Jordan: In the office

Mike is in Irbid, Jordan, where MSF / Doctors without Borders is providing medical care to thousands of Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. Today he takes us behind the scenes, into MSF’s Irbid headquarters…

I guess that there could be an assumption that every office is pretty like any other; but my experience is that there are always differences and some of these interest me (and I hope you too).

The first odd aspect of the Irbid office is that it appears almost as if the office is three flats converted into offices, you have to go in and out of a communal landing to get between them, so some people are in a much quieter area. The exception to this quiet is when the home visit team are in, when it is dynamic and full of people, normally re-planning as some of the patients they’d planned to see now can’t be visited. 

Inside the MSF / Doctors Without Borders office in Irbid. Photo: Mike Tomson / MSF. 

Most of the management of the organisation is in the other area (or flat?) where people work in different rooms. The medical team are in one and the logistics crew in another; there’s one for project coordination and another for our data, translation and humanitarian leads.

Reviewing this description, I realise I’ve missed out possibly the most important room – the drivers’ rest area! (I have sneaked in there to have a 1-to-1 with others when all the drivers are out as it is screened off and quite cosy.)

If we need a formal meeting then it is off to the other flat/space beyond the home visit team’s domain. (The third flat is largely a warehouse of drugs.) 

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Image shows the watercooler in the MSF office in Irbid, Jordan.

The watercooler is not the best spot for a chat. Photo: Mike Tomson / MSF.

In the main flat/office there is a kitchen and this is a very important place. Americans would suggest, I think, that lots of informal meetings happen round the water cooler, and of course we do have one of those (though at the moment you are more likely to see people having Turkish coffee++). In Irbid though I’ve yet to have a watercooler conversation and have learnt that in order to have this sort of conversation you need to go out to the balconies.

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Image shows people smoking on the balcony

The balcony is where people go to take a break. Photo: Mike Tomson / MSF.

The balconies are our smoking areas; but as I’d estimate that 9/10ths of the team smoke (male and female) there is a reality that if you want to talk to colleagues even if, like me, you’re a passionate non-smoker, then you need to go out on the balconies and be part of the team, as this is where the bonding happens.

Different offices also have interesting routines about food. In the Health Education England office I used to work at back in the UK, vans arrive with tunes to tell you that coffee or hot food was there.  Here though, there is on most (but not every) day an outing by one of the drivers to get Sharwarma (shish kebab with masses of mayonnaise in flat bread), falafel (which is great and cheap!)  or even occasionally chicken liver fried in flat breads. These are then shared by almost all staff. This is called breakfast, though I suspect that, as it can happen anytime up to past midday, this is really lunch for some people (I’ll have had a snack before getting in).

Some colleagues will stay at their desks and keep working through their “breakfast” while most will congregate in the kitchen (and obviously then onto the balcony). If you miss this though it is not far to go over to a local bakery (e.g. for bread with zaártar added) or next to that a falafel place.

There are advantages to missing team breakfasts as the days tend to be quite long. The team, both clinical and managerial, is meant to get in for 0800. Clinical workers, who work six days a week, stop at 3pm, but for the office workers it is 5pm, five days a week. So, it’s a long day if you don’t get up at least for a few minutes for lunch.  Somehow there is confusion about whether I’m clinical (as I supervise much of the clinical team) or managerial (as I do not practice clinically). So, the tradition is that the people in my role have worked in the office six days a week but normally from 0800 to 1800 (when the other international staff leave). Something appears wrong here!  But there is not a clear, simple solution … and there is certainly enough work to keep me busy all the time I’m in the office.