The difference a day makes…

I’ve been working one day a week from home for a little over a year now. There are many reasons I’d recommend it to anyone who is even marginally a self-directed individual. It does, however, feature two distinct problems that I’ve found so far.

The first is that in those rare moments when you actually need to talk to someone immediately you’re limited to phone, email, or text. If you happened to be sitting in a cube farm in those moments you could at least add “wander over to wherever that person is supposed to be” to the list of ways to get in touch with them. Needing someone right-the-hell-now, though, is such a rare occurrence in my experience that the issue is hardly worth considering.

The second, and more problematic issue, is that doing the work from the comfort of your own home establishes in clear terms just how utterly unnecessary sitting in one specified desk in one specified room of one specified building really is in the course of day to day activities. It makes then going to sit at that desk, in that room, in that building on the four other days of the work week even more difficult than it would be otherwise. Sure, I suppose there are a handful of good and legitimate reasons for needing to spend time in an actual office, but for all other times I have not one single clue why anyone would want to endure more time in cubicle hell than is absolutely necessary to getting the job done.

Cubicle hell…

I’ve been a cube dweller for all of my 15 years working for Uncle. The one constant across all those years is a firm belief that if there is a hell, at least one level of it has cubicles stretching out to the horizon in all directions. In effect, to work in a cube is to already be condemned to toil in a hellscape to get credit for your eight daily ours.

Most days, cubicle hell is a land of minor irritations – of people who talk too loudly, non-existent air conditioning, 30 conversations happening simultaneously, an utter lack of privacy, and an endless parade of small distractions seemingly devised to prevent anything that could be mistaken for productivity.

The small annoyances are punctuated occasionally by the large distractions. These are what you may expect to find when the Powers That Be will decide that everyone in the room needs to face a different direction or that the cube walls are one row too tall or too short. The Powers will then, in their infinite wisdom and goodness, decide to address these grave shortcomings in the most expeditious way possible.

If you’ve never tried to conduct business in the middle of a construction zone, I think you owe it to yourself to give it a try. At any given time your 30 square feet of cubicle hell could be made inoperable when they have to re-route the electric or network cables, when they have to disassemble your desk, or when they need to remove a panel so you can stare obnoxiously across 30 inches of open space at the face of the person with whom you use to share a “wall.” Now the Powers have removed even the pretense that you aren’t packed in elbows to assholes with your fellow condemned souls.

Even if your desk happens to be one spared that day, there’s the general construction noise – the power drills, and shifting metal, dropped tools and banging. All the while, you’re careful to pretend that everything is business as usual. There are no distractions. Everything is going according to plan. You love the new floorplan that the Powers have granted unto you, for they, in their spacious offices, behind actual closing doors, are secure from what they wrought. Surely they know best.

As it turns out, cubicle hell isn’t so much a place as it is a process – ongoing, evolving, and always looking for ways to make every day just a little bit harder and such just one more drop of joy from the marrow. We have met the enemy and it truly is us.

Moving day…

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.

Allowing for weather…

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.

Frozen over…

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?

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.​

Workplace transitions…

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.