I’ve been back in Maryland for just shy of eight years now. I find that incredibly hard to believe, but it’s beside the point as far as this little tale goes. The only reason I mention it is that as of today, just shy of eight years on, I’m now occupying the 9th separate cubicle I’ve been assigned to since arriving back.
When I think of the manpower that’s gone into not just physically rearranging the deck chairs but also time allocated to “strategizing” the move and selling each one of them as a value added proposition, all I can do is shake my head and wonder at how we’ve managed to win America’s independence, put down a rebellion, conquer a continent, deliver victory in two world wars, and stay in “business” over the last 200+ years. Surely this isn’t the way we actually do things. I know better, though. Of course it is. This is exactly how we do things. It’s situation normal.
Sigh. Yeah. It’s good to be back in the saddle.
They’re calling for shit weather tomorrow morning. On a typical day, that would have been the sign to drag my laptop home in hopes that there was some combination of liberal leave or a closure called by the Destructive Weather Team. Having another day to work at home uninterrupted by 30 ringing phones and eight or ten pop up meetings would be a godsend in terms of getting some actual work done.
Sadly, I’m the guy who’s supposed to run the meeting tomorrow – which means I need to be there to flip the slides. Because it’s not an official meeting unless someone flips slides… and we certainly can’t expect people who come to a meeting to print off their own slides or bring their own laptop so they could see the slides. If we could count on either of those things there’s no part of what needs talked about tomorrow that needs my physical presence in a blandly decorated conference room.
We’re stuck in some kind of bizarre world where we want everyone to be prepared to work from wherever they happen to be, but make in next to impossible to do so. Where it is possible, we make the processes and procedures painful to the point where most find the option unattractive.
Me? I’m a contrarian and poker of people with pointy sticks from way back. I’m already turning over plans in my head to slowly drag my team into the 21st century – and prep them for the day when I’ll be leading the discussion while wearing sweats and fuzzy slippers. Until people see working from some place other than your designated spot in the cube farm getting results, I’m afraid the bureaucracy will never get away from it’s favored mode of business as usual. I like to think I’m feisty enough on this point to lead the way by example.
When it comes to driving in snow, I’m not what one would usually call a Nervous Norvis. Couple that with capable 4-wheel drive and you can count on a few fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve wanted to go somewhere that it was prevented by the prevailing weather. Today, though, was one of those days.
This morning, the tail end cut out from under me before I even made it through the turn off the driveway and into the street. Add in sliding gracefully through the next two stop signs and it might not have been my worst day of driving but it easily ranks in the top ten. I’m told the main roads were fine, but living among a warren of back roads running across hill and dale, it’s fifteen minutes to the closest “main road” under the best conditions.
A decade ago, I’d have pressed on and damn the consequences. This morning, though, was more of a “screw this, I’m going back to the house.” After all it’s warm there and the coffee is fresh. There’s also damned little I can do at the office that I can’t do from the much nicer office I have at home. It seems that my tolerance for risking my neck – and the body work on my nice shiny Jeep – just for the joy of sitting eight hours in a cubicle is decreasing as the years go by.
Regardless of where I was sitting, the calls got made, the email went out, and this little cog in the great machine did his bit… but I got to do it it worn out jeans and fuzzy slippers. Is it wrong that a big part of me hopes things gent frozen over more often?
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.
The hardest part of coming back to the office after a telework day is obviously coming back to the office. That’s the fact in the most absolute sense. Trading home for office goes against everything I really want to do in my heart of hearts. If it weren’t for the mortgage and random astronomical bills related to the care and feeding of an English bulldog, perhaps things would be different. I suspect to one degree or another, that’s probably true for most of us, but it’s not one of the topics we discuss in polite company because realizing everyone else is in the same boat would be altogether too depressing to contemplate.
Aside from physically making the transition from working at home to working in the office, the most difficult part of these days is really just in dealing with the environment. Like so many drones, my “official” place of duty features open cubicles, a regular stream of people coming and going, endless interruptions, as many as 30 phones ringing, and the impossibility of getting away from being audibly assaulted by multiple simultaneous conversations at various volumes. I don’t care what the research says. I don’t care what the efficiency experts tell you. Open cubicle work space is a disaster. Sure things get done, but as often as not it’s things getting done in spite of the working environment as opposed to because of it.
Comparing that to my home office within the comfortable confines of Fortress Jeff with its comfortable chairs, expansive desk, fluffy animals, and relative calm and quiet, well, there’s really no question why I do more and feel better at the end of a telework day than I do on any other weekday. The transition between the two realities is jarring and decidedly unpleasant. Short of staring my own business to dispense sarcastic comments and inappropriate remarks, cubicle hell feels like a reality for at least the next seventeen odd years.
It’s kind of nice knowing there’s a better option. Of course it would be better still if it actually weren’t that way, but I’m a realist.
1. The bulldog whine. I don’t know where it came from but for the last few weeks Winston has been a whiner. Whines while I’m fixing his food. Whines when he wants an ear scratch. And whines at four in the morning because he’s bored. It only seems unusual because for most of his life, Winston has been a remarkably quiet dog – aside from the expected bulldog snoring and snorting. If he were doing it to get my attention when he needed to go out that would be one thing, but as far as I can tell it’s mostly just because he’s awake and thinks everyone else should be too.
2. Begging. I’ve had a bitch of a week. I’m getting my ass kicked from pillar to post and it’s not over yet. In the 30 minutes I try to squeeze in a lunch and some time to mentally reset, I’m sorry I don’t want to run the gauntlet of “spare a dollar” panhandlers sitting outside my favorite gas station/sandwich shop. I’m sure they all have very sad stories and they’re all very deserving people, but I’m busting my ass over here in the hopes that it’ll keep the rest of me above water. My observation has been they’re mostly just sitting on theirs looking for someone else to pay the bill. Fuck that noise.
3. Indoor voices. If you work in a relatively confined space with twenty other people, it might be a good idea to go ahead and use your indoor voice. If your indoor voice proves insufficient to carry all the way across the room to your intended recipient, that would be a good time to get up out of your swivel chair and walk over to continue your conversation at an appropriate volume. Or you could just shout at each other. Either way.
Most people who spend their days dwelling in the bland colored cubicles of a standard office complex wouldn’t compare their daily experience with a trip to Disney World. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, though, I’m not most people, so it’s the argument that I’m going to submit for your consideration.
Unfortunately for most cube dwellers, the part of Disney that our life most resembles isn’t the convincing enough facades that line Main Street or the shows that seem to come off effortlessly. That’s all the average visitor to any big theme part sees – just enough of the illusion to keep them interested and to keep them from wanting to look behind the closed doors at the parts of the park that can’t be seen from the designated public spaces. No, our part is the tunnels and back rooms that keep the whole edifice sparkling and magical for our “guests.”
Like Disney, we build boxes of glass and steel, decorate them in as inoffensive a manner as possible, and then fill them with adults who mostly are only there because someone told them it’s the thing to do. Even for those on the inside, most people never see how the real inner workings mesh. They never see and don’t even speculate on what massive asshattery lurks in closed door meetings or in the executive suite. I suspect that most people wouldn’t have the stomach for that kind of truth – better to maintain a happy fiction than an uncomfortable reality.
So that leaves the illusion of a happiest place on earth where morale is always high, everyone always does their best work, everyone ask themselves “is this good for the company,” and no one ever gets eaten by an alligator. I can only speculate that it’s just another of the great lies we tell ourselves to stave off the madness until we can slog our way to retirement age or a Powerball win.