Cubicles aren’t the problem…

Even back in spring 2020, in the early days when the Great Plague raged unchecked, some of us were still coming to the office. Often it wasn’t many – and certainly some came more than others, but on the average day there may have been five or six people spread out in a room built out to hold around thirty. For good, bad, or otherwise, those who make decisions were determined that the place was going to have at least the loose appearance of conducting business as usual. They were determined to keep the lights on.

I only mention it, because I had a bit of a unique career experience today. For most of this day before Thanksgiving, I was the last man standing… or maybe the only one without the foresight to drop a leave request for today and Friday. In any case, I spent most of the day with the place entirely to myself. The only time I’ve had an even similar experience was a million years ago when I was a fresh, young GS-7 working in DC who wasn’t banking enough vacation time to be extravagant about taking the Friday after Thanksgiving. Even then, there were a few other people knocking around the far reaches of the GAO Building’s 3rd floor, so I wasn’t completely on my own there.

Today was a real Time Enough at Last moment, which is to say it was kind of ideal. As it turns out, just being stuck in a room full of cubicles and awful fluorescents for the day isn’t necessarily the problem with the modern office. It wasn’t quite as good as a day working from home, but without all the people, I mean it didn’t particularly suck.

It looks like I’ve learned my one new thing for today, so I’m feeling pretty good about that.

Time, distance, and the laws of men…

It’s that special time of year again when the gods on Olympus like to pretend that they are not in any way constrained by time, distance, or the laws of men. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and those high and mighty gods have, right on schedule, realized that the minions on whom they depend to work their will will increasingly be unavailable thanks to end of the year leave taking.

Now what someone with a modicum of common sense might do, is prioritize whatever effort or efforts are legitimately “most important” and concentrate on getting those through the gate first. What we’ll actually be doing, of course, is piling on increasing levels of stuff to do and then watching as “leaders” gnash their teeth and rend their garments because it’s not getting done.

The pool of available people to keep up with whatever wild-ass new ideas the bosses dream up will get a little smaller every day between now and the end of the year. It would be comical if it weren’t absolutely predictable. I’ve watched this spectacle first hand since 2003 and can only assume this great green machine has been up to the same kind of pre-holiday fuckery since Washington was a Lieutenant.

Look, I really am sorry… but if you’re looking for a guy who’s going to jump through his own ass, moan, and wail, because your failure to plan has become an “emergency,” I’m just not your huckleberry. Never have been. Never will be. You have my word on it.

On making a difference (or not)…

The number of people who call my phone thinking they can steamroll me with some variation of the phrase, “My boss said…” would honestly blow your mind. I’m sure whatever their boss said carries some relative weight… with them. Since their boss is almost never anywhere on the list of people who sign my yearly performance evaluation, what we generally have is them passing along information that could, in a certain light, be considered interesting to me, but that is also almost entirely irrelevant.

I promise, I’m not out here making shit up as I go along. If I’ve done something, it’s because someone who does figure into my rating chain has either told me to do it or will support my interpretation of whatever led me to take a specific action.

After nearly twenty years at this, I don’t get impressed or intimidated by titles or shrill voices. But feel free to call and raise your complaint. I may even smile and nod sympathetically right before I proceed with doing whatever I was about before you called.

Follow my advice. Don’t. Either way, it honestly makes absolutely no difference to me. But good luck when someone higher up the pecking order asks your boss why it didn’t get done.

We don’t really do consistency here…

One of the great joys of working for my employer is that we’re absolutely comfortable delivering mixed messages. It’s such a regular part of business that I doubt most people even notice. I notice, of course, because it’s exactly the kind of random foible that I enjoy writing about. 

I present the following by way of example:

On one hand, the message from the very top is that COVID-19 remains an existential threat to our ability to contest and not lose the nation’s wars. In light of that, every one and all of us must stay masked, be vaccinated, maintain social distance, and keep working from home because it’s dangerous out there.

On the other hand, the same organization is holding its last frenzied meetings about piling people from around the country into a large convention center for three days next week. I’m sure it will be a glittering affair with everyone fully following all published best practices and risk reduction strategies. You just can’t beat the synergistic effects of breathing all over each other to enhance lethality and multi-domain readiness… because it’s not so dangerous out there.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned during my career is that we are very serious about following rules and procedures, unless, of course, those rules and procedures are in any way inconvenient or interfere with what the gods on Olympus want to do. Then, it helps if you just think of them as suggestions and don’t take them seriously in any way. If you came looking for consistency, boy did you come to the wrong place. 

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.