Four days…

The two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Years are usually the only time during the year I burn off a really big chunk of vacation time all in one sitting. Planning around the other various federal holidays, I’ll manage to sneak in a few week-long blocks, too, but Christmas is always the big one.

Some of my favorite bits of time off, though, are the stretched long weekends. Either extend a 3-day weekend or slip a day of leave in between a Tuesday or Thursday holiday and its corresponding weekend and hey presto you have yourself a nice mini vacation on the books with very little loss of leave involved. Spread enough of those around through the year and you can almost maintain what few scraps of sanity you’ve got. 

The Thanksgiving 4-day is probably the king of the bunch as far as I’m concerned. Unlike Christmas and its multi-day road stand and immense logistics tail, Thanksgiving politely contains itself to a single day for visiting, enjoying an oversized meal, and getting back home at a reasonable hour to sleep in my own bed. It’s a holiday distilled to its essence.

The three following days of no specified activities are just the sauce on top and I’m 100% here for it.

Long live the 4-day weekend.

Keeping holiday time…

It’s that time of year again. In the last few days of run up to Thanksgiving, it’s obvious that no one’s got their heart in it; Even those that are here aren’t really here. Sure, physically some of us are banging around the office, but everyone is somewhere else in their own mind – tucking in to a proper holiday dinner, Black Friday shopping, or generally being anywhere other than cubicle hell.

Next week everyone will trickle back. There won’t be enough of us to pretend it’s a flood. There’s too much leave to be taken between now and the end of the year. Like dragons, we hoard it just for the joy of seeing that vast pile of time burned in a conflagration roaring across the closing weeks of the year.

Sure, there will still be a few of the bosses who want to pretend that it’s business as usual and everything is getting done. But the rest of us will know better. The five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are a land out of time. To fight against it in any but the most dire circumstances is the height of folly and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

Even now, a few days before Thanksgiving, I can feel the inexorable draw of Holiday Time. And that’s the real magic of the season.

They’re always self-inflicted…

One of the tasks that more or less defines my job was impossible to do this week until around 10:00 this morning thanks to a bit of software that had been migrated to a new and improved flavor last week and then promptly shit the bed.

Look, I don’t personally care. If Uncle wants me to do the work, he’ll make sure the systems and software all function. I can sit around twiddling my thumbs with the best of them. I am, after all, a highly seasoned bureaucrat. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory. 

The only catch is when systems are down for days on end, it tends to create a backlog and then when the boffins over in the IT office get sorted, the whole log falls directly on your head. That’s where we ended up on today – with at least three days of backlogged work in the queue plus whatever extra came in over the side before close of business. 

To at least one person, every bit of it was something ranging between “important” and “urgent.” To me, of course, it’s all just something to blast through as quickly as possible while trying to get about 80% of it tucked into the right places. If I’m being perfectly honest, since I read every single item that passed through my hot little hands today, I can tell you none of it was actually important, let alone urgent. It was mostly the living embodiment of the kind of electronic ephemera the bureaucracy passes around to continue justifying its own existence. It’s the kind of morass you really want to take a bit at a time rather than in anything resembling large chunks. 

It’ll get done – mostly because I don’t particularly want to deal with this particular hot mess again on Monday. It’ll get done, but I’ll piss and moan about it the entire time, because it’s just another wound we inflicted on ourselves for no discernable reason. If that doesn’t define government work, I don’t know what does.

Can do attitude…

So hey, what we’re going to go ahead and do is pile all of you guys back in this room with no windows or moving air so you can spread disease and shout over one another to have conversations, participate in online meetings, and make phone calls. Oh, and by the way, those nice noise cancelling headphones that you’ve been using for years and make working elbow to asshole with everyone else sitting in cubicle hell tolerable are also now contraband… but don’t worry, we’re going to replace them with piece of shit one ear call center headsets that are a-ok.

We’re also going to rip the microphones and cameras out of your laptops so you’ll need to go ahead and use external devices when you’re teleworking to get those functions. No, I’m sure that won’t be in any way a pain in the ass. They’re one step away from explaining why it’s a feature and not a bug.

One of the real perks of working here at this center of excellent excellency is that even when you can’t imagine being able to drive morale even lower, someone finds a way. If there’s a way to make working conditions even slightly more unpleasant, we’ll get after it with gusto. We’re organizationally resourceful like that. It’s the kind of “can do” attitude we like to see.

The part of this whole sorry state of affairs that I’m going to enjoy most is that six months from now someone is going to wander through the area and comment that everyone seems angsty and hostile. If they’ve got a day or two to talk it over, I’ll be happy to give them the full list of how and why… with examples and annotation. 

A sad bloody hash…

A million years ago when I was a teacher for about 30 minutes, I was a dues paying member of the local union. I don’t remember how much the dues were, but it must have been pretty nominal if I was willing to part with it when I was making something like $2,400 a month. Part of the deal there was that the union was responsible for negotiating our salary and benefits package. Outside of that, my engagement with them was pretty minimal.

For most if not all of my career as a cog in Uncle’s great green machine, I’ve also been nominally superintended by one union or another. The difference here, of course, is that none of these unions are able to negotiate pay or benefits or much of anything that really makes a strong case for sending them money every other week. In 20 years, the total number of times I’ve needed anything from a union is precisely zero point zero. Other than the few run-ins I’ve had with them complaining about me for taking up whole swaths of the parking lot with giant tents every April there for a few years, I simply haven’t had any reason or desire to deal with them.

After three weeks of wondering why no one has heard anything about when or if the new and improved telework program will be rolling out, I finally decided to reach out directly to the leadership of our local union. I sent over a perfectly professional inquiry about why we hadn’t heard a word about it, what the holdup is, and when it’s expected to be resolved. It’s certainly not as if it isn’t a point of conversation around the water cooler every single day at this point.

I’ll be honest here, I got the sense that the union official who responded either didn’t appreciate the specific questions, didn’t appreciate being questioned in general, or maybe he’d just gotten tired of being asked the same thing 100 times a week. His response did throw in one of my favorite old saws that anyone who’s been around more than a few days has heard – that “we train to standard, not to time.” You can roughly translate that to mean it’s going to take as long as it takes, so quit asking.

As a professional planner I consider it one of the worst possible approaches to doing anything. In my universe, time is part of the standard. A 100% solution delivered months after it’s needed is every bit as bad and often much worse than a 50% solution delivered on time. Neither one has the desired effects when and where they’re needed. Any good planner should tell you they’re working to both time and standard, not one or the other as if they’re mutually exclusive, unrelated factors.

Basically it was a very polite invitation to go fuck myself, which I’m not especially offended by… other than wishing people would just say that up front rather than couching it in euphemism. He made his point. I made mine. I doubt either one of us feels better for the experience. As a non-dues paying employee, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight to the union’s internal deliberations, but that doesn’t mean for one moment that I’m not going to voice them whenever I feel it’s appropriate… and I haven’t seen or heard anything yet that would convince me our “representation” hasn’t made a sad bloody hash of the whole thing. 

Darkness, both figurative and literal…

Today was an office day. I like to think it’s also the day when we reached peak in-office fuckery. In order to understand why that’s the case, I should probably provide a little bit of background information.

When you have a billion dollar office complex, there’s always things that need fixing. It’s an issue probably multiplied because the whole thing was slapped together by the low bidder. Keeping up with general repairs and preventative maintenance given the perennial lack of money and personnel for those things is often more something done with a lick and a promise rather than really getting after the problems and making permanent fixes.

Today was supposed to be an exception to the rule. In order to make this particular fix, though, the whole damned building allegedly had to fall off the local power grid. Those of us serviced by the emergency generator would still have some limited power to run laptops and a few other odds and ends, but we’d be sitting in the dark while doing it since the overhead lights don’t rate having backup power. That’s not necessarily an issue elsewhere, but since the room we’re in is a windowless box anyway, how much natural light streams into the rest of the building from outside doesn’t really matter.

This “planned power outage” was scheduled to start at 7:30 and last four hours. By 1:00 this afternoon, the whole thing seemed decidedly suspect. A half an hour later or so, it was revealed that although it had been publicized as a planned outage, it turns out there wasn’t going to be one in order to do whatever work they were supposed to do. It was a big overture for a little show. You might think that planning, scheduling, and communication would be an integral part of life in the bureaucracy… but in most cases you’d be wrong. It’s more like a never ending game of the blind leading the blind.

Even though the lights didn’t go out this time, I had to wonder if all this wasn’t an allegory for the whole damned organization. Sitting in the dark waiting for stuff to happen is pretty much the definitive experience of being a cog in Uncle’s great machine… even on those days when the dark is only figurative rather than literal.

Value added synergy…

In recognition of my first day back at the office under 2019 working conditions, I’m excited to provide an exhaustive list of things I did at the office that I couldn’t have done if I were home.

– Cleaned off a shelf in my cubicle to restock with coffee, tea, and corresponding additives and accessories. If I’m going to have to be here, mass quantities of caffeine are absolutely going to be necessary.

– Cleaned out a drawer in my cubicle that was filled with crackers, ketchup packets, and sundry foodstuffs that mostly expired early in 2020. Mostly this was just gross. For the record, I should note that mustard packets absolutely do not age well even when stored in a cool, dark place.

– Found two banker’s boxes with lids that someone was sending to recycling. Banker’s boxes are great for book storage. They’re now stashed in my cubicle awaiting a dry day when I can liberate them.

– I spent an hour in a meeting this morning. It was probably one of only 3 or 4 meetings I’ve attended in person in the last 30 months. I have no idea why I was invited as none of the topics were anywhere close to my lane. But there I was, because that’s where Outlook told me to be at 10:00. I could have dialed in for this meeting, but since I was there in person, I’m claiming it as an accomplishment for the day.

– Pushed the button to unlock our room door thrice. As far as I can tell, this is in fact one of my mission essential tasks. In light of that I’ve begun tracking how many times a day I push the button. If it’s going to be the thing that keeps us here in person, I want to make sure I get credit for it on my next performance appraisal.

– Got to listen to at least one person hack up a lung in each and every room I entered today. No idea if it was flu, cold, allergies, plague, or some new and exotic illness, but there they were, spraying the room and everyone in it with their aerosolized gunk throughout the course of the day. I’m just going with assumption now that the office is 100% where the Great Plague will finally catch up with me.

– It was Taco Tuesday featuring a selection of hard- and soft-shell tacos, homemade empanadas, all the appropriate toppings, and a selection of deserts. It was one of the rare occasions when I willingly violated my personal rules against participating in lunch events in badly lit conference rooms. 

There you have it. That’s what extra value you get for your money when I’ve schlepped over to cubicle hell instead doing business from the ease and comfort of my office at home. I’m sure it was all very “value added” or “synergistic” or “team-focused” or something.

The last day…

Here we are. Today was the last day of “maximum telework” authorized by the Office of Personnel Management as a response measure to reduce the spread of the Great Plague through the federal workforce. I know others will disagree, but for hard working introverts like me, it was a golden age. It was a demonstration of my own long-held belief that work is what you do rather than where you do it. Starting again on Monday, the powers that be have decreed that once again where you do it is, in fact, far more important than whatever results might be achieved. How, after all, will anyone know you’re working if they can’t see you shuffling, dead eyed, around the cubicle farm?

For the last two and a half years, I’ve spent four days out of every work week doing the job from my home office. The one day each week I spent in the office was, as far as I can tell, a concession to the one singular task that we couldn’t do from home. You see, someone had to be there physically to push the button that unlocks our office door when a visitor rings the doorbell. That’s it. We were all required to be there some portion of the week, in large part, because well paid senior analysts with 20, 30, or 40 years of experience were needed to perform critical duty as door attendants. You won’t want to question me too closely about how Uncle chooses to task assign the resources at his disposal. It’s a much longer conversation and one I probably shouldn’t have until my retirement paperwork is safely filed.

In any case, come Monday we roll back the clock to February 2020 and pick up our “regular” schedules as if absolutely nothing has happened in those 30 intervening months. I’m considering opening a betting book on how soon a wave of cold, flu, or plague will sweep through our poorly ventilated office space. We were given a once in a lifetime opportunity to really rethink how and why we do things – and we squandered it. “We,” of course, meaning the deep thinkers and senior leaders mired in mid-20th century theory and practice who set policy for the rest of us.

It’s true, they can force me back to “business as usual,” or “normal operations,” or whatever more cheerful phrase they choose to use for the mass return to cubicle hell, but they can’t make me do it with a smile in my heart. As ever, I’ll be polite and professional, but it’s hard to imagine a time I won’t be salty about the alternative we chose to give up.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be spending the weekend coming to terms with the fact that the best two and a half years of my career are now at an end. It’s hard to imagine another black swan coming along in the next 12 years and 8 months to grant us a better result, but hope springs eternal. 

Monday and other inconveniences…

It’s Monday. Again. It feels like Mondays are happening more and more often these days. I know that’s not how time works, of course, but it still feels like they keep showing up all out of proportion to how often we get a Saturday thrown into the mix. Perception is a hell of a thing, and what brings me to my real point today.

If I really dredge the far recesses of my mind, I can still vaguely recall the version of me that was a young, highly motivated professional who wanted to do all the things, go all the places, and generally be in the middle of everything. That version of me is unquestionably dead and gone, replaced by one that isn’t interested in wave making or in any way drawing unnecessary attention to himself or whatever he may be doing.

I can’t really say if one approach is particularly better or worse than the other. Both feel equally valid. Both are based on conditions, circumstances, and past experience. Present me has learned, from hard experience, that there’s no real benefit from getting too far out over my skies. Sure, maybe I could stick the landing, but the more probable result is face planting into the nearest tree.

Right now, experience is screaming in my ear that seeming too eager or too competent will lead to nothing but angst, frustration, and an increased workload. It’s better, then, to keep on quietly, not fouling anything off, but equally determined not to give in to any conspicuous display of more than average competence.

I like to think it’s a reasonable precaution in uncertain times.

It’s a long list…

It’s new supervisor day at the office. I’d like to pretend raging indifference, but the fact remains that whoever signs your leave requests and timesheets has a tremendous influence on whether the eight hours you rent yourself out for on a daily basis go well or badly.

After almost twenty years in harness, I’ve accumulated a long list of former bosses.  If I feel like being polite, I’ll say that some were better than others. If I’m not, I’d say that some were princes among men and others were oxygen thieving asshats I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on if they were on fire. Most were somewhere in between the extremes.

I don’t know the new guy, so I’m withholding judgement until there’s a reasonable basis for deciding where he falls on the spectrum. A lot of that is going to depend on just how “energetic” they decide to be in their new position. All new bosses will inevitably make changes, but the real determinative factor is whether they wants to change the things that need changing or whether they end up chasing wholesale changes just because they want to “leave a mark” or because he knows better than anyone ever before.

The dude has got big shoes to fill… and I’m not just saying that because the old boss is now my senior rater. It’s a hard, thankless job made all the more difficult because echelons higher than reality can never quite agree on what the job is actually supposed to entail. I’ve had two chances now to apply for what would be a respectable promotion and opted against doing so both times. I wouldn’t want the job at twice the pay. I’m happy enough letting others sit in the councils of the great and the good while I tend my widgets and get home at a reasonable hour.