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 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.
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.
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.
It took just under 100 minutes from the time I pressed the power button until the time my computer was fully booted up and ready to work. I’m sure it was downloading and applying some very important patch or update that we just couldn’t live without, but why that sort of thing couldn’t have been pushed on any number of the nights when my computer was dormant, but connected to the network by VPN, I’m sure I don’t understand. Later in the afternoon,I got the opportunity for another restart and update. Whatever. If that’s how our rich uncle wants me to spend a third of my time on the clock today, that’s his issue… but don’t ever tell me that having asses in these seats is about “productivity.”
The rest of the day was mostly keeping up with email and fiddling around with databases that it was my job to fiddle with today. This was all accompanied by the background noises, from a few cubicles down the row, of a colleague deeply in the grip of allergy season and their regular snorting, coughing, and hacking. Of course then there were the seven other people here with their own phone calls, random conversations, and general distractions rounding out the day. Remind me again why I should be in a hurry to return full time to a room full of this?
With the exception of being the designated warm body present to press the button that grants access to our little room, I’d be hard pressed to identify one thing that was better or more effectively done today because I was sitting in my cube rather than in my own office at home. Reports didn’t get done faster or with more precise information. The databases weren’t updated any more promptly. Yet, there I sat. Because it’s how we’ve always done things… and we operate in a world where that’s more than enough justification for the people who make the decisions.
1. Workforce “recovery.” This week I’ve started hearing the first rumbles that planning is picking up for the inevitable “return to work” phase of the Great Plague experience. It’s part of the workforce recovery plan that’s lain more or less dormant for the last year. The bosses will talk about it in grand terms of “bringing people home” to the office or of the supposed productive benefits of stacking thousands of people into 6×8 foot cubicles. They’ll talk of being “better together,” of having team synergy, or a hundred other phrases that mean, more or less, nothing. That’s the story they’ll tell themselves. Some people, I suppose, will even believe it. Me? Well, I’ll know from fourteen months experience that there’s almost no part of my job that requires being in a specific place during specific hours. I won’t have the audacity to say everything I do could be done from somewhere else… but I will say my time sitting in a cubicle could be limited to, like the old National Guard slogan, two days a month and two weeks a year – and every lick of my work would keep getting done on time and to standard.
2. Intellectual property. In a press release yesterday from the White House, the Biden Administration announced that it supports waiving intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines. Patent protection is among the most important functions we expect from government. It creates a safe and secure environment for innovation. While the federal government, through its expenditures supporting Operation Warp Speed, has a vested interest in vaccine development and distribution, the more rational course of action would seem to be continuing to ramp up domestic production of vaccines for export and cooperation with a few foreign manufacturers as trusted agents rather than handing over the keys to the kingdom without sufficient safeguards protecting the monumental intellectual effort that went into creating these vaccines.
3. Schedule. I had some maintenance scheduled here on the homestead this week. The day before they were to do the work, their office confirmed that “Yep, they’ll be there at 8:00.” Perfect. I like and appreciate early hours. The catch, because there’s always a catch, is the crew didn’t actually roll into my driveway until 9:05. Had the arrival time been given as “between 8 and 10,” I’d have been fine with it. I’d have even give at least partial credit for a call letting me know they were running behind. Yes, I know I’m more a fanatical devotee to staying on schedule than most. I tend to leave so far ahead of my projected arrival time that I’ve been known to tuck in to a nearby shop’s parking lot for a few minutes to avoid arriving obscenely early to appointments. I don’t necessarily expect that from other people… but if you say you’ll be somewhere at 8:00, being there at 9-something tells me you’re not even trying.
The blatant truth about today is that even though I was sitting here in the sunroom / home office banging out emails, I lost all sense that it was a weekday and that I’d need to have something ready to post at 6:00 tonight. After spending most of the last two weeks in the actual office, I suppose I forgot just how much being here felt like a much less onerous version of work. Not needing to attempt to concentrate over the sound of half a dozen other conversations probably doubles my productivity… not to mention ability to concentrate on whatever details are actually in front of me.
Unfortunately, those are precisely the sort of factors that are difficult to measure when it comes time to compare the costs and benefits of working from home versus being in an actual office somewhere.
That observation makes for a bit of a bland post. It’s not exactly a eureka moment, but after spending more bulk time in the office than I have in a year, it was certainly a bit of reinforcement of just how good it can be.
The exact details of what the future of work will look like in my little corner of Uncle’s big green machine remain a little vague. It’s hard to imagine a world where everyone piles back into big concrete and steel boxes as if nothing ever happened. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a world where the gods on Olympus willingly go on only seeing people a few times a month. Some places will undoubtedly swing further on one direction versus the other.
I suppose once that all shakes out, I’ll start needing to make some decisions about what I think the future of work needs to look like. Fourteen more years of going back to doing this “the old fashioned way” increasingly doesn’t feel sustainable.
I sat through ten separate briefings about contracts today. Maybe it was one very long briefing. After the first hour, it mostly tends to bleed together with one contract being much the same as all the others. I’m sure to those who’ve dedicated their careers to the exciting world of government contracting or those companies who are hoping to score the next billion dollar contract from their Uncle Sugar, it’s all entirely fascinating. Being neither of those two things, it’s all largely something that just must be endured.
I’ve said for years that I’m completely agnostic about what people say or do once they’re on stage. I’ve rented you the hall, made sure everyone has a place to sit, talked to the guys who run the sound and video, and otherwise set conditions for you to succeed or fail on your own merits. What anyone chooses to do with it from there, is entirely between them and whatever gods they follow.
As a mostly disinterested third party, these several days of talking contracts does nothing for me so much as make me want to lay down and take a hard sleep. With no vested interest in any of the content one way or another, it’s all a jumbled wreck of dull, duller, and dullest when it hits my ears. You’d think after seven years of sitting through these some affinity for the stuff would rub off just due to long familiarity. Alas, it seem familiarity has only bred that other thing it’s famous for creating.
Some people, probably those with a more optimistic world view, would say we’ve reached the point in the week where momentum has kicked in. My less generous take is that really it’s just bureaucratic inertia taking hold of the event. Once a program or project starts, they’ll mostly just continue along indefinitely until something forces them to stop. There’s no stopping function here until close of business two days hence.
There’s a schedule we’re vaguely close to following. People are showing up more or less at their designated times. We’ve trudged through the first and longest day without any overly serious problems. Don’t get me started on people’s seeming inability to brief and then immediately go away so we can proceed on schedule to the next segment. This introvert will never understand the tendency to stand around, blocking the camera, glad handing for ten minutes once you’ve finished what you’re there to do. Personally, once my piece is finished, I want to be the first out the door. I’ve never felt the need or desire to mill around talking about what I just talked about when there was literally anything else I could be doing.
On a positive note, I haven’t had to worry about a giant tent blowing away during a freak thunderstorm, the caterer not making enough food for lunch, or issuing refunds for people wo decided to spend shit tons of money and then not show up. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice. Still, from my wheelhouse down at the edge of the stage, the only good event is the one that’s already over.
I spent most of the morning updating slides that were allegedly “final” three weeks ago. There’s always one more opportunity to swap out “glad” for “happy” for the 36th time, I suppose.
I should probably be happy. The inertia of large events is about to take control of this one and guide it down the slipway towards “mission complete” on Thursday afternoon. The only promise I ever make in the days before a Tharp and Associates Production is “Some things will go well. Some things will go badly. And a week after it’s over, no one will care except that it means we’ve checked that particular box for another circuit around the sun.”
This is the second year in a row that we’ve been forced to do everything “remotely.” Despite it being infinitely more manageable and cost effective, I can’t imagine that COVID-enforced way of doing things being allowed to persist in a post- COVID world. Before you know it, I’ll be back to talking to caterers, circus tent rental companies, stage and lighting designers, and the gaggle of other vendors you need to deal with to make sure every year is just a little bit bigger and more extravagant than the one before.
There are loads of future dates and activities that I look forward to, but I try not to make a habit of wishing my life away. All the same, if I were to go to sleep tonight and somehow wake up on Friday morning, I wouldn’t raise a word of protest.