there are also bots performing real time verification of information, prediction of success and security compliance. Winning client’s trust has always been difficult but winning their real-time attention has become almost impossible.

A few moments after the call, my boss came to me to inform me that the client has requested that I be taken off the project because of how I had referred to one of the members of their team. I panicked! This meant they were on the call when I thought we were offline. I felt a terrible sense of shame and embarrassment, and apologised explaining I wasn’t aware they were on the call.

My boss called the company’s Office for Protection of Employees from Harm (OfPoEfH) to discuss the incident and see what could be done to fix the problem, which I thought was nice of him. I trusted he knew this was a misunderstanding and would stand up for me.

The person in charge of the office was a former soldier, a big intimidating man who told my boss that his mission was to protect everyone in the client’s company and that he’d seen a lot in his career in the army but had never dealt with such a horrible incident before. At that moment, it occurred to me that I might not just be taken off the project. More likely, I would get fired and potentially would not be able to get a job ever again.

I tried to get my colleagues to empathise with me. “This would never have happened if we were all in the same room – I wouldn’t have had to refer to anyone in third person. And if we were face-to-face, responding to each other and our emotions, we’d never get to this point. People would see that my intentions were not to upset anyone.”

Nobody said anything. I needed to take a break and decided to walk around the office building. I thought I’d check out the ping pong room where a group of Slovak men would often hang out. I thought maybe it would be nice to be around people from my country and express things in my first language but as soon as I got there, I saw they were outraged. The word must have spread around the offices really fast – maybe it was via aircon, I thought.

I walked away and wandered around the building thinking of all possible ways someone could refer to me in my absence. If anyone referred to me as “Slovak”, would that upset me? Maybe. “The tall blonde researcher, the blonde woman”? Definitely! “The woman who always does or says X?” Absolutely! “The weird woman, the 38-year-old, the one with the accent, the white girl, the what’s her name, the one we dis/like… I’d definitely find all of those upsetting but I couldn’t really understand why. 

Then, a moment of realisation: I need to find out what actually happened! I returned to the office to ask my colleagues if they remembered what it was that I said. Weirdly, the details of that moment just slipped my memory. My colleagues couldn’t remember either. I asked the boss but he said he was actually not even on the call and therefore wouldn’t know what happened. “Is there a recording, I asked?” One of the junior people from my team said it was no longer relevant what happened. What mattered was that the client was upset.

It was clear I no longer had allies. To calm myself down and think of my next steps, I decided to go to the bathroom and hide myself in the toilette. On my way there, I ran into my crush who was just getting out. He’d been working in the same office building for years and probably never knew I liked him and all his social media channels. In fact, he probably never knew I existed. Seeing him from such a short distance, I was surprised to see how old and unhealthy he looked. I tried to calculate his age knowing he was 20 years older than me but I couldn’t do the maths. I no longer remembered how old I was. 

As we passed each other in the bathroom door, something jumped from him onto me. It was his heart attack. I fell on the bathroom floor, felt pain in my left arm and knew I was going to die. And yet, aware that this wasn’t really “my” heart attack, I thought maybe I was just faking it. I thought back to the project and the whole situation and wondered if I had secretly wished to sabotage the project so I wouldn’t have to work on it and could go on holiday. I had been so tired and exhausted! But still, if I could chose, I’d rather be exhausted than fired for gross misconduct.