Evaluation in a plague year…

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?

TEOTWAWKI (and I feel fine)…

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. System access. There’s a system at work that I nominally need access to in order to do my job. The last time I’ve had access to this system is on the 25th of November. A few help desk phone calls, a few opened and closed help tickets, and I’m still no closer to being able to use it. That’s fine, though. I suppose when Uncle wants me to be able to do that part of my job someone, somewhere, will figure out what’s supposed to happen. Until then, it’s shrugs and pursed lips all around when I mention it, so whatever, yo.

2. I told you so. There really aught to be a unmitigated right in every employee’s conditions of employment document that allows them to kick in the door of senior leaders and scream “I TOLD YOU SO!” while gesticulating wildly and pointing accusatory fingers whenever such a display is made appropriate. This would generally be because advice was ignored, actions were delayed, and “somehow” a nine month planning window suddenly condensed into three months. Maybe that’s too specific circumstance. Still, I’d like to “I told you so” a whole bunch of people right now, but no, that’s not “a professional attitude.” Bugger that. Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll see it here.

3. Scheduling. I’ve got a pretty substantial stretch of non-work days coming up. This week I’ve started laying out what I want to do against the amount of time available. Before the vacation has even started, I’ve got slightly more than half of the days accounted for by at least one appointment, task, or “to do” item. Some of those activities will be more entertaining than others, of course, but what’s really chaffing right now is how little of this long awaited down time is legitimately going to be restful or relaxing.

The turd in my lap…

Look, no one is more aware that a lot of the things landing on my desk aren’t big, shiny, attention grabbing projects than I am. Some people might even be inclined to say I’ve made a career of taking these decidedly unsexy projects in my teeth and bulldoging them through to the end. Most of the time they’re something that needs doing and I’m more than capable of being the one to get them there without needing too much adult supervision enroute from Point A to Point B. Part of the charm of these “ugly” projects is how little attention or supervision they attract.

There are going to be times – maybe 30 or 60 minutes out of three months – when having a little overwatch would be beneficial. Show the flag. Give the illusion that there’s a renewed sense of interest. You know, basically do a bit of lip service to the idea that it’s something worth spending time on and that someone outside the immediate group is actually paying attention.

If it’s legitimately something that the bosses can’t be bothered to take even a passing interest in, I’m going to wonder why for the love of all things good and holy we’re spending inordinate amounts of time fiddling around with it at all. Fortunately, I long ago gave up tying personal pride or self worth to this sort of work, but it’s awfully hard for me not to notice professional disinterest when I see it. If I can spot it while trying hard not to, you can bet everyone else sitting around the table picked up on it… and that’s going to make them even harder to convince to come to the table next time some turd of a project comes down the pipe.

Personally…

I think it’s adorable when someone calls me sounding apologetic and forlorn because they need to make a major change to one of the events managed by Tharp Parties and Events Ltd. (A division of Big Bureaucracy Productions).

Look, chief, we all work for someone. You answer to your bosses. I answer to mine. If yours and mine provide conflicting guidance and we can’t sort it out together, I have absolutely no problem pushing it up the chain for resolution somewhere at echelons higher than reality. Your bosses and mine are allegedly professional adults who should be more than capable of decision making when their staff can’t come to agreement.

Believe me when I tell you that if you come to me saying “I know this is going to blow a hole in the schedule, but my bosses don’t want to do A, B, or C,” I’m just going to shrug, pass the word to the next level up, and move on with the day. The chance of my taking it personally is precisely zero-point-zero.

You see, there are a limited number of hours in the day and I’ve only got so much energy to apply to whatever batshit crazy things happen during any given 24-hour period. I do my level best to wast as little of that time and energy on anything that is absolutely beyond my ability to control or even to exert influence upon.

So, you see, if you ever find yourself in a position of delivering me “bad news,” and I take it with what might generously be called ambivalence, know that it’s not exactly because I don’t care, but rather because even as you were speaking, I assessed the situation as being something well outside my scope and I’ve already made the decision to refer it to higher for further evaluation and action.

I’m nothing if not a man who recognizes his own professional limitations.

The virtue of 4AM…

I’m an early riser by most people’s definition. Weekday, weekend doesn’t really matter. Unless I’m deathly ill, and usually even then, I’m awake a few minutes on either side of 5AM. Today was a rare exception that pushed the day’s start time to 4am. When you’re use to waking in the small hours of the morning one hour is pretty similar to the next. It’s dark, the world is quiet, and you don’t want to do anything so much as sit on the porch and enjoy another cup of coffee. Sadly, though, today wasn’t the day for that.

Without detail, suffice to say what had me up in the small hours was a patently ridiculous task that involved significant eye rolling and standing around a parking lot in the morning’s light drizzle for far longer than was strictly necessary.

That’s not to say that waking up at 4am is completely without virtue. Dragging yourself out of bed at 4AM and starting the clock on your work day by 6:00 delivers the undeniable benefit of then being able to punch out and head home by 2:30 in the afternoon. That part of the day felt good and right. Most people wouldn’t make that devil’s bargain, I’m sure, but if the powers that be would let me kick off every day at 6:00 and clock out at 2:30, I’d sign up for that schedule in a hot minute. Sadly I inhabit a world where I’ve been “invited” to meetings starting at 4:00, 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00PM. Those are hours I’m exceptionally uninterested in being in the office, but during which bosses seem to thrive.

Maybe that’s why I’m such a consistent fan of early mornings.

Dark underside…

I’ve often enough mentioned how much I generally enjoy the one day a week I get to work from home. What I don’t usually mention is that there is a dark underside to this arrangement.

That underside comes in the form of a little noticed provision of the agreement that specifies that during unschedule office closures due to things like bad weather, terrorist attack, or super volcano eruption, I’m required to either work from home or burn off a day of vacation time. Giving up your snow days is the devil’s bargain you strike for the privilege of having a regularly scheduled day where you get to skip out on sitting in a cubicle.

It doesn’t happen often, but on the days when it does, it feels like a particularly onerous paragraph buried in the fine print. The only redeeming quality it may have is that most of the people I’m required to respond to on a day to day basis don’t have such an agreement – and are therefore sitting home quietly and not bothering me with new requirements… so while this is technically a work day and I did manage to get a few things done, it was surprisingly stress free.

Now if you don’t mind I need to go check and see if telework has been authorized for tomorrow yet.

Nine bosses…

I started working in my little corner of this big, faceless bureaucracy almost seven years ago. In that time, I’ve had nine different direct line bosses. With a bit of rounding that means I can expect to see a new boss approving my leave requests and fussing over my use of passive voice every nine and one third months on average. Breaking in a new boss is something of a process. Personally, I strongly oppose asking anyone to do that consistently every nine months.

Because life in the bureaucracy resembles farce almost as much as it does tragedy, it’s not all bad news. The new boss that I found out about having this morning has been my new boss on three other separate occasions during these last seven years. At least he’s a known quantity to me and me to him. It smooths the rough edges of the transition a bit.

Still, when the powers that be are making a big pitch for “earning back the trust of the employees,” a surprise reorganization first thing on Monday morning doesn’t exactly instill confidence. With Communications with a Capital C right there in the name on the sign, you might think that would be a skill we’d try to practice from time to time.

You might think that, but you’d mostly be wrong.

Layers…

When all other practical solutions fail our response is to launch a reorganization and add an extra layer or two of management. Actually, we don’t even wait for other solutions to present themselves. Reorg-and-add is the default solution to most every situation. It’s become as regular an expected as the tides at this point.

I’ve been with my present organization a little over six years now. In that time I’ve had seven different first line supervisors, sat in five different cubes, and have had at least three wholesale changes in what my job is actually supposed to entail. It’s all the kind of churn you learn to live with as part of the big, faceless bureaucracy. The cogs in the machine aren’t precisely interchangeable, but that never stops someone who’s been visited by the Good Idea Fairy from trying to cram the pieces in anyway.

I met my newest boss briefly today. He mostly said hello in passing and didn’t stop to chat. I like that in a boss. The only question, really, is will he stick around long enough for it to matter whether he’s one of the good ones or one of the bad ones. Most come and go with such regularity that the difference between good and bad is negligible. Old boss, new boss, it doesn’t much matter anyway; just tell me what you want and I’ll get it done.

I’m already hearing the rumors that in a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, we’ll be on the move again. If the rumor mill can be believed, the next move is back to the set of cubes I first occupied way back in summer 2011. If you’ve got just the right amount of cynicism in your system, there’s something poetic about riding through six years of churn and turbulence and finding yourself right back in the same place that you started.

I’m debating on whether or not it’s even worth unpacking my office boxes this time, because surely in six months the Good Idea Fairy will make a return appearance and we’ll be adding another layer and shuffling about again. Past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but experience tells me it’s an awfully strong indicator of what to expect.​

Call it a draw…

Of the two interviews I went on in the last month, I’ve received one “we regret to inform you letter,” and one call back for another meeting. Based on my experiences with Uncle’s hiring process, that’s actually a decent result. The call back means I most likely was at the top of the list after the interview process and stood a 30 minute sit down away from getting an offer. Normally I’d feel good about that… though of course you and I know I always prefer to do things that hard way.

The first email out of my box this morning was a quick “thank you for the opportunity to interview, but I no longer wish to be considered for this position.” I was more flowery and diplomatic than that, but the end result was the same – I put a knife in what was just about a guaranteed path out. It’s an uneasy feeling, especially knowing that it may very well poison that well for a long time going forward.

Still, I know taking myself out of contention was the right decision. During the interview, the panel chair mentioned a two word phrase that filled me with an unholy dread – noting in his introduction that the position for which I was interviewing was designated as a “team lead.” Now I can tell you right from the jump that ol’ Jeff doesn’t like the sound of that one little bit. I’ve done my stint as an honest to God supervisor and the very last thing I wan to do is step foot back on that slippery slope. It’s doubly true when that lowest rung on the management ladder comes with all sorts of responsibility but none of the actual authority. Worse, it comes without even more than a nominal bump in salary.

More headache for the same money is bad math no matter what way you look at it. That’s what really drove me to put an end to it. It doesn’t put me in an better a position than I was in a month ago… but it also doesn’t make things even worse so we’ll just call it a draw.