The First Time


I wrote this from a prompt – The first time – at a class on Writing the Real with Mark Tredinnick.

The first time I went into the black part of Pretoria, I was fourteen. My friend and I were bored by the boys we hung out with, tired of their talk of 50cc Hondas and Deep Purple and the Northern Transvaal rugby team. We wanted an adventure. So we decided to go to Marabastad, a kilometre or so from the city’s cold heart, Church Square.

We took the whites-only bus to our usual stop and walked the rest of the way. Department stores and record bars gave way to a street of little shops selling shiny two-tone shoes, colourful saris and rough grey blankets. Indian shopkeepers tempted us with cheap Levi’s and novelty tee-shirts, but we weren’t there to buy. We were exploring. As we walked down Boom Street, the dead air began to carry the tang of masala and coriander. Soon these gave way to the herbal smells for which we had no names that drifted from the stalls where traditional healers bought their muti.

Gone were the empty, silent streets we knew. Marabastad was full of people who looked like our maids and gardeners, but weren’t. Women strolled past with babies in blankets tied to their backs. Old men called out to one another across the street. I knew the sound of their words, but I didn’t know their language.

Here, nobody adjusted themselves to the expectations of white girls. Teenage boys kept on slouching down to the takeaway. Children giggled in surprise at seeing us there, then mock-shimmied and jived to the kwela music bubbling from a narrow doorway. That afternoon, for the first time, I understood that I was the minority.

The Soweto uprising was still a year away. Apartheid would endure another twenty. Visiting a black township would become fraught and often dangerous. But on that afternoon in 1975, I saw life, real and throbbing and fragrant and unconcerned that I was an ignorant fourteen-year-old white girl from the suburbs.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce


THE MILLENNIUM FULCRUM EDITION, 1988


I found this story is freely available from Project Gutenberg, so here it is for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground—a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators—a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by— it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

II

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

III

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:

“Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived—dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream—nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:

“The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, DIMINUENDO, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.

“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me—the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream—the southern bank—and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape—he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.

By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Day 7: The Devil’s Dictionary

By Ambrose Bierce



Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

I have a collection of books with ridiculous titles (Microwave Cooking for One being the saddest) and had to add this when I found it at a garage sale. This edition is from 1958, but he original was published in 1911. It’s obvious that an editor needs a dictionary or seven, but I didn’t know I needed Lucifer’s version.

The Devil’s Dictionary grew ever more fascinating once I got past the title. Ambrose Bierce was a writer, journalist and literary critic who set off for Mexico in 1931, aged 71, and was never seen again. Rumour has it he joined up with rebel troops in the Mexican Civil War. He influenced Ernest Hemingway and worked with Randolph Hearst. Kurt Vonnegut called his short story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge‘, ‘the greatest American short story’.

The satire is biting and clever. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of humour that makes you snort inwardly at its brilliance and then wish you’d thought of that. We need a Devil’s Dictionary for these times. Or anything, in fact, to make us laugh. It seems that literature is overwhelmingly about trauma and misery at the moment. Bring on a good satirical novel or memoir!

If you know of one, please pass it on in the comments section.

Day 4: Fifty Typefaces That Changed the World

By John L Walters/Design Museum



This is one I snapped up in the marked-down basket at my local bookshop, The Turning Page in Springwood, that little shiver of excitement running through my middle as I found my cut-price treasure. For a long time back in my teens and 20s, I secretly wanted to be a typographer. Lining up each Letraset letter before rubbing the black letter onto the white paper, slowly forming a heading, was how I found my ‘flow’. I used to buy The Face magazine to see what typographer Neville Brody was up to as much as for its cool content.

And then desktop publishing, and the internet. Anybody could be a typographer. We all know how to deride Comic Sans. I stuck with writing and editing. Nothing could every disrupt those, right?

I still keep my love of a good font, and this book runs through most of them, from the Gutenberg Bible’s blackletter in the mid-1400s to Ubuntu in 2011, an open-source typeface available to anybody in the world, in over 200 languages, in and for free. As the designers say, ‘The way typography is used says as much about our brand as the words themselves’.

I have more comprehensive and detailed books about typography, but recommend this one as a heavily visual introduction to the art, with an incidental history lesson attached.

Book-a-day February

Every day in February I will write about one book. I will write about why I  bought it, and why I’m not going to get rid of it any time soon.

Day 1: The Art of Reading
by Damon Young

I first came across this book while editing a client’s work, and revisited it recently when I proofread the final manuscript. Christopher Smith has written an amazing book about the power of reading, called The Reading Ripple Effect. It’s in the process of being submitted to publishers, so watch this space!

Christopher runs Shared Reading NSW, which runs reading groups that are ‘a relaxed space for people to read a short story, poem or part of a book aloud, reflect and then discuss it’.

In The Art of Reading, Philosopher Damon Young argues that excellent reading is not valued as much as fine writing and, with a lot of reference to his own reading, makes the case for the reader’s power ‘to turn shapes on a page into a lifelong adventure.’

It’s published by Melbourne University Press, recently in the news because its chief executive, Louise Adler, and five board members, including former NSW Premier Bob Carr and former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, resigned because the university announced it was no longer going to publish books for a general readership.

Editing, learning and reading

Editing has taken a back seat for a few months, but now I’m up and running again.

What I’m editing

I’m editing two memoirs: one about grief and loss, and one about a journalist’s experiences of the world at some crucial moments of change. I’ll keep you posted!

I’ve also been doing some legal editing; something I enjoy for it’s technical precision and (to me) always interesting subject matter.

What I’m learning

I’ve almost completed six weeks of the workshop Write your Story with John Hockney at the Mid-Mountains Neighbourhood Centre in Lawson. John is a writer, storyteller and facilitator, and is writing his very interesting life story. One of his brothers is acclaimed artist David Hockney, and his ancestors were some of the founders of the Salvation Army. I’ve learned so much from both him and the group, Perhaps the most important insight is that  EVERYBODY  has an interesting story to tell, and it’s all in the telling. as Dr Seuss said, ‘There is no one alive  who is Youer than you’. It’s been great to reach back into the past and grasp the stories of growing up in apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, which I’ll use as background to my novel one day.

quote from Dr Seuss

Wise words from Dr Seuss

What I’m reading

Cooktown by Andreas Heger: ‘It is a brutal and tender tale exploring male identity and toxic masculinity seen through a lens of sexuality, desire and abuse.’  – Thuy On

The Thin Time by Lisa Finn Powell . (To be honest I haven’t started this yet. I went to a fabulous workshop she gave about journalling grief, which will be very useful to me in my editing work. Lisa is an experienced journalist (among so many other things) and  it will be great to see how she tackled her own (rather devastating) story.

Congratulations to Maura Pierlot!

Maura Pierlot’s as-yet unpublished YA novel, Freefalling, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Children’s Book Council of Australia  (NSW branch) Aspiring Writers Mentorship. The CBCA describes Freefalling as ‘… A touching, humorous story of 15-year-old Harley and her struggle to find her place in the world as she fights a downward spiral of weight loss, self-loathing and broken friendships’.

I was lucky enough to copy edit Freefalling and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Maura has recently published a children’s book,  The Trouble in Tune Town.

trouble in tune town kids book

The awards night is 9 November, so watch this space.

Working in a virtual team – the way of the future?

Technological change and the globalisation of business mean we will probably all work in a virtual team at some time. Well over half of us are doing so already.

While the debate goes on about whether virtual teams are more or less productive, efficient and responsive to customer needs, what is certain is that they’re here to stay. And while nothing can quite replicate face-to-face contact and the behavioural and emotional interaction and learning that comes with it, leaders are working hard at creating a different experience of the workplace that promotes efficient teams that are also happy and productive, innovative teams.

Technology has make collaboration across borders of time and geography relatively simple. Enterprise social networking software, screen sharing, document sharing and collaboration tools and online meeting platforms provide the means to create a sense of community. Making them available is a good start, and ensuring that they are extremely well supported is vital. Many will have experienced the frustration and time-wasting of virtual meetings hijacked by technical glitches. Excellent tech support and training for all users is non-negotiable for effective virtual teams

Whether being part of a virtual team means working from home a few days a week or managing people dispersed across the globe, there are challenges in communicationcollaboration and leadership. Sharing information, integrating knowledge and achieving team cohesion are undoubtedly more difficult than in a face-to-face team. Simply using technology well won’t solve these issues. There must be attention to the interpersonal dimensions of a virtual team.

In a healthy team, conversations are encouraged and knowledge is shared. Expectations are clear and roles are made explicit. Team members feel heard. This may be a little harder when some members are at home or in another city or country, but it can be done. From simple things like sharing photos of the team and their locations, to drawing up and agreeing to rules for virtual meetings (no multitasking, give everybody a turn to speak, turn webcam on at all times, for starters) to hosting virtual team building sessions, work at it.

Leaders must:

•  focus on both technology and interpersonal competence
•  encourage respect for other cultures and languages
•  promote diversity as a strength
•  build trust between team members
•  build trust between themselves and their team members
•  ensure technical support is available
•  facilitate training in technology and people skills
•  recognise and reward efforts and results right across the team.

Team members must:

•  dial in to meetings and events on time and respond to chat and requests for collaboration
•  be aware of body language – slumping, eye rolling and smirking are just as impolite and destructive in a virtual meeting
•  observe the same manners as in a face-to-face situation – don’t get up and walk around, check Facebook, or make a phone call
•  ask for advice and help from your dispersed team members
•  be ready to learn from one another, not just about the mechanics of the job but also about values and attitudes
•  celebrate diversity, for example by learning about one another’s public holidays, religious festivals, birthday traditions and so on.

Once the cash is in the bank, what makes the job you do really satisfying?

Research has shown that for most of us, the ideal job combines meaning – the idea that doing our job makes the world abetter place – with a decent income. The emphasis on one or the other depends on our values, priority, career stage, and individual factors such as our family situation and spending habits.

The evidence about the link between money and happiness is confusing and even contradictory. Some studies have shown that more money only brings a certain kind of happiness, others that once our lives are relatively comfortable, more money makes little difference to our level of happiness. The amount of money that brings happiness in the US has even been quantified: US$75,000 per year.

It’s even been suggested that happiness buys money, as studies have shown that happy people are better at earning more.

And then there’s the downside: generally, better paid jobs bring with them longer hours, more responsibility, less leisure time and more stress. A marketing executive who moved cities several times with his family in pursuit of the highest-paying job recounts how once he had reached his target income and moved for the fourth time in as many years, his job with a company in the manufacturing sector almost immediately came under threat. The long hours and the daily commute were exhausting him.  It took years of upheaval for him to realise that money can’t buy you job love.

Job satisfaction, in the sense of your work feeling meaningful to you and making a difference in the world, may well be easier to pursue, and more within your control.

1. Work for an organisation with values aligned to your own

First understand your own values: family? Career progression? Spirituality? Health? Then explore the values of any organisation you might work for. Do they offer generous parental leave? Are religious holidays observed and respected? Is there a mentoring program in place? Is going for a run at lunch time facilitated and encouraged? It will increase your satisfaction if not only the role, but also the culture is matched to what you find important in life.

2. Understand why you work (other than for the money)

Of course being paid is crucial. But there must be other reasons to drive you out of bed in the morning. Is it the challenge and the opportunity to prove yourself? Do you need to be with other people, cooperating to get things done? Do you need to be creative, or to help others? Look for the motivating forces behind the job itself. If your urge is to be creative but you spend most of your day managing people, you are less likely to be satisfied.

3. Place value on the work you do

Almost invariably your work will add value to the lives of others. The trick is to see it. An insurance salesperson reported finding no meaning in her job until a client pointed out to her that the recommendations she had made saved his business and his livelihood when a fire destroyed his takeaway shop.  Take time to seek out the value in your work if you feel it may have little, and you may well be surprised.

So who are the most satisfied workers? It depends who you ask, but the occupation that most consistently scores the highest in surveys is clergy, with around 98% of clergy members of all faiths reporting that their work makes the world a better place. Farmers and fitness instructors did pretty well too. This is not to suggest that you move to the country or give it all up for a position in your local gym, but it’s well worth looking more closely at what job satisfaction means to you.

The annual performance review: agony, ecstasy or just ticking the box?

 A year ago, Deloitte announced that they were getting rid of performance reviews. Research had shown, they argued, that a critical assessment was no longer the way to gather information about staff performance. Not only did they waste millions of hours, representing a huge cost, they were demotivating and inaccurate.

Other organisations, including Accenture, Google, Microsoft and NAB have also ditched the annual review and ranking system. They were convinced by their own research and by that of outside organisations that the system was not driving better performance.

If you hate performance reviews, either giving them or being on the receiving end, you’re not alone. A poll in the Sydney Morning Herald had 87% of participants agreeing that the ‘whole process is just a waste of time and doesn’t achieve much’, with only 5% agreeing that, ‘They force employees and managers to think beyond the daily grind and see how they are tracking’ and should be kept.

Kevin Murphy, a scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on performance appraisals, told the New Yorker that there were further issues:

·  Managers have incentives to inflate appraisals of their team members.

·  Feedback can make people less motivated and hurt relationships as it is often perceived as biased and unfair, even when it is accurate.

·  Organisations do a poor job of rewarding good evaluators and sanctioning bad ones.

‘As a result, annual appraisals end up as a source of anxiety and annoyance rather than a source of useful information’, Murphy told the New Yorker.

Other reasons given for scrapping performance reviews include:

·  They focused on the last couple of months and on recent performance, rather than on the full year.

·  More than half of the performance rating reflects the traits of the person conducting the review rather than those of the person being rated, due to the conscious and unconscious biases of the reviewing manager.

·  They tend to reward the most self-promoting employees, who are not necessarily the best employees in the long term.

·  They reflect an outdated way of working, based on the time and motion studies of the early 20th century, seeking efficiency above all else.

·  The performance review process is the single biggest cause of claims for bullying, according to research by reputation management consultants Risk To Business, who write, ‘The link between performance management and workplace bullying is unequivocal.’

Supporters of the review process argue that it is not the performance review per se that is the problem, but how it is conducted and managed.  Rhonda Brighton-Hall, board member of the Australian Human Resources Institute, has said that it is the quality of the leadership, not the form the performance review takes, which establishes its effectiveness. Handled well, a performance review can increase motivation, reward productive employees by giving them more responsibility, identify training needs and confront problems in an honest way. Staff are able to set career objectives and ask for support in achieving them. Confrontations can be managed in a considered way, and open communication is encouraged.

Supporters argue that it is important to separate the performance review from a pay review, as employees will perceive a negative review – or even any adverse comments – as a way to avoid giving a raise. Separating the two processes allows the performance review to feel more collaborative.

In a fast-paced work environment, there is no doubt that slowing down and reflecting on performance is helpful and positive.  Those who have given up the annual performance review have typically replaced it with more regular and less structured feedback and conversations. Next time we will take a look at those alternatives.