Three shall be the number of the counting…

When I started in the current gig way back in ye olde 2010, there were 8 people doing the job in my little corner of Uncle’s vast universe. I won’t tell you that we were always busy, but we had our moments of mayhem and chaos even when all hands were on deck. That number ebbed and flowed – up one, down one – over time, but was remarkably steady until about six months ago when people started racing for the exits. From there, it’s been a foot race to get out of Dodge.

By this time next week, the number of the counting will be reduced to three. By all outward appearances, we’re just going to reallocate the workload and drive on as usual. That strategy might be ok when you drop from 8 to 7, but by the time you go to three there simply isn’t enough time in the day to keep up. You reach a point where doing more with less isn’t just impossible, but it becomes detrimental to an office. It reminds me of an vintage Dilbert strip where Pointy Haired Boss tells Dilbert to pick up someone’s functions. Dilbert’s response? “I have infinite capacity to do more work as long as you don’t mind that my quality approaches zero.” I wish I could tell you that was farce, but it bears too much resemblance to reality. With every position left vacant, the quality of the work is diminished. Getting the job done just to that “good enough” standard is something that makes me just a little bit crazy.

I’ve worked in places that were more toxic, but the older I get the less tolerance I seem to have for the asshattery of it all. The only reason I’ve let it ride as long as I have is I happen to enjoy the particular piece of geography we occupy. I supposed even that’s not really enough to hold me if a change needs to come. As much as I don’t want to dive back into the land of the three hours commute, it’s time, past time, to put all the options on the table.

Bleed a little longer…

Two days into the week, it looks like it’s going to be another exercise in triage – in trying to figure out which high priority item is going to bleed to death if I don’t tend to it immediately and which I can put off to let bleed a little longer. It’s a hell of a way to try to get things done and nearly impossible if any of what you’re trying to accomplish requires deep thought and analysis. Thank God nothing I deal with ever needs any of that. You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes while I wrote that last bit.

Due in part to to what feels like the never ending variations on a hiring freeze, our preternatural ability to reorganize ourselves every six months, decisions (or lack thereof) made by high management, and people moving on to better opportunities, we’re at least three hands shy of where we should be. That doesn’t sound like a lot except it roughly translates to 1/4 of the total number of people who should be working in my office. Add into that mix the normal and customary sick days, vacation days, and alternative work schedule days off, it means as often as not we’re operating half staffed or less. Some days it’s much, much less.

Whether echelons higher than reality want to accept or admit it, it creates an environment where even if good work were encouraged, it would be nearly impossible to achieve. I won’t speak for anyone other than myself, but just now it feels like any day that doesn’t end in taking water over the transom was a good one. Running flat out just to avoid sliding backwards is a lot of things, but it’s not a recipe for encouraging or enabling anyone to do their best work. It’s a recipe for struggling to stave off disaster just enough to get through the day. When that’s what passes for a win, we’re all in trouble.

A whole lot worse…

For eighteen months, “furlough” and “hiring freeze” are words that continually show up atop the list of search terms that drag people kicking and screaming to my little slice of the internet. Having spent an outlandish amount of time bitching and complaining about both over the last two years, I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’d love to tell you all that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that Uncle Sam’s financial woes are behind him, well, there’s really nothing out there that indicates that’s true at all. From all outward appearances, Uncle has managed to paper over the worst of the problems for the time being. While that seems like a good thing, it probably just means that he’s managed to kick the can further down the road and that when it comes time to settle the tab, it will be even worse than we thought.

By my most recent calculation, I’ve worked under a hiring freeze of one sort or another for about a third of my career. I’m not feeling the pinch at the moment because I’m not actively looking for an eject button, but if I was options would be pretty limited. Having personally experienced the fresh hell of sending out multiple hundreds of resumes to get a handful of interviews, I don’t envy anyone looking for fresh horizons under the latest incarnation of the freeze. Even more unfortunate, I don’t see the market thawing any time soon, either.

Uncle has been warning about employee furloughs for months now. The general public reacted badly to the notion of laying off food inspectors and air traffic controllers, two very visible activities carried out by random, faceless bureaucrats. I have my doubts if there’s going to be the same outcry for defense workers. Working behind the wire, most of the public will never see or know what we do on a daily basis. As a result, us staying home for a week or a month isn’t something they see or experience firsthand. That makes us easy to ignore and therefore an excellent target of opportunity for cost reduction or avoidance.

So far, the department’s official position, at least the one that it’s opted to communicate to the workforce, seems to be ignoring the issue and hoping it goes away… at least that’s what it looks like from the inside. Predictions range from “nothing’s going to happen” to having to take the full 22-day furlough within the last 3 months of the fiscal year. Someone at echelons higher than reality probably has the smattering of a plan, but for the time being the drones are being kept well insulated from anything that resembles official information.

As we grind towards the end of fiscal year 2013, I think we’ll come through with minimal disruptions. What no one is talking about yet, and what I’m convinced is going to bight us all in the ass is that sequestration is a ten year event. Even if we ride out year one with cost savings through attrition and quietly cooking the books, we’ve still got nine years of draconian cost savings to generate…and in my mind that means things are going to get a whole lot worse in the out years before they ever start getting better.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Like so many others in recent memory, this week could be a laundry list of annoyances from the great to the petty. As always, I tried to drill into the beating heart of the three that annoyed me most this week… but ask me again in five minutes and the list could have easily changed again.

1) Hiring freeze. One of the fun aspects about a hiring freeze is that although people go away and are not replaced, the things that they were doing while they were working never go away. They just get shifted around until they find someone who can do a half-assed job of getting them done. It’s the old standard philosophy of “doing more with less.” It’s a perfectly find concept when applied as a stopgap measure lasting for a relatively short duration. As a permanent part of the business model, it’s somewhat more problematic. At some point the system comes collapsing down under the weight of its own absurdity and the lords of creation have to accept one of four options: 1) Call in reinforcements; 2) Accept that sometimes they’ll just have to do fewer things with the reduced number of resources; 3) Fire everyone and hope a new crew can do it better; or 4) Continue to do everything as usual with a consequently lower level of quality. What you can’t do over the long term is keep taking on additional work while keeping up with business as usual.

2) 216 miles. Having driven or flown across most of the country at some point over the last ten years, I’ve never given much thought at to distance. It’s always just been ground to cover. Lately, though, I’ve been thoroughly, thoroughly annoyed by 216 miles. I guess perspective, and motivation, change everything.

3) The Pinterest-ing of Facebook. I like Facebook. Or I like the concept of Facebook. I’m not sure I’m a fan of how it’s evolving, but that’s another post. I like Facebook as a tool for delivering pithy updates, comic pictures of cats, and generally keeping up with friends and family. What I‘m not so much a fan of is how recently my newsfeed has been taken over by recipes, chain posts, and all manner of corporate ads. I can’t do anything about the ads and I’m not going to de-friend anyone, but you can bet your sweet ass I’m exerting extreme editorial control over the “Change What Updates You Get” function.

Business travel…

The following is an excerpt from an email I received this morning. The worst part, perhaps, is I was well into the discussion on changes to lodging policies before I realized it was supposed to be farce. When you work for Uncle sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between real life and comedy… and even then sometimes real life is comedy.

ALCON,

Please be advised of the following changes to TDY per diem allowances:

TDY/TAD Travel: In keeping with the latest round of DOD budget cuts, changes will be made to the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR). Effective Monday, 11 February the following revised procedures apply:

Lodging: All DOD personnel performing temporary duty (TDY) are encouraged to stay with relatives and friends while on government business travel. If weather permits, public areas such as parks should be used as temporary lodging sites. Bus terminals, train stations, and office lobbies may provide shelter in periods of inclement weather.

Transportation: Hitchhiking is the preferred mode of travel in lieu of commercial transport. Luminescent safety vests will be issued to all personnel prior to their departure on TDY. Bus transportation will be used only when work schedules require such travel. Airline tickets will be authorized in extreme circumstances and the lowest fares will be used. For example, if a meeting is scheduled in Washington D.C., but a lower fare can be obtained by traveling to Omaha, NE, then travel to Omaha will be substituted for travel to Washington D.C.

Meals: Expenditures for meals will be limited to an absolute minimum. It should be noted that certain grocery and specialty chains, such as Costco, Hickory Farms, General Nutrition centers, and occasionally Safeway often provide free samples of promotional items. Entire meals can be obtained in this manner. We realize many of you survive your weekends this way.

Travelers should also be familiar with indigenous roots, berries, and other protein sources available at their destinations. If restaurants must be utilized, travelers should use “all you can eat” salad bars. This is especially effective for employees traveling together as one plate can be used to feed the entire group. DOD Personnel are also encouraged to bring their own food on business travel. Cans of tuna fish, Spam, and Beefaroni can be consumed at your leisure without the bother of heating or costly preparation. Cost of these items will not be reimbursed.

Miscellaneous: All DOD personnel are encouraged to devise innovative techniques in effort to save tax dollars. One enterprising individual has already suggested that money could be raised during airport layover periods, which could be used to defray travel expenses. In support of this idea, red caps will be issued to all personnel prior to their departure so that they may earn tips by helping others with their luggage. Small plastic roses and ballpoint pens will also be available to personnel so that sales may be made as time permits. Proceeds must be turned into the Defense Finance and Accounting Service at the conclusion of the TDY. We welcome any suggestions for further fiscal innovations, cost avoidances, and waste reduction techniques.

The view from my fighting position…

I’ve been blogging here at jeffreytharp.com for almost three years now. For all my other ranting and raving, the single most searched for and commented on posts were consistently focused on the 2011 Army hiring freeze. Some version of “hiring freeze” has been in the top spot for searches that bring people to the blog. Now, I love web traffic as much as any blogger, but honestly, I hoped that was a topical area that I’d be able to leave dead and buried. The hiring freeze that trapped me two years ago is long gone, but it’s been replaced by a newer, broader, and seemingly more permanent version. That doesn’t bode well for the average person working the line in an organization that has always sung the praises of personal mobility as a means to progress to reaching bigger and better opportunities.

In a world where a one-half-of-one-percent raise is a political football, the future does not look like a particularly bright, shiny place. Throw in what looks like a cross between budgetary indecision and panic at the most senior levels of leadership, the knowledge that the worse of the cuts aren’t yet here, and that there’s now open talk of across-the-board furloughs and reductions in force for the first time in a generation, and well, you’ve got yourself a workforce that shows up every day wondering when the other shoe is going to hurtle out of the sky like a dying communications satellite.

Even if the budget situation is resolved without what feels like almost inevitable bloodletting, it’s already taken its toll. Not backfilling empty positions, piling more work on those who remain, holding salaries flat as the price of everything else increases, and repeatedly telling everyone that the worst is yet to come isn’t a recipe for getting the most out of a workforce. In this one case, my hat’s off to management for trying their best to moderate the worst of the outside forces that impact all of us… but when your fates all hang on the ability of politicians to get things done in a smart and timely manner, well, you can understand my not being particularly optimistic about what the future holds.

That’s my view from my fighting position, anyway. So let’s all cross out fingers and hope that someone proves me wrong.

x1000

If you were expecting another post about the harrowing experience of packing everything you own in preparation for dragging it 900 miles across the country, I’m saving that for tomorrow. Tonight is a purely self congratulatory post celebrating the 1000th visitor for the month. Well done May, very impressive. Since half my hits lately seen to come from people looking for information on the now-defunct hiring freeze, it’s only a matter of time before things settle back to the more routine 500 view a month level. It’ll be a good long time before I gin up a topic with that kind of interest again, so I’ll savor the moment. Well, the moment and this frosty Stella Artois. Cheers!