Rigour and anonymity of ballboy could play well in office
ON WORK:AS IVO Karlovic whacked a tennis ball at 135 miles per hour towards Andrew Murray on Wimbledon’s Centre Court last week, I found myself staring at something behind his back that wasn’t moving at all.
Two kids of about 15 were standing in symmetrical formation, stock still. When a stray ball came their way, they scooped it up, threw it with speed and perfect accuracy into the player’s hand and then returned to being statues once more.
As someone who has spent a decade trying and failing to get teenagers to pick up stray dirty socks from the floor and throw them in the general direction of the laundry basket, I found this performance even more remarkable than the one being given by the grown-up men with the tennis racquets.
It turns out that there is a formula for drilling these Wimbledon ballboys that has been in operation for decades. It is the last training course on earth that makes no concessions whatsoever to modern management methods; it also produces better results than any I’ve seen.
Four months before the tournament begins, 700 teenage hopefuls begin to learn how to stand still, throw, march, look people in the eye and tuck their shirts into their shorts. Each has a number pinned on them – there is no truck with anything as namby-pamby as calling people by their names. They are expected to memorise rules and understand that following them isn’t optional. Only one-third of the hopefuls get selected; absenteeism, even through illness, is not tolerated.
In return for their time, effort and devotion, ballboys get paid nothing at all. They don’t even get thanked. When they threw the ball back to Karlovic he didn’t turn around and say “Great job!” to help boost their self-esteem. He ignored them. Ballboys understand it is their job to be invisible and merge into the background. They aren’t even allowed to enjoy the tennis.
On paper it all sounds most unattractive. Yet half the children in years nine and 10 in southwest London schools would gladly saw off their right arms for the chance – were it not for the fact that minus a limb they’d be less useful on court.
You might think that what makes a normal, Facebook-addicted teenager so desperate to become a ballboy is no mystery. It is proximity to sporting royalty as well as to actual royalty. It is also the chance to be on television, though, as they all look identical in their navy uniforms, even the proudest parent might struggle to identify their offspring.
But I suspect there is something more important going on. It is about being part of something wonderful. It is understanding that a valuable institution rests on the perfect behaviour of everyone who works there. The draconian training is not a drawback, it’s a selling point. The stricter the rules, the more seriously the institution takes itself, and the greater the glory in being a part of it.
Yet this sort of training, based on pride and obedience and anonymity, is not merely out of fashion in the corporate world, it has vanished without trace. Only last week I received a survey showing how even punctuality is no longer seen as a thing of value. Three-quarters of bosses apparently don’t care if their employees are half an hour late for work.
Such flexibility is “brilliant news for workers everywhere”, said Mozy, the company that did the survey. But is flexibility really so good? And what about its sister trend, individuality? The ballboys are more than capable of doing the best possible job without it. Why shouldn’t office workers too?
In modern offices, individuality is so rampant it is getting in the way of work. Last week, I was sent a dull press release about a wealth management business and, as I hovered my cursor over the email to delete it, a picture of a pouting blonde popped up. She turned out to be the PR girl – a cog in a machine if ever there was one – who forwarded the release, and here she was stamping not just her name on the message, but her face too. Surely even in PR there could be someone to tell staff that the job matters, that the company is bigger than they are and they should be proud to be invisible components of a well-oiled machine?
Admittedly this might be a stretch for PR; it is an even bigger stretch for socks. I can think of two worthwhile traditions maintained by the prompt picking-up of socks: having a tidy house and sharing chores evenly. The snag is that the average 15-year-old has no interest in upholding either. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)