I’ve got no interest in being a “digital nomad.” I don’t want to work from a different far-flung location every month, schlepping my life around in a suitcase. I sampled that life enough when I was young, ambitious, and living in hotels to know that being home with the animals and all my stuff is really where it’s at. That I can do with almost no limitations thanks to the amount of technology being brought to bear to make the old school office a bit anachronistic.
In its ongoing coverage of the world in the Great Plague era, National Geographic asks, “Is this the end of the office?”
As much as I’d like to think the answer is an unreserved “yes,” I’ve been bureaucrating long enough to know better. When you hear comments like “I don’t know how anyone works from home” or “I don’t think anyone gets anything done from home,” or a more general “I hate it,” from those in a position to make decisions on whether work takes place from anywhere other than the belly of cubicle hell, well, it’s a pretty clear indicator of what the actual future will look like. Evidence to the contrary won’t, in my professional estimation, be a factor when such things are decided.
It’s a shame, really. This should have been an opportunity to overhaul the way we thing about and do our work – and a way to create a distributed workforce that doesn’t rely on a single point of failure (ex. a big concrete and steel building) to get the job done. Instead, at the earliest possible moment, we’re likely to roll the clock back, and pretend that everything must be just as it was during the before time.
I had hoped that I was settled in to the place where I was going to ride out the last third of my career, but of that means a return to being judged by physical presence rather than output, I’ll likely need to reconsider that thought. I’m not sure I’ll be able to content myself to a world that goes back to valuing asses in cubes as its key metric for success.
It’s that magical time of the bureaucratic year where I have to describe how wonderful I am and what important work I’ve done in the last year.
Let me say for the record that I have no problem at all talking about myself… especially when it has a bearing on how much money I’ll make over the next twelve months. When performance appraisal time rolls around, I’m my own biggest fan and cheerleader – a happy warrior bent on carving out as much of the performance award pool as I can for myself. It’s most decidedly not the time to be shy.
What I’ve found, after two days of tinkering around with how to write my self-assessment this week, is trying to define and describe your value added in a plague year is, in a word, interesting.
So far, it’s looking a lot like this:
- Thing 1 – Cancelled due to Plague
- Thing 2 – Cancelled due to Plague
- Thing 3 – Heavily modified due to Plague
- Thing 4 – Business as usual
- Thing 5 – Has gone absolutely batshit crazy and now takes two people to do… due to Plague
If there’s ever been a moment where I’m thankful for the ability to string together a large number of long and important sounding words, this is it.
I mean surely there are plenty of creative ways I can say “Redistributed workload to support alternative missions in support of emerging and immediate requirements in inter- and intra-organizational cross-functional operations in the COVID-19 environment across the enterprise.”
Yeah, I’m not 100% sure what it means either, but it sounds like something important might have happened, right?
After going through this past Friday like a scalded dog, I didn’t have high hopes for today. I mean Monday is bad by its very nature. Non-telework Mondays pile badness upon badness. I expected today to be an unmitigated shitshow – just a continuation of Friday by other means.
A perk of my generally pessimistic view of the world is that every now and then things don’t go as abysmally as I anticipate. That’s not to say they go altogether well, but from time to time, the universe momentarily forgets to conspire against you and all your works.
That was today. It wasn’t great – cubicle seating and fluorescent lighting made sure of that – but the day had a reasonable ebb and flow that last week lacked in its entirety. The day had breathing room instead of presenting eight solid hours of things that needed to be reacted to immediately. That’s not to say that all the things with immediacy issues were important. My experience in the belly of the bureaucracy is that the really important stuff almost never requires an immediate, off the cuff reaction.
I fully expect there’s a price to pay for avoiding ridiculousness today. The universe will have to balance the scales… but just now I’m hoping to skate through two more days and get to my long weekend. Then balancing the scales can be a next week problem.
I’ve been hoarding vacation days. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ve been hoarding them in hopes that someone at echelons higher than reality may have a change of heart and let us carry over more leave than usual into next year. With those hopes extinguished, it seems I’m about to reap the benefits of my months-long refusal to use leave a little at a time when I was already staying home anyway.
The rest of the year looks a little something like this: Next week features am impromptu four day weekend. Then I’m working three weeks followed by a week off. Three more weeks of work and then another week off. Then I work a week and pull in another four-day weekend. Finally, it’s work three more weeks and then take two weeks of vacation time to cap off the year.
Sure, there’s still a pretty significant chance I’ll be spending most of those days at home, but weighed against the prospect of losing the time completely, it’s hardly a sacrifice.
At some point during our long march through the plague year the bosses are going to expect us back in the office on a regular basis. On the off chance that happens between now and January 4th, at least I’ve build myself a nice cushion of down time so I can kind of ease back into the routine that we’ve spent the last seven months proving to be antiquated and unnecessary.
Sure, our political overlords are shit, the bureaucracy is ridiculous by its very nature, and the work can be grindingly routine, but that big bucket of leave you get after spending 15 years on the job absolutely does not suck.
On it’s best day, the conglomeration of office buildings where I work looks like a blend of minimum security prison and post-modern community college arranged around a central courtyard. The bosses would probably want me to call it a “campus,” but the best I can usually manage is naming it a “complex.” Campus has too many connotations of good times spent smoking and joking on the lower quad for me to sully that particular happy memory through such an inapt comparison.
Regardless of the naming convention, I was schlepping through the courtyard today in search of lunch (read: Going to Subway and hoping my key card still worked in that building). People have been mostly gone from the complex now since mid-March. I couldn’t help but notice that the lack of people is starting to show – mostly in the form of the number of weeds that are now growing in sidewalk joints, trash cans with their doors hanging open, and the general disarray of the outdoor furniture that’s supposed to make the place a hub of outside-the-office activity.
The space looks, in a word, abandoned. It’s a feeling reinforced by the disembodied Spotify playlist that’s still being piped through to the wide open space now utterly devoid of people.
The whole scene put me in mind of a series that ran on the History Channel back before they decided there was more profitability in Ancient Aliens. Life After People showed short vignettes of what various landmarks might look like in a world where people simply vanished – ending each episode by showing what that particular place could be once nature reclaimed it in total. We don’t appear to be in any immediate threat of reverting to wetland or deciduous forest… but it looks for all the world like the opening few minutes of an episode when humans have been gone for a few weeks or months.
It had a decidedly post-apocalypse feel, as if it really were the end of the world as we know it… and I’m really kind of fine with that.
I spent the morning starting to think about the next iteration of the project that over the last seven years has become the bane of my existence. I’d have rather spent the morning crushing my thumbs in my bench vice… but since I used up most of the last two weeks finding other things to do that could theoretically excuse the lack of progress on this particular project, I had a hunch the forbearance of those at pay grades above mine was nearing its end.
We laid the 2020 version of this benighted event to bed back in June – all online and a shadow of the usual circus of a boondoggle we throw each spring. Maybe I had fever dreams that somehow it would never come back. More likely I had secret hopes that someone, somewhere would have realize that by being online we can get the same results without acres of “stuff” tacked on because everyone likes a party.
But here we are, starting to gin up a 2019-style plan as if we have learned exactly nothing from this plague year. I won’t even pretend I’m in any way shocked… but I will say a two-month break from this mess wasn’t nearly enough.
Once upon a time a category four bruiser churning up the Gulf would have been just the thing to get my juices flowing. I’d have had a bag packed a week before the thing even got in sight of landfall. Being seconded over to FEMA during these big storms was one of the few times in my career I could see an immediate impact of whatever I happened to be doing. In retrospect, turning loose a 25-year-old with a blank check and a sense of purpose may not have been the most well thought out idea anyone ever had, but it all seemed to turn out for the best.
Maybe it’s the years I’ve picked up since then… or the deep joy of sleeping in my own bed after not working a fourteen-hour day for the 45th day in a row, but the big storms don’t seem to get my heart rate up anymore. Oh, I’ll still keep an eye on the Weather Channel this week, but that’ll be purely for the fun of armchair quarterbacking how the response is handled – and how we’d have done it better way back when.
If you’d have asked me fifteen years ago what I wanted to do with my time working for Uncle, I’d have immediately said I wanted to live that emergency manager life. Now I’m not sure it would rank in the top twenty answers. At this point, the only things I want to do are those that can be safely bookended in an eight-hour day, with further preference given to those I can accomplish while wearing shorts and fuzzy slippers at the house.
My how times have changed.
I spent a good portion of the day today transposing PowerPoint bullets into narrative for a Word document.
It’s fine. I don’t hate it. It’s absolutely an exercise in creative writing to be sure – filling in gaps or expanding thoughts on topics I only know tangentially. In another line of work, my job description would undoubtedly define the roles and responsibilities of “fluffer” as a key element.
Still, it’s definitely not even close to the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever been told to spend time doing. Standing in the parking lot, in the rain, patrolling the VIP parking corral takes that prize by a fairly wide margin.
It’s going to be best all around not to dwell too long on the question of why a perfectly serviceable document in PowerPoint wasn’t good enough and that the same thing needed to be duplicated in Word.
If anyone is ever curious about why I generally oppose handing over large swaths of the economy to the tender mercies of the bureaucracy, it’s almost entirely because so many of us spend so much time doing things exactly like this.
For most of my career I’ve been a jackass of all trades – a circus roustabout thrown at whatever needed doing at the time. Sometimes that keeps life from getting dull… but then sometimes you show relative competence in doing that which no one else wants to do and it becomes attached to you permanently. One of those perennial problem children raised its ugly head again this morning.
You see, it all started as a small conference that grew over time to include tents, a technology exposition, food trucks, and a weekend carnival before radically shrinking down to a simple online “event” under the weight of the Great Plague.
Today I was dragooned into a meeting based on the threat that the Gods on Olympus are dreaming up ways to reinflate the demandable thing in a new and potentially painful way.
It’s disheartening to discover that we’ve learned nothing in the last five months – that the plague hasn’t managed to kill off the whole idea of professional conferences / boondoggles as monumental wastes of money. The beginning of the plague year held so much promise of losing the old ways in favor of methods that don’t involve dragging hundreds of people around the country, jamming them all in the same room, and putting 20,000 square feet of parking lot under roof.
As always, even in a plague year, the bureaucracy often exists simply to lick its own ice cream cone.
I was in the office today. Even five months into the Great Plague, the rhythms of the place carry on largely unchanged. With upwards of 70% of the staff working from home it has a bit of a ghost town feel… but the phones keep ringing, the email keeps flowing, the day-to-day work seems to be getting done, and ridiculous ideas continue to abound. If it weren’t for needing to pick up the phone instead of sticking your head over a cubicle wall, I’d honestly be hard pressed to know that today was any different than the before time. I suppose you can decide what to make of that information.
What I noticed most about the day, though, was the absence of periodic fuzzy interruptions throughout the day. I hadn’t noticed until now how much I’ve come to expect the cat to occasionally jump onto the keyboard or work through the next email one handed while one or both dogs lean in for ear scratches and ear rubs. Even with that, they’re among the least distracting coworkers I’ve ever had.
The golden age of working from home will end eventually – killed off by the unstoppable force of an employer who believe asses in seats equals productivity as much as by the immovable object of employees who equate working from home with a paid vacation day.
I’ve known for most of my working life that there’s very little I can do at the office that I couldn’t do from anywhere that has a reliable internet connection… but these last few months have only just reinforced that having the animals alongside makes the fuckery of the standard eight-hour work day infinitely more tolerable. If we’re all eventually going to be stuck back in cubicle hell eventually, adding some coworkers with wagging tails or a steady and reliable purr would be incredibly helpful.