In each and every job I’ve ever had I’ve had a standard list of issues and items that are defined, at some level, as being things that I am responsible for doing on a regular and recurring basis. These are “primary duties.” There are also secondary duties – perhaps items that I do when someone is on vacation or that require more than one person to complete in a timely manner. Lastly, there are the ubiquitous and ill-defied set of “other duties as assigned.” These ODA have a tendency to be ash and trash actions that aren’t particularly time consuming but that have a bit of a tendency to be dull, thankless time sucks.
Through them all, the primary, secondary, and ODA, though, I’ve always made it a point to know my lane – all of those things for which I am collectively responsible to carry out at any given time. Now, the list isn’t static. It changes based on manpower, skills, personal preference, and sometimes (usually) the whim of senior leaders everywhere. In a more ambitious age, I knew not just my lane, but also had a fair depth of understanding of the lanes to my left and right. I won’t say those days are gone forever, but I certainly pay a lot less attention to the things that are outside my currently assigned channel markers these days.
Knowing your lane and its boundaries is, in my opinion, one of the most important tasks you can master as a run of the mill employee drone. Knowing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, where it comes from, and where it goes will put you in good stead 85% of the time. If nothing else, it gives you at least a little bit of ammo when someone asks you to do something that you know well and good lies in the purview of some guy who sits down the hall.
I make it my first order of business to know my job and where its limits lie. Now if everyone else could just find their own lane and bloody well stay in it, what a wonderful world it would be. Yeah. I’ll be holding my breath on that.
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.
In a lot of ways my little part of Sam’s wide-ranging operation is one of the last true bastions of the command and control business model. High atop Olympus, decisions are made and the filter down through the organization like water through so many layers of sedimentary rock. Just like our notional water finding its way to the aquifer, along the way, the decision is filtered through each layer – it picks up things from one, the next strips something away, and by the time it drips down through the lower rock strata sometimes it’s barely recognizable as the thing that started the journey back on Olympus.
That’s a long way of saying that things don’t generally happen fast where I live. Slow and ponderous is the nature of the bureaucratic beast. That’s why it’s not surprising that it’s long been one of the great holdouts to working remotely. Anyone who can’t be seen at their desk, hoeing their row down on the cube farm, is suspect at best. That attitude is slowly changing among some of the first tier supervisors – usually though whose advance through the ranks started fairly recently.
Eventually though, if the anyone is paying attention and you’re more than a halfassed employee, they’ll start to realize that you really can get the work done despite your location far away from the hive. The down side of that is when it happens, the home office starts feeling less home and more office. On balance, though, wading through the daily mess in fuzzy slippers, in the company of your favorite members of the animal kingdom, and with a really stellar commute help offset that trouble reasonably well… in fact I’ll remain forever perplexed that the highly relaxed dress code and proximity to snoring dogs don’t make this the most sought after work arrangement known to man.
I feel like I should start off by saying there are a number of relatively decent things about my current employment situation. I’m paid reasonably well, I’ve got a fighting shot at retiring instead of dropping dead in my traces, and I don’t have to sling 50 pound bags of anything from one end of a warehouse to another. It’s important to acknowledge that, I suppose, before I start ranting and raving about whatever utter asshattery takes over any given day.
As a sat at the office for a second day with no working telephone and people getting increasingly irate that I was “avoiding them,” though, the perks felt largely insufficient. Look, I loathe talking on the telephone, but in an environment where “communication” is right there in the name of the organization, basic telephone service a pretty damned significant tool. The only thing worse than having one on your desk is not having one. It’s just one of those petty, but constant sources of irritation that makes the day to day minutia of getting anything done exponentially more difficult.
I don’t have the energy to get started tonight on the dull hum of two massive televisions spewing news in every direction or the dozen shouted conversations from one end of the room to the other or the score of other distractors that are apparently going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future. But, the wise leaders tell us, this change will make us better. While I won’t entirely rule that out of the realm of the possible, thus far it hasn’t proven to be anything more than an enormous pain in the ass.
In my 13+ years of service I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been reorganized. Half a dozen is the “for sure” number and if I were guessing there are probably two or three more occasions that I’ve mentally blocked out. Technically, reorganizations don’t have to be a bad thing. Theoretically they should be employed to achieve some long term goal like improving the efficiency of operations or to refocus an office on areas that historically are part of their core mission set. Good ideas, those. Unfortunately, what a reorg usually means, though, is that someone, somewhere has no other idea what to do so changing the lines on the wire diagram is the logical place to start. If things aren’t broken already, you can always count on a reorg to bend them till they are cracked and bleeding… It’s got to be the oldest make work project in government.
So it seems we’ll be at the old games again. New desk, new boss, new mission, new projects, but the same old faces and ever aging technology. But then the pay’s the same and it’s the same eight hour day that it’s always been. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter if it matters… as long as the checks don’t bounce on every alternate Thursday.
The problem with doing good work is largely that the reward is often finding yourself with even more of it that needs doing. In exceptional circumstances you’ll arrive in a position of having done so well that a well running portfolio will be taken away and given to someone else so that you can take on a whole laundry list of troubled efforts in order to get them turned around. That’s really the ultimate punishment for a job well done… It tends to be a vicious cycle; spend a few years getting things right just in time to hand them off and spend the following few years getting other things right. Trouble is, you never get to really kick back and enjoy the tasty fruits of getting it right before a whole lot of wrong ends up falling on your lap.
The sorry truth is when it comes to work, I’m not a brilliant seer of the future. I’m really a rather simple sort who’s content enough to put my head down and bull through whatever’s in front of me. I’ve given up any ambitions of being a boss, so I fight where I’m told, and I win where I fight. It’s a simple if not particularly energy efficient approach to getting things done.
In the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, though, I do sometimes wonder how many cycles of wash-rinse-and-repeat the designated fixer should reasonably be expected to contend with before losing his proverbial shit all over the executive suite.
1. Getting a new project. I don’t mind taking on different work, but there are few things more professionally frustrating that being on the receiving end of a data dump of information about a project you haven’t in any way been part off. Generally I tend to prefer the quick hit projects that run for a couple of months, have their big finish, and then are put to sleep. It’s the never ending, ill defined efforts that are always a constant source of aggravation and annoyance. I suspect that’s mostly because of not having the background of how and why certain decisions were made. Basically all you end up with is an enormous steaming pile of email without history or context. The best you can hope for is that the guy running the project before you didn’t leave things an unmitigated cluster fuck and that you’ll be able to sift through the mass quantity of electronic paper to find the few gems that you really need to know.
2. If you say you value your people as your highest organizational asset, but then hold them two or three hours after the end of their normal duty day because you want to have a meeting and can’t be bothered to be in the office more than one day during the week, well, you can pretty much forget about ever recovering your credibility. Time is arguably the most rare commodity we have and when you think your people don’t have anything better to do with their (alleged) personal time than wait around to play the fawning audience, you’ve stopped being a leader and started being just some guy with a really good parking spot. I’ll respect the office because it’s the right thing to do, but respecting the office leaves me plenty of room to consider you a pretty crummy human being.
3. People. A dear friend of mine pitched the idea of going to DC to wander amongst the cherry blossoms this weekend. It sounds like a fine idea in practice. It’s a rare enough thing for both the blossoms and the weather and a weekend to cooperate all at the same time. The fact is, as good as it sounded, all I could really think about was the vast sea of humanity who would be there doing the same thing. I like the idea of festivals, concerts, and events in general… but the people. Sigh. Thats another matter entirely. I’ve heard that we all have some kind of neurosis and this one seems to be mine. I’ve never mastered the fine art of being around large groups of people and hiding my disgust at how many of them are oblivious to everything and everyone outside whatever personal bubble their occupying. I can do it when I have to or with sufficient preparation, but a whole day spent elbow to elbow with the masses sounds more than slightly hellish. The mental energy it would take not to completely lose my shit would leave my exhausted for the better part of the next week. I’m told I can be quite engaging with individuals or even a group of people I know reasonably well, but I’d be well and truly hopeless schlepping around a Tidal Basin full of perfect strangers.