Twelve chairs…

One of the many exciting “other duties as assigned” I enjoy during this, the worst month of the year, is that of circus roustabout. It’s toting, hauling, setting up, shifting, tearing down, followed by more hauling and toting. This time of year, my position description might as well read “Laborer, General” as opposed to anything that has “analyst” in its title.

Today’s major project was retrieving a dozen “VIP chairs” from one auditorium, loading them onto pickup trucks, driving them a thousand yards, and then unloading them into another auditorium so there could be a nice matching set on stage. I was reminded with every bit of toting and hauling why furniture moving is the kind of thing I happily pay someone else to do these days.

Believe me when I tell you I don’t in any way presume that moving furniture is beneath my dignity. I’ve had far worse jobs for far less pay… but then that’s kind of the point, I suppose. By the time you add up the hourly rate of all the people involved in shifting these twelve chairs and account for their individual overhead rates (to account for non-salary payroll costs), it would be far more cost effective to outfit each auditorium with twelve matching chairs instead of paying people to shuffle them from building to building as needed. If you assume a fifteen year life cycle for a chair that’s only used a few times a month, it’s an investment that would pay for itself in the first five years. That’s before you even look at lost productive time or basic opportunity cost of having a bunch of analysts move furniture around instead of working more “high value” tasks.

I’m sure there’s a parable about the nature of bureaucracy here. I try not to dwell on it too much.

What Annoys Jeff This Week?

1. Tucker Carlson. Tucker staked out a patently absurd position on his Fox evening entertainment program last week. I know, I know. I should be more specific because most of his positions come across somewhere on the absurdity spectrum. I know it was absurd because some of the most serious thinkers in DoD responded more or less instantly to rebut Tucker’s asshattery. They’re not generally people who feel compelled to stake out public positions, except in this case, ol’ Tuck decided to opine about things that are, by definition, these particular leader’s area of expertise. No one “attacked” Tucker. They simply had the audacity to tell him that he’s a moron and explain why that’s the case. No one violated the damned Hatch Act. Having a professional opinion doesn’t undermine civilian control of the military. Differing opinions are only dangerous when you’re so thin skinned or your position is so badly placed that you can’t defend it rationally. In this case, it seems Tuck and his supporters fall into both categories. As usual, the “leading lights” of right wing kook media have left me embarrassed to be an actual, practicing conservative.

2. Higher taxes. They say Joe is working on a new tax bill and it’s likely to be the largest tax increase since 1993. I see lots of people saying they don’t mind paying more taxes. Good on them. With or without a higher tax rate imposed by the government, they’re free to send as big a check as they want over to the treasury. They can do that. No one would stop them. But it seems what people mean when they say they don’t mind paying more tax is they don’t mind so you should pay more too. “But,” they’ll argue, “it only applies to people who make more than $400,000 a year – the ‘absurdly rich.’” Right, I think, because every tax that ever was started out as a tax on “just the wealthy” until our political machine needed a few more dollars over time and the “absurdly wealthy” became most every working sucker in the country. So, please, write as big a check to Uncle as you’d like. Feel free to give of your own income until it hurts. That’s your right and privilege. I’ll be over here fighting tooth and nail to keep every penny I’ve earned and distribute it how I see fit.

3. I spent today doing exactly the same things that I did yesterday. I answered emails, entered information in a fancy database, and generally moved electrons around from Point A to Point B as needed. The only difference between today and yesterday was where I was physically sitting when I did those things. Yesterday I was parked in the sun room with two dogs snoring in the background and today I was in my designated cube with seven or eight conversations humming in the background. Plus, today added an extra 80 minutes to the day since I had to drive to my cube and back to do exactly the same things I did yesterday from the comfort of my home office. “But we need to have a presence in the building,” is the most patently farcical reason I can think of to justify the construction, maintenance, and daily running cost associated with a modern office building. The argument against remote working forever is effectively that we need to have people in a special geographic spot because we happen to have a special geographic spot. As far as I can tell it has absolutely nothing to do with productivity or whether the work in any way depends on unique geographic positioning.

Skipping the COVID luncheon…

If there was any remnant of the Before Time I thought the Great Plague would manage to kill off, it was the whole concept of the office retirement / going away party. For eight months now, medical advice has been to severely curtail unnecessary social interaction (ex. graduation parties, weddings) and for the last few weeks the wisdom of traveling to join family members for Thanksgiving and Christmas has even been called into question. 

It’s bad enough for people who need to show up for jobs that can’t be done remotely (and even worse for those whose job can be remote, but prevailing management culture prevents or discourages it). The goal there, in the absence of proper vaccination, should be in minimizing the number of people occupying the same workspace to the maximum extent possible. Pulling more people into that space for something as blatantly needless as a farewell luncheon feels like approaching the very height of an unnecessary activity.

People want normalcy. They want to do things that way they use to be done. I get it. Wanting to put more people that necessary for continued operational requirements in a room for the sake of a pot luck lunch, is, in my estimation, an absolute jackass move and you’ll never convince me otherwise… but by all means, I welcome an explanation of how it in any way “supports the mission” without unnecessarily increasing the overall risk to every person in the room and any person who might be in the room after the fact.

I’m sure it’s well intentioned, but a farewell luncheon in a confined space is just a bad judgement call from people who should know better. So yeah, I’ll be skipping the COVID luncheon, thanks.

There’s a first time for everything…

I’ve made something of a hobby out of ranting and raving about the job, poking fun at the nature of the bureaucracy, and generally saying out loud what I suspect a lot of us have thought at one point or another. The truth is, I’ve had a remarkable career – well beyond what any kid born down the crick in the late 1970s had any right to expect.

With one or two notable exceptions I’ve been blessed with bosses who existed somewhere in the good to exceptional range. Again, with occasional exceptions, I’ve mostly had colleagues who I both liked and respected.

In a few months, I’m coming up on 19 years on the job. Through all of that time, I always felt capable of informally working through any problematic issues that came up. At worst, there would be an awkward conversation and things could be nudged back on track. For the first time in almost two decades of service, I’ve encountered an issue that couldn’t, by its nature, be resolved informally, off the books.

Despite my reputation as a grenade thrower, let me say that I absolutely hate having been put in this position. I hate that I needed to be the one to say something in a universe that values going along to get along. I hate that it puts more trouble on my boss’ plate when it’s already piled high with shit sandwiches. I hate that I have colleagues who could be put into a worse position than they were before I opened my mouth.

Mostly I hate the fact that decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality made any of it necessary in the first place. 

A wasted opportunity…

I’ve got no interest in being a “digital nomad.” I don’t want to work from a different far-flung location every month, schlepping my life around in a suitcase. I sampled that life enough when I was young, ambitious, and living in hotels to know that being home with the animals and all my stuff is really where it’s at. That I can do with almost no limitations thanks to the amount of technology being brought to bear to make the old school office a bit anachronistic.

In its ongoing coverage of the world in the Great Plague era, National Geographic asks, “Is this the end of the office?”

As much as I’d like to think the answer is an unreserved “yes,” I’ve been bureaucrating long enough to know better. When you hear comments like “I don’t know how anyone works from home” or “I don’t think anyone gets anything done from home,” or a more general “I hate it,” from those in a position to make decisions on whether work takes place from anywhere other than the belly of cubicle hell, well, it’s a pretty clear indicator of what the actual future will look like. Evidence to the contrary won’t, in my professional estimation, be a factor when such things are decided.

It’s a shame, really. This should have been an opportunity to overhaul the way we thing about and do our work – and a way to create a distributed workforce that doesn’t rely on a single point of failure (ex. a big concrete and steel building) to get the job done. Instead, at the earliest possible moment, we’re likely to roll the clock back, and pretend that everything must be just as it was during the before time.

I had hoped that I was settled in to the place where I was going to ride out the last third of my career, but of that means a return to being judged by physical presence rather than output, I’ll likely need to reconsider that thought. I’m not sure I’ll be able to content myself to a world that goes back to valuing asses in cubes as its key metric for success.

Evaluation in a plague year…

It’s that magical time of the bureaucratic year where I have to describe how wonderful I am and what important work I’ve done in the last year.

Let me say for the record that I have no problem at all talking about myself… especially when it has a bearing on how much money I’ll make over the next twelve months. When performance appraisal time rolls around, I’m my own biggest fan and cheerleader – a happy warrior bent on carving out as much of the performance award pool as I can for myself. It’s most decidedly not the time to be shy.

What I’ve found, after two days of tinkering around with how to write my self-assessment this week, is trying to define and describe your value added in a plague year is, in a word, interesting. 

So far, it’s looking a lot like this:

  • Thing 1 – Cancelled due to Plague
  • Thing 2 – Cancelled due to Plague
  • Thing 3 – Heavily modified due to Plague
  • Thing 4 – Business as usual
  • Thing 5 – Has gone absolutely batshit crazy and now takes two people to do… due to Plague

If there’s ever been a moment where I’m thankful for the ability to string together a large number of long and important sounding words, this is it. 

I mean surely there are plenty of creative ways I can say “Redistributed workload to support alternative missions in support of emerging and immediate requirements in inter- and intra-organizational cross-functional operations in the COVID-19 environment across the enterprise.”

Yeah, I’m not 100% sure what it means either, but it sounds like something important might have happened, right?

Works of fiction…

I spent a good portion of the day today transposing PowerPoint bullets into narrative for a Word document.

It’s fine. I don’t hate it. It’s absolutely an exercise in creative writing to be sure – filling in gaps or expanding thoughts on topics I only know tangentially. In another line of work, my job description would undoubtedly define the roles and responsibilities of “fluffer” as a key element.  

Still, it’s definitely not even close to the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever been told to spend time doing. Standing in the parking lot, in the rain, patrolling the VIP parking corral takes that prize by a fairly wide margin.

It’s going to be best all around not to dwell too long on the question of why a perfectly serviceable document in PowerPoint wasn’t good enough and that the same thing needed to be duplicated in Word.

If anyone is ever curious about why I generally oppose handing over large swaths of the economy to the tender mercies of the bureaucracy, it’s almost entirely because so many of us spend so much time doing things exactly like this. 

Give it a lick…

For most of my career I’ve been a jackass of all trades – a circus roustabout thrown at whatever needed doing at the time. Sometimes that keeps life from getting dull… but then sometimes you show relative competence in doing that which no one else wants to do and it becomes attached to you permanently. One of those perennial problem children raised its ugly head again this morning.

You see, it all started as a small conference that grew over time to include tents, a technology exposition, food trucks, and a weekend carnival before radically shrinking down to a simple online “event” under the weight of the Great Plague. 

Today I was dragooned into a meeting based on the threat that the Gods on Olympus are dreaming up ways to reinflate the demandable thing in a new and potentially painful way. 

It’s disheartening to discover that we’ve learned nothing in the last five months – that the plague hasn’t managed to kill off the whole idea of professional conferences / boondoggles as monumental wastes of money. The beginning of the plague year held so much promise of losing the old ways in favor of methods that don’t involve dragging hundreds of people around the country, jamming them all in the same room, and putting 20,000 square feet of parking lot under roof.

As always, even in a plague year, the bureaucracy often exists simply to lick its own ice cream cone.

Yummy.

How to improve cubicle hell…

I was in the office today. Even five months into the Great Plague, the rhythms of the place carry on largely unchanged. With upwards of 70% of the staff working from home it has a bit of a ghost town feel… but the phones keep ringing, the email keeps flowing, the day-to-day work seems to be getting done, and ridiculous ideas continue to abound. If it weren’t for needing to pick up the phone instead of sticking your head over a cubicle wall, I’d honestly be hard pressed to know that today was any different than the before time. I suppose you can decide what to make of that information.

What I noticed most about the day, though, was the absence of periodic fuzzy interruptions throughout the day. I hadn’t noticed until now how much I’ve come to expect the cat to occasionally jump onto the keyboard or work through the next email one handed while one or both dogs lean in for ear scratches and ear rubs. Even with that, they’re among the least distracting coworkers I’ve ever had.

The golden age of working from home will end eventually – killed off by the unstoppable force of an employer who believe asses in seats equals productivity as much as by the immovable object of employees who equate working from home with a paid vacation day.

I’ve known for most of my working life that there’s very little I can do at the office that I couldn’t do from anywhere that has a reliable internet connection… but these last few months have only just reinforced that having the animals alongside makes the fuckery of the standard eight-hour work day infinitely more tolerable. If we’re all eventually going to be stuck back in cubicle hell eventually, adding some coworkers with wagging tails or a steady and reliable purr would be incredibly helpful.

Red shirt Fridays…

Since the beginning of the Great Plague, I’ve been an “occasional” essential employee. That mostly means I schlep over to the office on days when a warm body is needed to meet the mandate that someone physically be there.

Like my Pepto-Bismol pink shirts of yore, worn as a mark of being sick of a never-ending monthly series of hours long meetings that accomplished absolutely nothing, I do my best to arrive on duty these days wearing my finest red shirt. Like the red-shirted crewman of Kirk’s Enterprise, I know too well that my role here is to be utterly replicable phaser fodder.

What I’ve learned through four months of working through my occasional role as a red shirt is that easily 90% of what I do professionally can be done from anywhere in the world that offers a stable high speed internet connection. As often as not, it can be done faster from such far flung locations as my home office or back porch because the work isn’t interrupted every 15 minutes by chatty colleagues or impromptu meetings. If I’m brutally honest, the other 5-9% of work that I need to be in the office to do could also be done from remote locations, but would require something more than the current “basic load” of software we have to work with.

That leaves somewhere between 1-5% of work activities that require specialized access or equipment that can only be provided in the actual office. Even assuming the upper end of the range, which I’m not conceding other than for illustrative purposes, that’s a legitimate need to be in the office about one twentieth of the time spent working.

I have to wonder if, at some point, the universe of bosses will figure out that constructing these monumental buildings of concrete and glass are ultimately a bad return on investment. They’re literally billions of dollars of infrastructure that can’t be justified because the work doesn’t need those buildings to get done. Better, perhaps, to build smaller, more cost effective offices that people could use “as needed” rather than continue to proceed from the assumption that nothing can be done if it’s not happening in a cubicle.

I’ve got, hopefully, less than fifteen years left in this ride of mine, so I doubt seriously I’ll see that glorious awakening – not when the current generation of uber-bosses still like to throw around phrases like “team cohesion,” “collaborative workspace,” or “synergy.” They’re still too hung up on seeing asses in seats and slavering at the bit for the day they can bring everyone back to cubicle hell.

They have the power. They can return the office to (almost) exactly what it was before the Great Plague. They can, but they shouldn’t want to. They should replace the old constructs with something better, more cost effective, and employee friendly.

I know it’s a dream, but it’s a happy one – and one I won’t stop advocating for even when they bring all the red shirts back.