Don’t worry, someone else will do it…

I’ve realized this week, though hardly for the first time, that a disturbing amount of my workload exists purely because people can’t be trusted to do what they’ve been told to do. 

Let me give you an example. There’s a report that’s been due every Friday for months. Instead of doing something like sending out a message that says “Hey, you need to turn this information in every Friday until we tell you to stop,” and then expect that grown adults will be able to do that, every Friday morning we prep and send out an Official Reminder that the exact same information is going to be due again next week. Instead of doing a thing once time, we do it 52 times… because expecting alleged professionals to do their job is a problematic course of action.

Another example? Sure. We have a system that keeps track of all the official things people are supposed to be working on. Every office has access to this system and can see what’s assigned, what’s in progress, what’s due, and what’s late with the click of a few buttons. We send out a weekly reminder on those things too… actually, now we send out that reminder twice a week since, again, alleged professionals can’t be troubled to keep track of what they’re supposedly doing.

If you’re thinking that failing to do your damned job would lead to some kind of adverse action, you get partial credit. Nothing bad happens to the people who are days or weeks late getting the job done, but my little part of the Great Green Machine finds itself with more work to poke, prod, cajole, and plead with people to do whatever it is they were assigned to finish.

Those at echelons higher than reality seems to think that the problem is in not passing out enough reminders. I tend to think the problem lies in people being irresponsible and not getting a well-deserved ass chewing as a result.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Two parties. If the last two general election cycles have shown us anything, I think it almost has to be that he two party system has failed us in a pretty spectacular way. I mean here we are, a continental country of 300+ million people and the winnowing process arrived at Donald Trump and Joe Biden as the best candidates we could muster for the office of President of the United States. The 2016 campaign didn’t offer better results. Both ended up being contests between people representing each party that half of the electorate couldn’t stand and that some large part of the electorate would never accept as “legitimate.” We’ve collectively poisoned the damned well and gotten exactly the kind of government we deserve.

2. Reports. For the last seven months, I’ve spent a day or two of most weeks updating various reports. It’s a simple process of adding on new entries, marking off old ones, changing some color coding, and shipping them off to various destinations. The catch, of course, is that no time in the last eight months has anyone so much as asked about the content of these reports. In fact, the only feedback I’ve ever gotten from any of them is “received, acknowledged.” It’s theoretically possible that these are, in fact, tremendously important bits and bytes of information… but based on the distinct lack of feedback being generated, it’s hard to shake the notion that it’s just another exercise in pushing paper.

It turns out there’s no third thing this week since I’ve spewed most of my bile in previous posts. I should probably take this as a win, though if I find myself becoming too satisfied, I fear that Thursdays here will get awfully dull. Somehow, I can’t imagine that really being a problem.

There’s a first time for everything…

I’ve made something of a hobby out of ranting and raving about the job, poking fun at the nature of the bureaucracy, and generally saying out loud what I suspect a lot of us have thought at one point or another. The truth is, I’ve had a remarkable career – well beyond what any kid born down the crick in the late 1970s had any right to expect.

With one or two notable exceptions I’ve been blessed with bosses who existed somewhere in the good to exceptional range. Again, with occasional exceptions, I’ve mostly had colleagues who I both liked and respected.

In a few months, I’m coming up on 19 years on the job. Through all of that time, I always felt capable of informally working through any problematic issues that came up. At worst, there would be an awkward conversation and things could be nudged back on track. For the first time in almost two decades of service, I’ve encountered an issue that couldn’t, by its nature, be resolved informally, off the books.

Despite my reputation as a grenade thrower, let me say that I absolutely hate having been put in this position. I hate that I needed to be the one to say something in a universe that values going along to get along. I hate that it puts more trouble on my boss’ plate when it’s already piled high with shit sandwiches. I hate that I have colleagues who could be put into a worse position than they were before I opened my mouth.

Mostly I hate the fact that decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality made any of it necessary in the first place. 

A next week problem…

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.

Works of fiction…

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. 

Give it a lick…

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.

Yummy.

Like a half-assed grail quest…

I’ve been reaching out to potential mortgage servicers for the last week or so to see if anyone’s interested in underwriting a refinance for Fortress Jeff. With interest rates stupidly low, I can only assume every other American home owner is doing the same thing right now. That’s a net good overall for homeowners, but has driven the whole process towards being even more of an absolute pain in the ass than it would be under normal circumstances.

If nothing else, you’d think I could get my current mortgage servicer to pick up the damned phone. And yet here we are, with all my calls for the last four days kicked over to voicemail and emails left without response. 

I’m sure they’re busy. I know my mortgage is in no way even remotely close to “big business” for a national bank. But, hey, a quick email letting a long-term customer know they’re in the queue and someone will eventually get back to them – or gods forbid giving an actual estimate of when they may get in touch – would go a long way towards making me feel like they should keep my business and fending off the increasing likelihood that I’ll just slam a request for quotes through one of those online aggregators and go with the absolute low bidder.

Under normal circumstances, I’d just walk into the credit union and ask for their best offer and move along, but it seems that since they’re still operating under COVID procedures, requiring advanced appointments, and also getting flooded with work, adding them to the list would just make for one more outfit that doesn’t seem interested in calling back. They may get added to the mix yet, but life would be altogether easier if the current lender would just get on the stick and work a streamlined loan for me versus starting over as a new customer. 

Yes, it’s a first world problem… and yet since I’m living in the first world, that really just makes it a problem… and one that you wouldn’t think should take so much time and effort to work through, but, of course, here we are. It’s like some kind of half-assed grail quest. 

How to improve cubicle hell…

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.

On becoming the villain…

If there’s been one constant during my tenure in the bureaucracy it’s that Friday is almost universally “take out the trash day.” It’s the day everyone throws the projects or tasks (i.e. absolute trash) that’s been stinking up their workspace over to the next poor dumb bastard who’s supposed to do something with it. 

The trash could be anything – vague policy, badly written memos, research or answers that are needed first thing Monday morning that no one got around to asking for until 4 PM on Friday afternoon. It’s all just junk that someone didn’t get around to working on before the weekend started to bear down on them.

On alternate Fridays, this endless flow of trash bears down on my desk. In the finest traditions of the bureaucracy, I do my part to shove it onwards through the pipe to make sure it doesn’t spend the weekend making a stink of my own work area. Where it ends up and what happens to it when it gets there is entirely secondary to its not becoming stuck on me.

Yeah, I’ve definitely lived long enough to become the villain of the piece.

Red shirt Fridays…

Since the beginning of the Great Plague, I’ve been an “occasional” essential employee. That mostly means I schlep over to the office on days when a warm body is needed to meet the mandate that someone physically be there.

Like my Pepto-Bismol pink shirts of yore, worn as a mark of being sick of a never-ending monthly series of hours long meetings that accomplished absolutely nothing, I do my best to arrive on duty these days wearing my finest red shirt. Like the red-shirted crewman of Kirk’s Enterprise, I know too well that my role here is to be utterly replicable phaser fodder.

What I’ve learned through four months of working through my occasional role as a red shirt is that easily 90% of what I do professionally can be done from anywhere in the world that offers a stable high speed internet connection. As often as not, it can be done faster from such far flung locations as my home office or back porch because the work isn’t interrupted every 15 minutes by chatty colleagues or impromptu meetings. If I’m brutally honest, the other 5-9% of work that I need to be in the office to do could also be done from remote locations, but would require something more than the current “basic load” of software we have to work with.

That leaves somewhere between 1-5% of work activities that require specialized access or equipment that can only be provided in the actual office. Even assuming the upper end of the range, which I’m not conceding other than for illustrative purposes, that’s a legitimate need to be in the office about one twentieth of the time spent working.

I have to wonder if, at some point, the universe of bosses will figure out that constructing these monumental buildings of concrete and glass are ultimately a bad return on investment. They’re literally billions of dollars of infrastructure that can’t be justified because the work doesn’t need those buildings to get done. Better, perhaps, to build smaller, more cost effective offices that people could use “as needed” rather than continue to proceed from the assumption that nothing can be done if it’s not happening in a cubicle.

I’ve got, hopefully, less than fifteen years left in this ride of mine, so I doubt seriously I’ll see that glorious awakening – not when the current generation of uber-bosses still like to throw around phrases like “team cohesion,” “collaborative workspace,” or “synergy.” They’re still too hung up on seeing asses in seats and slavering at the bit for the day they can bring everyone back to cubicle hell.

They have the power. They can return the office to (almost) exactly what it was before the Great Plague. They can, but they shouldn’t want to. They should replace the old constructs with something better, more cost effective, and employee friendly.

I know it’s a dream, but it’s a happy one – and one I won’t stop advocating for even when they bring all the red shirts back.