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.

My lane…

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.

Truth telling…

Most people feel awkward telling truth to Power. It’s uncomfortable. It may make you unpopular. Like bitter medicine, the recipient will likely not enjoy the experience. Power will either blame or resent the messenger.

However, what you need to know about telling truth to Power is that every now and then you get to see Power’s face contort into the worlds most perfect scowl… And that moment makes all of Power’s bitter, condescending asshattery almost feel worthwhile even if just in the moment.

For and against…

With seven days to run before I’m expected to have pulled a rabbit out of my 4th point of contact, I really just have one simple request – one thing in all the world that would make my days more manageable. I know that the Gods on Olympus aren’t actually working against me, but what I need more than anything right now is for them to stop being for me. They need to stop trying to “help” me.

I have officially reached my limit with “help” coming in over the top. While I’m sure it’s good intentioned and (probably) not meant to sabotage a precariously balanced cross-organizational effort, every change order at this point makes every single thing left to do miles more difficult than it needs to me. They’re letting their vision of perfect get in the way of actually getting the job done.

At this point I’m ready to declare anyone who is even momentarily visited by the good idea fairy an insider threat and possibly a domestic terrorist. There’s got to be some kind of watch list I can get these people on, right?

Sitting back…

Sometimes you just have to sit back and marvel at the inner workings of the bureaucracy – at so much time and effort allocated to generating so little tangible result; at so much collective ability to dodge and weave responsibility; at so much agreement in the moment and then barge-fulls of disagreement over the same issues later in the day.

On days like today, I’m reminded of one of my very favorite lyrics penned long ago by Don Henley. In his song, the Devil weeps over Los Angeles becoming more hell than Hell. I can assure you, it’s a sentiment that applies far outside southern California.

I am an expert witness, because I say I am
And I said, gentleman, and I use that word loosely
I will testify for you
I’m a gun for hire, I’m a saint, I’m a liar
Because there are no facts, there is no truth
Just a data to be manipulated

I can get any result you like
What’s it worth to ya?
Because there is no wrong, there is no right
And I sleep very well at night

No shame, no solution
No remorse, no retribution
Just people selling T-shirts
Just opportunity to participate in the pathetic little circus
And winning, winning, winning

If ever a song filed itself right into the “how I feel about it” category, this would be the one. Well, maybe except the winning bit at the end, because I’m mostly living in a world where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.

Two hours or: The break even point…

When serving the staff there’s something that you need to remember always. Everyone is always going to think that whatever they happen to have you working on is the most important thing that anyone is working on. They will have a tendency to want their project to take up all available oxygen in the room, every moment of discussion time, and every bit of available manpower. That leads to the typical day being a maelstrom of competing priorities and people who want something done right-the-hell-now.

The reality is, good as I may be, I am but one man with one keyboard and a finite amount of time to allocate in pursuit of whatever harebrained scheme has priority at the moment. As often as not, I determine the priority of effort among the universe of possible projects that need action with minimal outside input. I like it better that way, really.

From time to time, though, something comes along that someone wants and yet it still never bubbles to the top of the list of things to do. Eventually, though, someone high enough in the food chain gets it in their teeth and starts gently nudging you towards whatever this favored need may be. When they nudge hard enough, no matter what else is churning, it gets some attention.

That’s all my long way of saying that it’s remarkable what can get done in two hours when you lock yourself in a room, turn off Outlook, don’t answer the phone and just start writing. It’s remarkable and might even get you off the naughty list of the person who’s been asking for that bit of information for three or four weeks… but of course it lands you squarely in hot water with the 37 other people who think their projects also deserve special attention.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this place is marginally easier to contend with once you realize that falling behind is the norm and the best possible day is one where you manage to break even because with the time and resources authorized there is literally no way to ever get ahead of the volume of things that need doing. Trying to have a little bit of perspective is awfully important.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Loaded Thursdays. A few weeks ago I thought it would be a good idea if I loaded Thursday from top to bottom with meetings. Getting them out of the way, having the bulk of the week to prep for them, and generally ruining as few days of the week as possible running hither and yon to these sessions really felt like I was on to a winner. Compressing meetings onto one date should free up time and be efficient. Maybe it is, but in my planning I forgot the First Rule of the Bureaucracy: The Bureaucracy must expand to consume all available time and resources. I now have more meetings and less prep time than I did before arranging this new wonder schedule. If someone could step in and hit me in the face with a shovel the next time I have a good idea it would be incredibly helpful.

2. Common sense. If you log on to social media and call for common sense legislation on any topic, but then call anyone who disagrees with you on any point an idiot, a terrorist, or worse, you’re pretty much the reason we can’t have an effective dialog in this country about anything. On issues of social policy, thinking people can have wildly differing opinions about the whole array of ends, ways, and means. Refusing to so much as discuss any idea that differs from your own forecloses any possible avenue for progress. In a republic of free people, what may be “common sense” to you, may well be nonsense to another. There’s no hope of finding a scrap of common ground without the conversation, though.

3. I’m not the decider. Look, I gave up an dreams I ever had of being a professional decision maker a long time ago. I can advise, I can recommend, I can object strenuously, and I can present information in any format and order it needs to form a coherent platform from which to base decisions. What I can’t do is fight city hall. I won’t be the guy who’s tilting at windmills. Let someone else take on the burden of making a decision based on the best data and analysis I can provide them. I don’t want it. But for the love of Pete, once that decision is made can we all agree to shut up and move out smartly? No? Fine. Let’s all just sit around and piss and moan that we think it should be different. That’ll do the trick.