“When you work here, you’re joining a family.” These were the words uttered to me on my induction day for a job at a stationary shop, aged 19. Many will have heard similar declarations at some stage of their journey through gainful employment. That rousing speech marked the high-water mark for that particular job for me. Every day I spent there was an intolerable slog. I left at the first polite opportunity, which is where the family similarities ended.
Most of us have worked a rubbish job like this, but things could be changing. Recent studies suggest that 69 percent of workers don’t favour a return to traditional work since the pandemic and a growing number around the world are demanding better working conditions. On the other side of this seesaw are the government, who recently recommended that people “take on more hours” or find “a better paid job” to cope with the soaring cost of living. This creates a dilemma for those who feel they must choose between committing more of their lives to shark-eyed bosses with messiah complexes and pursuing the healthier work-life balance they experienced over the pandemic.
To try and make sense of this for myself, I travelled to Bristol Transformed Festival, an annual weekend-long socialist event that normally consists of talks and workshops but is now experimenting with LARPing – in the form of a socialist escape room called The Firing Line.
“The game pulls together the imbalanced power dynamic between workers and their bosses that exists in a lot of companies,” says Beth Gormley, an organiser at Bristol Transformed Festival. “Workers should have more autonomy over their working conditions and we hope people can learn the tools to start organising and addressing the inequalities within their own workplaces.”
Justin Stathers, the organiser of today’s game, is a seasoned escape room creator. “We’ve all experienced times when employers have tried to be your friend but are insincere and it’s really about trying to get more out of you but hidden under a layer of smiles and thumbs up emojis,” he says. “The idea is that employees of a company are secretly being spied on by a boss from a secret lair – bossware and the intrusion of employers into employees’ private lives is becoming an increasingly bigger issue and that’s something we wanted to tap into.”
The game is held in the backroom of a nightclub furnished with various pieces of office detritus, including water cooler bottles, small plastic desk items and passive-aggressively laminated notes. A large whiteboard rests against one of the walls, chains are strung through it with padlocks holding it in place. Myself and five strangers stand around nervously, probably wondering if we’ve dressed appropriately for our first day of work.
“Hi, I’m Jack from HR, welcome aboard, hi, hi, yeah great to see you, we met at your induction, loved your LinkedIn profile, great, yeah,” booms Stathers, now in character and with a voice like Bob Mortimer’s Train Guy. He thrusts his hand out for a firm, business-like handshake: “Welcome to the new state of the art break room, whilst you’re here the doors will be locked to prevent you distracting, associating or forming relationships with colleagues and unionising.”
Stathers then tells us, in a hushed voice, that a colleague has uncovered some wrongdoing by senior management and it’s our job to find the clues which will come together to uncover their misdeeds. Before the game begins, we’re reminded that all our toilet breaks will be timed and we only have 30 minutes to get the job done.
I’ve never done an escape room. Ironically, they’ve always felt to me like the type of organised fun that you’d do for an office fun day, along with axe-throwing, raft building and anything else that could pass as an activity you might do on the Isle of Fernando. However, despite my inbuilt aversion, my team needs me and I’m not about to let them down.
We start by wandering around aimlessly, clearly not demonstrating the level of teamwork we said we pride ourselves on in the job interview. Jarring royalty-free ambient music blares out, only adding to our confusion.
Nothing is leaping out at us; we need what can only be described in corporate-speak as “a bespoke solution to our unique set of business goals”. But then things start falling into place: One of my colleagues has been examining a desk fan with colour-coded buttons. He unexpectedly pulls a code out of the fan and tries it on a locked suitcase that duly springs open. We’re in business.
Others are now looking under tables and behind chairs, grabbing the low-hanging fruit in the form of pieces of plastic pizza, the rest of which sits discarded in a takeaway box on a side table. Others examine posters on the wall and read handwritten notes that have been handily left all over the place.
Maybe it’s my lack of relevant experience, but I’m being absolutely no help whatsoever. I need to take a helicopter view and find a unique set of skills that I can bring to this team. That’s when I notice one integral thing that this break room is missing: a motivational poster.
I know what I have to do. I need to put a record on to see who dances, I need to channel my inner Alan Sugar, I need to use phrases like “hive mind”, “idea shower” and “strategic staircase” as much as possible – I need to rally the troops. The speech is an adrenaline-clouded blur. I’m sure I said the words “island” and “synergy” and knitted my hands together into a lattice – the international sign-language term for teamwork – the rest, who knows?
Whatever it was, it seems to work. A coworker finds another code in a calendar, unlocking a briefcase that contains a magnet. We use that to fish a key out of a water cooler, which then opens another padlock on the whiteboard. Slices of pizza – not-so-graciously given to us by senior management – are reassembled to reveal another cryptic code. We find another code on a desk phone. I can imagine a member of middle management describing this as being in the ideasphere. Finally, all the locks are cracked and the whiteboard comes crashing down to reveal a secret passage.
We cautiously crawl through, single file, to a secret lair, the music cranking up a notch as we crammed into the tiny space. A large computer, still somehow functioning on Windows 7, is sat on a desk with a jumbled keyboard in front of it. The computer is asking us for a password. I’m sensing a final crescendo; the end must be near.
Sometimes the best way to tackle a problem is to try not to get in the way, which is exactly what I do as my now expert team set about cracking the final codes and passing them into the keyboard one by one until, finally, the computer unlocks, revealing management’s dark secret.
We’ve done it, and with only 23 seconds to spare. Big corporate high-fives all round. Justin bursts in to congratulate us. “Just in the knick of time,” he beams. “But now you have a choice to make: Do you support your comrades and tell everyone of your bosses’ wrongdoing? Do you bootlick those corporate clowns and help them cover their tracks? Or do you sit by idly and do nothing? The choice is yours.”
We hesitate for a second, but then, in true comradely fashion, we democratically and unanimously decide to put the sword to these capitalist beastmen. Admittedly, I wasn’t the most hands-on member of our cohort, but I’d say I’m at least a weird cousin of this work family. Finally, a job has helped me unlock my full potential.