washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Joel Achenbach
Rough Draft

Company Secrets

In this workplace of the future, it pays to know nothing

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page W12

Every day, I show up at Globules Inc. and go through an elaborate ritual. First I check to see if I have any phone messages, and, if so, delete them without listening to them. My policy is, Best Not to Know.

Then I scrape my computer screen with the screen-squeegee I received in honor of my 20th anniversary at the company. I spray a little Windex on the desktop and scrub it hard with a paper towel. I like a desk that is so shiny it's blinding, and utterly frictionless. My desk is tilted in such a manner that papers slide right off, onto the floor.

Usually I am the first person to show up in my department, and, on some days, the only person.

Attendance around here is spotty. Some people seem to work only on Thursday. There was a fellow named Chapman who disappeared for two years, then showed up one day as though nothing had happened. None of us had the courage to ask where he'd been. Best Not to Know.

My department is Procurement, and we draw up plans for the various items we would procure were we to have a budget. We're next door to Strategies. We see people going into the Strategies Department through a heavy door, like the ones used on bank vaults, but we've never seen anyone come out.

It goes without saying that Globules Inc. is not your typical company. Some workers here don't even know what a globule is. As a senior employee, I'm permitted to know that we've patented a product, Globulin-99, that reduces the size of your average globule (any spherical mass of liquid with a thin outer film). By halving or quartering the size of a globule, we can increase the ratio of surface area to volume. Manufacturers have long craved smaller globules.

Lately the company has taken aggressive steps to dominate every kind of globular element, from chicken soup (which has those little droplets of yellow slimy stuff on top) to bubble bath. If it's round, we want to own it. You can just imagine what it will mean for us if our lawyers manage to gain a patent on sphericity itself.

The new company motto is "Globules Goes Global." We spend a lot of time in the office trying to say that 10 times really fast.

Naturally our company is controversial, and has been the target of protests by various groups in the anti-globularization movement. I fantasize about the day when we can imprison all of the protesters inside an impermeable bubble, and watch them float away into the stratosphere. Cruel, but technologically not impossible.

I have no idea who runs the company -- that's a closely held corporate secret. None of us in my department has ever seen an executive in an elevator. There are rumors that they rapidly move through the building through hidden pneumatic tubes.

Middle management is also a complete mystery. It's generally understood that middle managers are here with us in the room but are camouflaged as ordinary workers. This is part of the new corporate philosophy that holds that the best way to boost worker productivity is to create the suspicion that the colleague in the next cubicle is actually one's boss.

I used to think that Mike, the guy who sat next to me for eight years, was secretly my boss. But Mike's gone. It was sad what happened. He showed up one day and was informed by electronic message that he was being replaced by a granule of cesium. At least I think that's what they said it was. It was some kind of little . . . flake of something. It vibrated at 9 billion beats per second and could do Mike's job 3 trillion times better, supposedly.

Security guards took Mike away even as he was grabbing pictures of his family from his corkboard. The weird thing was that the company insisted that this little granule-thing literally replace Mike, that it should be perched right on his desk, and so now I work next to a cubicle containing nothing but a tiny metal box with a glowing red light on top. Sometimes I think I can hear the box humming a song.

For 18 months I've been working (though I should probably put that word in quotes) on a secret in-house report on the history of the circle. My instructions came to me in an anonymous e-mail. Upon completion of my report, it will be instantly burned. Indeed, our work is self-immolating. We have special ink in the printers, and it ignites after exposure to air for more than five seconds. The "filing cabinets" are actually incinerators in disguise.

Lately I've been having a recurring thought: Maybe the secret boss working in the room is actually me. That would explain a lot.

But then I tell myself to put it out of my mind. If I were, in fact, the boss, I wouldn't want someone like me to know about it.

Joel Achenbach writes for the Magazine and Style, and keeps track of his media empire at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company