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120 seconds – Stillness in a corporate space

A gentle voice over the public address system interrupted the hubbub announcing that it was 11 o’clock and, all of a sudden, the world around me became almost unrecognisable.

This huge, corporate head office, that moments earlier was noisily bustling with hundreds of employees talking, walking and rushing between meetings, fell silent and still.  Large, purposeful movements became small and grounded. Attention shifted from the task of undertaking ‘legitimate work’ and heads lifted, allowing a broader peripheral awareness to flood in.  A subtle layer of previously unnoticed sounds emerged from the silence – the traffic outside, the hum of the air conditioning, the clicking of cooling coffee machines, the odd cough reminding us all that we were still in the presence of more than a hundred other human beings.  As the sun glinted through the glass roof, some people began looking up and around them, possibly noticing things that they hadn’t previously noticed – the birds outside, the silent figures standing still on the bridges that criss-crossed the building, the various posters and signs that updated employees on a variety of different initiatives, the plethora of colourful recycling bins, the detailed design of the chairs in the coffee area, the colour of the expansive floor, the quality of the air, the clouds moving across the sky.

I’ve visited this place often and seen this busy corporate ‘street many times, yet I had never witnessed it in this way.  The people looked still and thoughtful.  They appeared to be far more connected to this place, each other and themselves.  They somehow seemed more human.  More thoughtful yet fragile.  More flawed but willing.*  It felt as if the organisation had paused, but not in the same way that we might pause a DVD.  It was more reminiscent of a film set where hundreds of extras are holding themselves in anticipation of the director shouting “action” before following their well rehearsed scripts. Whilst bodies were still, the passage of time continued to pass, the world outside continued to happen, breathing and other vital biological processes continued to take place within each body.  My attention was grabbed by a man moving silently through the crowds, respectfully walking between people on his way to the lifts with a sense of urgency and intent in his steps.  In this moment he looked out of place, counter-cultural, a bit weird, yet in 2 minutes time he would be unrecognisable from anyone else.

I began to wonder what people were thinking and feeling.  Were they appreciative of the silence?  Did they find it awkward?  Were they still simply because they didn’t want to appear disrespectful?  Were they thinking about those who had fallen in wars around the world – this moment of reflection had only occurred due to it being Armistice Day.  Were they pondering the futility of conflict and the importance of dialogue, empathy and human connection?  Were they thinking about themselves, their families and friends, their colleagues, the wider population, the environment, the planet?  Were they worrying about their next meeting?  Were they wondering what everyone else might be wondering?  Whatever they were thinking, I couldn’t help but imagine that the quality of stillness and silence was providing a rare opportunity for communal reflection.  I felt that, for the first time, I was witnessing what a connected, mindful, learning organisation might look like – individuals deeply present with themselves, with each other, with the wider human population and the planet we all live on.

This sight moved me for many reasons and I felt a twinge of sadness knowing that this brief moment of heightened awareness and connection would soon be over.  Very soon the social permission to be present with each other in this way would be revoked.  In a moment, the act of being a still, reflective human being, mindfully connecting with people, place and planet would once again become a weird, counter-cultural thing to be doing in a busy corporate environment.  Very soon, the slowly expanding awareness that the silence had allowed to creep in would be dampened down through re-focussing on tasks and objectives – people finding comfort in familiar patterns and engaging in the compelling games that society has taught us we can comfortably think of as ‘legitimate work’.   A recent coaching client came to mind.  He told me that whenever he took a moment to be still and reflect or to simply sit and deeply listen to his colleagues, without any particular business objective, he felt he was stealing from the company’s time.  However, it felt to me that more clarity, power and potential for change was present in these fleeting, silent moments than I had experienced in many hours of the normal, frantic, busy life of this organisation.

As the seconds ticked away I wondered what would happen if one person decided to continue to hold this way of being, to not submit to the call of corporate normality.  Maybe another 2 or 3 would follow?  What if everybody then chose to stay this way for a little longer and gradually began to recommence their conversations and interactions with the same level of awareness and connection that had been present in those last 120 seconds.  What would happen if slowing down in this way and fully connecting with ourselves, each other and our environment became the new cultural norm around here.  Would the organisation thrive?  Would it survive?  With a degree of realism creeping in, I suspected that we would never get the chance to find out.

The silence was gently interrupted by the public address system “It is now 11:02 and the two minute silence is now over.  Thank you.”  For a few seconds people looked at each other.  Some laughed and made jokes to counterbalance the awkwardness of the previous 2 minutes.  Some moved off quickly, as if released from temporary suspended animation, continuing on their previous trajectory.  Others seemed to share a moment of connection before continuing their conversations.  I couldn’t possibly know what they were thinking or feeling as normality returned, but I hoped that others had noticed the possibilities and potential that those 120 seconds had offered.   In less than a minute the street was again full of movement, noise, action and distraction.  I too felt the pull of activity and the commitment to my previously arranged meeting and began to walk towards the lifts.  However, I noticed that whilst I was no longer still, I had been altered in innumerable ways by this unique experience of corporate stillness.

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* A term borrowed from Khurshed Denhugara’s book “Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organisations in the Age of Connection”

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