What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bureaucracy. Wednesday morning I received an email from the Office of Personnel Management. The sole purpose of that email was asking me to forward the email, a request to take a survey, to my supervisor. Yes, before anyone asks, it was a legitimate email versus some kind of elaborate and badly executed fishing expedition. Every time I start to think that maybe we have reached peak bureaucracy, Uncle goes ahead and sets the bar just a little bit higher.

2. Meetings that wouldn’t even justify being an email. The bosses called a global “all hands” meeting for our corner of the great green machine this week. There were 80 invitees in person or online. Squarely in the middle of when I’d generally be breaking for lunch. Surely, you’d think, this would be for the transmission of important information or critical organizational changes. No. It was 30 seconds of regurgitated talking points and 14 minutes of birthday cake for one of the top line managers. He’s a good enough guy and all, but if you’re ever wondering why morale has moved on from being in the shitter to being in the septic tank, I’ll present exactly this sort of asshattery as evidence.

3. Pants. I had to stop what I was doing in the middle of the day today and put on pants. Between the rain and the plummeting ambient air temperature, it was just plain uncomfortable. I’m not mentally ready to concede that the long summer is over. I’ve obviously spent too much time growing accustomed to conducting the business of the day in tee shirts and shorts. Making the transition back to actual pants feels… onerous. 

Dick…

Here’s a short lesson: Don’t be a dick.

Some people will let you bully them because you get loud and turn red. Some will think pushing back is just more effort than it’s worth. Some will be quiet because they work for you and don’t want the trouble standing up will cause them.

This ain’t my first rodeo, cowboy. If I didn’t get intimidated by agency directors and political appointees, random managers in the depths of the organization marking time until retirement aren’t exactly apt to get under my skin.

Sometimes people get the misguided impression that they’re important. It’s almost never true… especially when they have to beat their chest and pitch a fit trying to make their case.

At various times in my career I’ve been privileged to work for people who others have wanted to go out of their way to help. I’ve also run into my fair share of blowhards who think everyone should bow and scrape purely by virtue of some title or other.

Like I said, the lesson for today is don’t be a dick. It’s surprising how much further it’ll take you.

Grace note…

Thanks to ballooning community spread of COVID-19, presumably among the unvaccinated masses, my employer’s almost 4-week-old effort to begin returning the workforce to something approximating pre-pandemic working conditions has been dramatically curtailed. All that really means, of course, is that instead if extra days of schlepping across two counties to sit in a cubicle, I’m back to mostly working in tatty shirts and fuzzy slippers from the comfort of my home office.

For all the hand wringing that’s accompanied the Delta variant, as a fully vaccinated person with a statistically miniscule chance of dying from a “breakthrough” infection, rolling back our return to the office policy feels like a grace note. It’s the Indian summer following the Great Plague’s golden age of working from home. It’s one more glorious moment in the sun – or at least being able to see the sun since my home office has windows and my designated place in cubicle hell doesn’t.

The whole thing, I’m sure, is giving management several kinds of fit. I almost feel badly about that – at least for a few of the bosses who are in their trying consistently to do the right things for the right reasons. I don’t feel anywhere near badly enough to pass up another, probably all too brief, opportunity to spend my days at work dispensing occasional ear scratches and keeping a cat from laying on the keyboard while writing memos and building slide decks.

All things considered, my mood about the current work environment has once again improved dramatically. It’s temporary, of course, but this is clearly a case of beggars not being choosers and I’ll cheerfully ride out this new, new, new normal for as long as possible.

A trusted professional…

I am a professional bureaucrat. Not the best pusher of paper that ever lived, but there aren’t many cases where I have trouble holding my own.

In that role, one of the things you are faced with is that while you can be an advisor – a voice of reason – you’re not in any way to confuse your position as being that of a decision maker. That function is performed by others. It’s a fact that you either accept fairly early in your career or it slowly drives you towards a special kind of madness.

I’ve come to terms with it.

I’ll give the very best advice my seven years of running certain projects can provide. It will generally be insightful and guided by the experience of having been there and tried that at some point in the past. I can tell you where the bodies are buried, why certain ideas have never worked, and the kind of feedback we’re likely to get if you follow any specific course of action. What I can’t do is force you, as the decision maker, to follow the best path. That part is wholly out of my hands – and often beyond my ability to influence.

I can only promise that I’ll always give you my fair and honest estimate of what should be done, the resources it needs, and how to avoid the foreseeable pitfalls… but don’t think for a moment that means I won’t be right there cheerfully dispensing a loud and hearty “I told you so” when the thing turns into a barely mitigated shitshow because you wanted to go your own way.

I might be a trusted professional, but don’t think for a moment I’m above gloating even when the cock up means I’m doing 5x more work than we’d have needed to if we did things the right way from the start.

Partial victory…

As sometimes happens when you write in advance of publication, yesterday’s post went live shortly after “breaking news” that would have changed how I approached the narrative.

My little corner of the bureaucracy has, as I write this, a spanking new telework policy wending its way through the approval process. Late yesterday afternoon it was sitting with the union bosses for their final review. Sure, it’s a union that can’t negotiate salary or benefits or extra vacation days, but there they are – one more inexplicable wicket for policies to pass through on their way to final approval.

Pending this final review and eventual signature by one of our very own star spangled gods of Olympus, I understand the new policy will allow eligible employees to work from home 40 hours out of each 80 hour pay period. That’s not quite as good a deal as the three days per week that was initially rumored, but marginally better by than the current allowance of a flat two days per week – and much improvement over the one day a week that was often the “unofficial” standard.

Would I have liked to see a new policy that went further in really minimizing the days the average person needs to spend in the office? Sure. It’s possible the next guy who sits in the big chair will look upon telework as just normal “work” by another name rather than as something new and different that is frightening and needs to be constrained as much as possible. In this deeply traditional workplace, being able to work from home half the year is a pretty significant shift in how we do business under regular order versus in plague conditions.

Call it a partial victory…. if it ever actually gets signed, of course.

Long and lingering…

So we’ve been back to the new, new normal for a few weeks. I’ve never been in love with cube farm life – much less so after demonstrating that 95% of my weekly tasks can be completed from the comfort of my sunroom office at home – but I like getting paid, so I more or less toe the line. It’s something to bitch and complain about, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

While being back in the office is less than ideal, the shift to two day per week telework has been surprisingly helpful during this transition. Adding a mid-week day at home to my traditional Telework Monday at least breaks up the otherwise unpunctuated days of loitering in cubicle hell between Monday and the weekend. The middle of the week reprieve makes the three other days considerably more tolerable. There’s nothing, of course, that would make a week in the office all sunshine and lollipops, so anything that makes it even marginally more endurable is a net good overall. Never let it be said I can’t acknowledge the small mercies when I see them.

There’s still the vague promise of allowance for an additional telework day or two in every pay period working its way through our Byzantine review processes. As of this afternoon it remains spoken of, but un-adopted. I’d optimistically looked for official word on that to reach us by this point, though that’s obviously more a case of my own wishful thinking than the reality of the speed at which the paperwork flows. That more days, even if only an even split between home and office easily qualifies as a win – an opening gambit for future agitation if nothing else… but with each week that passes without it being enshrined into policy, procedure, and guidance there’s more opportunity to get it twisted or for it to become just one of those things we talked about but never put in practice.

Such is life in cubicle hell… where good ideas go to die a long, lingering death.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Pennsylvania roads. With a tax base that includes two of America’s biggest cities and metric shit tons of New York City commuters, I’m never entirely sure why the roads throughout the commonwealth are so utterly appalling. Maryland is a tax happy, liberal paradise, and as annoying as the endless road work throughout the state is, at least the worst of the pot holes get filled. I mean a bit of decent infrastructure feels like the minimum one should expect from a state government with their hands so deeply into everyone’s pocket… but not Pennsylvania, though. They seem determined to let even their biggest highways turn back into dirt tracks and cow paths.

2. Bait and switch. You lured us into accepting a meeting request with promises that “lunch will be provided,” but suddenly the day of the meeting it ends up moving to 9 AM and there is no food. In any other context that’s plainly a bait and switch tactic and illegal in many contexts. I’m not saying you should never trust management, but a bit of good, healthy skepticism is always in order.

3. In recognition of a newly annointed federal holiday scheduled for tomorrow and noting the 14 working days that the creation of this lawful public holiday slashes from the number of days I’ll be in the office during the balance of my career, there is no third thing that annoys me this week.

First line…

First line supervisor is the most thankless job in any organization. You’re supposed to cheerfully implement whatever wackadoodle garbage the gods on Olympus adopt as policy while getting immediate feedback on how utterly fucked up those policies are from the 8, 15, or 25 people working for you. You’re the one who gets to tell those people why leadership’s brilliant ideas that will make getting the job done harder than it needs to be are actually “good for us.” It’s constantly walking the line between being sympathetic and supportive of line employees while not directly admitting that management at echelons above reality has a long ad storied history of screwing the pooch.

I’ve had a lot of jobs I hated, but being a first line was the worst of them. Not because of the work, but because I was never really comfortable identifying as “management.” It’s hard to throw the occasional bomb and agitate for your personal hobbyhorses when you have to spend your days selling guidance from higher to a generally disbelieving audience. In my experience it was never in any way worth the few extra dollars that show up every two weeks for your troubles.

To my current boss’s credit, she didn’t bat an eye when I came in with a request to double my official (pre-plague) telework schedule from one day to two each week. It complied with our official (and unchanged by the plague experience) policy, of course, but it’s a request that did violated the unwritten office policy that prevailed before the Great Plague that we should work from home no more than one day a week. I appreciate getting at least to that point didn’t require a Herculean effort.

After a year of proving the concept, I desperately want to push for more, but the current crop of Olympians have made plain that two days a week is pushing their comfort zone to the absolute limit. There will be a new regime in August. Perhaps they’ll be less mired in thoughts of carbon paper and view graphs… but never let it be said I don’t give credit where it’s due. Flying in the face of custom, even when policy is on your side isn’t the easy path for someone on the first line.

It was a golden age…

I don’t suppose there will be any official notification. No proclamations. No drums or trumpets. There’s likely to be nothing but my own angst and deep disappointment to mark the passage of what I’ll always consider a golden age.

You see, by the time I get back from taking a bit of time off next week, we’ll have already passed out of the era of “maximum telework” and begun phasing back towards “normal” operations. As it turns out, we’re opting not to observe any of the lessons of 2020 and making preparations to restore things to precisely what they were before the Great Plague. Passing on this literal once in a lifetime opportunity to create a better way to work, we’re going to take a knee… because our particular Olympian god doesn’t get a warm fuzzy unless he sees asses in seats. It would be laughable if the outcome wasn’t so utterly predictable.

After 18 and a half years on the job and with 14 years left to go, I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that the best, most rewarding fifteen months of my career are about to be over. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance more suited to my personal and professional temperament than the one we just worked through. Watching what worked so well being garroted to suit one man’s vision is damned near heartbreaking.

If there’s ever a time in the next 14 years where you think I’m sounding bitter about a stark refusal to embrace new modes and methods of “accomplishing the mission,” there will be a good reason for that… because I don’t plan on passing up an opportunity to continue agitating for a workplace that isn’t mired somewhere in the land of the gray flannel suit when it comes to their philosophy and practice of management.

It won’t make me the most popular kid in class, but fortunately I’ve had a lifetime of experience in knowing how to carry that role. 

Unchanging an immutable…

We went through short stretch a few years ago where the number of mandatory yearly training classes was dramatically reduced. I can see from looking at my personal “mandatory training” tab today that things are swinging back in the other direction.

Sitting through these sessions online is marginally better than physically cramming 750 people into an auditorium, but only just. Maybe my outlook would be different if the basic content changed from year to year, but as it is, by the time I hang it up, I’ll have sat through 32+ iterations of threat awareness, substance abuse, anti-harassment, and cybersecurity training among others. The names of these sessions might be different, but otherwise not much else has changed with them in the last 18 years. It’s hard to imagine inertia will drive much change in the next 14.

All told, it’s probably 20 hours a year which could be just as effectively covered by taking 10 minutes and telling us not to use drugs, not to sell secrets, knock it off with the sexual harassment, etc.  I suppose there are entire offices that would cease to exist if people could be collectively relied on to simply follow directions, though. Whole bureaucratic empires would cease to exist and we obviously can’t have that.

We could just drop the hammer on people who routinely screw up… but it’s easier to swamp the guilty and innocent alike with wave after wave of “training” if only to avoid the inevitably awkward conversation with people who just can’t seem to get it right. The endless hours of training, it seems, isn’t the only thing that’s unchanging an immutable.