Jaikishen Gupta aka Jack (mostly addressed as such by his manager Tony Bhadraluchi in appreciative emails) always believed he learnt his lessons the hard way because most of his textbooks during school time were hardbound and not paperback. At this moment his desktop had a Visio document opened. He had immersed himself in the technical design it represented like a helpless pilgrim who had given up all hopes of being rescued after realizing he was drowning in the mighty Ganges while trying to take a holy dip. Except in his world he had the Outlook desktop email alert and the cell phone ringtone. Needless to say, his untrammeled concentration was broken when an email alert popped up. It read:
HR-Vending Machine in the cafeteria.
His eyes veneered the system tray of his workstation. The clock in it registered 4:17 in the PM. It was exactly 13 minutes to his tea time/snack time. Although there was no such time as per HR policy, most of his coworkers would take a snack break at this time. They would go out to the roadside vendors, smoke, drink tea with deep fried snacks (samosa, pakora, bhel, etc) and gossip among themselves. Talking to the roadside vendors provided them the much needed local information in this era of globalization. While Jack avoided (or at least pretended to) eating outside due to his increasing weight and restrictive dietary regimen imposed by his wife, devouring the forbidden stuff was like a guilty pleasure. He would seldom eat during this unofficial break, as he would go home and have tea with his wife in the evening, but he would definitely take part in the discussions. In his monotonous world of meeting deadlines and long working hours, it was like a lifeline that injected a dose of much needed change that recharged his life cells.
But today something was different -- he had not received the customary call from Abhik Goswami (fondly called Otirikto by friends as a tribute to the word 'overweight' in Bengali language). Although Otirikto's workstation was just in the adjacent bay, he would always call Jack's extension and in his husky voice remind Jack of his obligation towards snack time. Jack held the arms of his chair and gave a slight push so that he could have just the right elevation to see what was happening in the adjacent bay. He saw Otirikto was sitting in his chair (crushing the chair would be more realistic description) and reading some article in Wikipedia. He leaped out of the position he was in, leaving the chair to a squeak a bit in recoil. He patted Otirikto on the shoulder.
Without turning back, Otirikto said, "Do you have some soiled 10 Rupee bills?" Before Jack could sink in the information, Otirikto swiveled his chair and got out of it like an expert ballet dancer. Now Otirikto's desktop was in Jack's line of sight, and on it was a block diagram of a vending machine. Both of them started checking their wallets as if they were getting mugged. Out came a 10 Rupee bill from Jack's wallet which exactly met Otirikto's specification. On it Gandhi had lost an arm of his iconic glasses and one of lions in the emblem had turned red as it may have absorbed some red color. Jack sincerely felt he should have emptied his pockets before the weekly washathon (yes, he was the one doing weekend laundry) or had he received it from the vegetable vendor last Friday? Anyways they had got their candidate for testing and rushed to the cafeteria.
Some of his colleagues were already there, inserting bills and punching the row and column combination to their desired snack. The machine appeared like a transparent refrigerator which had a number pad. The rows inside it were stacked with snack packs of various makes. Jack and Otirikto had the same feeling as when they had seen a Nintendo machine for the first time. They zeroed in on a snack and Otirikto decoded its row-column combination. Jack inserted the tip of his worn-out 10 Rupee bill so that the vending machine could swallow it. The machine swallowed the bill, but after making a churning sound, coughed it back. It was not accepting the bill. One of the colleagues said that the machine would only accept good bills. They smiled.
Like an expert magician showing his trick, Jack caressed the bill, and again inserted it. This time it was accepted, and he punched in the row and column position of their desired snack -- a Bombay bhel. The machine made a clunky sound and from the matrix of products spitted out the Bombay bhel. Jack and Otirikto ate that at the blink of an eye.
Otirikto then brought out his worn-out bill, which looked like it was coming straight out of a trauma center, except it was cello-taped instead of stitched. This time they had jhal muri (a Kolkata version of Bombay bhel or is it the other way round?)
They went back to their workstations contented. Jack went back to his Visio document. He did not realize how much time had passed until his cell phone rang a familiar ringtone. He picked up his cell phone (a Smartphone) and saw the picture of his wife and a text right below it that read: wife calling. With a swift motion he swiped his thumb first over her picture and then on the telephone icon. His friend Tony would always say that apart from weekends, the only time he was able to touch his girlfriend is on the touch screen of his Smartphone. This brought a hint of smile to Jack's face. He picked up the call and his wife was sounding irate.
"Where are you honey?"
"Where else? In the office," Jack replied.
"Still in office? It's eight and I had prepared tea. If you were going to be late you could have called."
Jack had not realized it was that late. The ever-eager enzymes of hunger had not interrupted his work as they would do usually. He apologized and said he was held up due to an impending work that needed to be finished on time. He sent an email to Tony and left for home.
* * *
Near about six months had passed since the introduction of the vending machine. In a special HR meeting held in the Company's headquarters in Silicon Valley and presided over by the HR Director, Jack's regional HR Manager presented a report on increase of employee productivity since the incorporation of the vending machine. Among various other things it said that:
- The concept of an on-premise vending machine was taken from a study conducted by a German university, which stated that eating outside decreases work performance
- Time spent by employees in productive work has gone up by x percentage as employees do not go out of the office premises frequently
- Time spent on unproductive work like snacking and socializing has diminished as snacks are available inside office premises
- Tasks are completed on time and before time because employees are going home late
The regional HR manager was congratulated by the HR director in presence of all other regional HR managers. The HR director said that this experiment would be considered a Kaizen and gradually implemented across all regional offices.
* * *
Jack has completely stopped going outside the office premises. He also does not go home early now for snacking with his wife. Initially his wife nagged about it, but now she has stopped complaining. He has received numerous appreciation emails from Tony and most probably would be promoted. He could not even make it to hospital when his wife went for her first ultrasound. After that incident they do not talk much.
Sometimes Jack stands in front of the vending machine and stares at it for minutes and in a fit of rage he considers sabotaging the machine -- but the next minute he calms down. How he can do such a thing when the only goal in his life (as with other Indians) is to keep himself employable -- so that he could keep paying his bills, repay his home loan and try to secure a good future for the yet-to-arrive newest addition to his household.
Otirikto has gained few more pounds. In the current appraisal cycle he asked for a salary hike to the amount of 22 percent as he found most of his earned income was being spent on food. This was done after he conducted an independent investigation about his mounting food expense and found that he was being charged Rs 100 per kilo for potato (the main ingredient of his home diet) by the grocery store as he had no knowledge about the actual market prices.
Tony broke up with his girlfriend. He came to India for an official visit, and went for a team dinner (drinks included). After a few pegs of his favorite whiskey he said that he finds the vending machine very mysterious. He thinks it's not about the snacks it stores but the way it is operated and snacks delivered that makes people keep coming back to it -- even when the hunger has subsided. He even thinks it can control minds.
As of now, HR has successfully installed the vending machine in all locations.