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.

What I learned this week…

Sometimes I wish I’d never started underwriting Fridays to feature “What I learned this week.” As often as not, the answer, really, is “not much.”

As it turns out, unless something is running wildly out of tolerance, most of my weeks are remarkably consistent. There’s enough different most weeks to not be entirely Groundhog Day, but the similarity is enough that it’s not exactly the environment for learning new and interesting things.

This week has been another like the others – not so much full of new ideas or experiences, but heavy with reminders of lesson already learned – like nothing will be critical to the Uberbosses until it’s close enough to bite them in the ass. My personal favorite this week is the old tale of waiting to the last possible moment to throw up a new, completely undiscussed requirement which threatens to derail weeks of work.

There’s very little I do that should be particularly difficult, but Lord don’t we find a way to make even the easiest things into the heaviest of lifts… and all for no apparent reason.

Lord save me from the Bureaucracy. Maybe it’s time to get working on that sequel to Nobody Told Me…

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. One day shipping. I know there’s a pandemic (despite or apparent collective decision to ignore it). Shipping times have been all jacked up, but “arriving on or before” has been reasonably reliable throughout. I placed an order last Thursday that indicated next day delivery. It was, of course, a no show. By Saturday afternoon the order status changed to “delayed.” Then it was the Sunday and federal holiday Monday. On Tuesday the status changed again to “There may be a problem with your order.” By Wednesday, the status changed yet again to “We think we lost your order” and offering a link to request a replacement. I duly followed the link, requesting the replacement… about two hours before the original item arrived on my doorstep, delivered by a third-party carrier that was never once mentioned in any of the shipping information I received from Amazon. Sometimes I think they are true masters of logistics. Other times it feels like they don’t have any idea what’s actually rolling through their system. 

2. Someday, just once, I’d love to know what it’s like to be part of an organization where the left hand has any semblance of a clue what the right hand is up to… or I could just continue to flail helplessly in a bottomless morass of abject fuckery until it’s time to turn out the lights. Either way, I guess.

3. Personal bubble. After a week of continuing to mute the hell out of people on Facebook, I’ve started doing the same on Twitter – Except this time I get to block whole words, phrases, and hashtags instead of (or in addition to) ignoring entire accounts. I’ve grown weary of feeds spewing uninformed content, virtue signaling, and purity tests so I’m opting to continue to curate my personal online bubble. There’s enough absolute shit to deal with day to day without being flooded across my social media platforms too. For what it’s worth, I haven’t needed to do a thing to Instagram and will cheerfully stay there… ummm… for the articles. The left and right hands.

Jeffrey Tharp and the Zombie Conference from Hell…

For the last six years I’ve found myself saddled with one project that I haven’t been able to shake. Reorganizations and realignments have come and gone and yet this project hangs on grimly, like Marley’s suffering in spectral chains for a life misspent. It’s the classic example of creating a massive boondoggle where having a simple website would be sufficient. Circus tents, cigar bars, catered lunches, live bands, and evening socials… for some reason, the Gods on Olympus have pegged me as they guy you want running your social extravaganzas. Yeah, the guy whose idea of a good time is getting home early and tucking in with a good book and avoiding people as much as possible. That’s exactly who you want to plan your biggest party of the year. 

You’ll never convince me that the universe doesn’t have a particularly fucked up sense of humor. 

It’s really only on my mind today because, in the era before the Great Plague, today would have been opening day for this particular event… and I’d have been two wake ups away from getting the shitshow over for another year.

Other, more reasonable organizations, have decided this isn’t the time to do big productions. They’re being cancelled left and right, being pushed into the fall or into 2021. We’ve gone with a different option of kicking the can down the road a scant five weeks and “reimagining” the whole thing as an online event. That’s fine. I’m sure there won’t be any problems at all with scrapping nine months of planning and collapsing three days of material into a single day using a webcast platform that none of us has ever used while coordinating with 30-40 key players via email and phone because we’re mostly home hiding out from the Great Plague. Seriously, I mean what could possibly go wrong with this plan that’s been too-quickly conceived, barely coordinated, and will be almost completely unrehearsed?

Even in the face of mayhem, chaos, plague, supply disruption, fear, anguish, loathing, and common goddamned sense, we will drive this project forward. For reasons that defy any mere human logic, it’s the unkillable zombie conference from hell and the absolute bane of my existence.

I’m sure it will be the best doggone conference ever. 

The bitterest end…

I was sitting in the kitchen this morning and the realization came that this – endless early weekday mornings of the cat expectantly watching for the first birds to arrive at the feeders, dogs snoring comfortably after their breakfast, and a book in my hand – this is going to end eventually. 

This is going to end and mornings will again be about rushing madly to leave the house on time and get to the office. We’ll go back to sitting for 8.5 hours doing the things that the last month have proven don’t need to be done in a special box, in a certain room, in a specific building. 

It will end because old management philosophies die hard. It will end because despite evidence to the contrary the bosses are never likely to accept that work gets done if they can’t see asses in chairs. There are outliers, of course. People who can’t or won’t function on their own initiative or a few tasks that for reasons can’t be conducted “in the clear.” Those are the outliers, though, and could be resolved through proper performance management or innovative scheduling. That’s likely too big an ask for a creaking old bureaucracy.

Eventually this will end and the relentless tentacles of Cubicle Hell will reach out and pull us all back down into the pit forever.

It’s the most bitter of bitter ends.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Spring mix. Look, a hungry tortoise needs to eat. I’m slowly working on getting George to accept pelletized dry food as a supplement, but it’s a hard sell for a boy who was raised from day one eating fresh leafy greens. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a shortage of spring mix, kale, or collared greens, but I still have to schlep out to get them… and that happens just about every 4th or 5th day, because fresh greens get slimy in a hurry. I’m a past master at drying off and storing spring mix in layers of paper towels, but what I really need is for that stuff to just last for another day or two before turning to slime so I can knock down the mandatory trips out of the house from two each week to one. 

2. Masks. Reports are that the CDC is considering recommending everyone where a mask when they leave home, which is exactly counter to the recommendation that the general public didn’t need masks that they’ve been pushing for weeks. Adjusting to new information is fine, it’s how science is supposed to work. Except it can’t work that way right now. The CDC suddenly recommending that everyone should wear a mask when there aren’t enough of them in the supply chain to satisfy the demand just of the medical community is irresponsible. Sending 300+ million people out to panic buy masks will make them even harder to acquire. Even if it is the best medical advice, in the current environment it doesn’t make sense.

3. Essential. A former boss of mine could always be counted on to remind you that “words have meaning” whenever you wrote something that wasn’t exactly the way he would have put it. The thing is, you see, he wasn’t wrong. Words absolutely have meaning. We use them to convey information. The word that seems to be creating the most struggle this week is “essential.” Sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re important. They like to believe that they’re the cog without which the great machinery of state can’t run. There are jobs that can’t be deferred for a month, a week, an hour, or a minute. There are jobs that need doing right fucking now. Despite what people or bosses think, most of us don’t really make the cut.