Climate survey…

Every job I’ve ever had was driven, at least in part, by the recurring rhythms unique to the organization. Cycles are everywhere if you’re paying attention – fiscal year end, annual conferences, daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports… and my very favorite, changes of command.

One of the perks of working for our Big Bureaucratic Organization is that someone new ends up occupying the top spot every two or three years. When you’ve got a good one, the time goes a little faster, but when you have a bad one at least you know they won’t be there forever. In the age old tradition of the bureaucracy, when all else fails, bureaucrats know we can outlast even the worst of the worst in their tenure. The bureaucracy was here long before any individual leader and will endure long after any individual has departed. To quote Ronald Reagan, the bureaucracy “nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

As sure is night follows day and summer follow spring, a change up at the top of the org chart is followed by conducting a climate survey. It’s one of the tools by witch the new guy is supposed to “get to know” his organization – or at least what people are brave enough to say about it when they’ve been promised anonymity and non-attribution.

I’ve lost track of how many of these surveys I’ve responded to over the years, but I can count on not all the fingers of my left hand the number of things that have ever been improved in any meaningful as a result of them. Still, I play along, mostly because if the bosses are dumb enough to ask me how I really feel, I’m absolutely dumb enough to give them an honest answer. Since it might be the only chance during any particular boss’s tenure where I’m invited to tell truth to power, it feels like it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Fortunately, after years of answering questions and very little changing I have built up quite a repository of stock responses that, after a bit of tweaking, are every bit as applicable today as they were the day I first wrote them… two, five,, seven years ago, or more. It’s just another in a increasingly long line of times when saving every scrap of previous work products as part of my Official Papers archive really pays dividends.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Free” college. Almost a decade ago, the federal government stepped in and allowed people to refinance their mortgages during the housing crisis – but only if you let your payments fall behind. If you took your word as your bond and paid on time even though it was hard, well fuck you sucker. That’s why it took me $30,000 out of pocket to close the sale on my Tennessee house. I played by the rules and got properly fucked for the trouble. Now Senator Warren comes along and wants to push student loan “forgiveness” as the brave new way ahead. If she gets away with it, once more I’m a sucker for playing by the rules, doing the hard work, and being responsible for paying my own debts. I really do despise the 21st century. 

2. Morale. Apparently as a moral boosting endeavor we’ve installed a wall-sized mural with my organization’s name blazed across 30-feet of graphics and some fancy new signage in our bit of cubicle hell. I’m sure someone thought it would be a good idea and that everyone was sure to find it inspirational. I’m just not one of them. I’m probably too jaded and cynical at this point to ever be bought off by new signage. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Want to improve my morale? Throw me a step increase in recognition of the work I’ve done. Hit me with a time off award – that one is my personal favorite. Order up some office chairs that aren’t low bidder junk or computers that aren’t crippled right out of the box. If you’re going to spend the money, spend it on something that matters… because new wallpaper doesn’t get it done.

3. 5PM. Being a creature of habit, there’s not much I value more on any given weekday than leaving the office on time. I value arriving on time, too… because getting to work on time is a reasonable employer expectation. The converse should also be true – leaving on time should be a reasonable employee expectation. Except the average office is full of subtle signs and symbols that it isn’t the case. No one will come right out and say it, but you’re supposed to just understand and not mention that someone at echelons higher than reality has scheduled a meeting to start an hour or two after you’re supposed to have departed the area for the day – and that’s assuming that the meeting will accidentally start on time, which of course it won’t… The not so subtle message being that anything you have outside the office walls couldn’t possibly be as important as what’s happening inside them. Then again, this is often driven by the same people who think they can fix morale problems with wallpaper, so it’s whatever I guess. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bathroom stall phone calls. Yes, you’re sitting down and probably bored, but the shitter in the public restroom really isn’t a conference room. And yet at least once a week I walk into the one down the hall from my little section of cube farm and there’s someone holed up in one of the stalls having a full blown conversation. First, it’s the one room in the building where I can mostly go to escape pointless conversation. Secondly, whoever you’ve got on the other end of the line doesn’t need to hear you dropping the kids off at the pool. Lastly, you can save the stink eye, because every time I walk in there and find you on the phone, I’m going to fart, belch, whistle a jaunty tune, and generally be as loud, obnoxious, and passive aggressive as possible… because I dare you to say something to justify yourself in the eyes of gods and men.

2. City slickers. In Paul Krugman’s recent screed in the New York Times, Getting Real About Rural America, his thesis seemed to be that things could get better if only people in rural America started thinking more like people living in urban America. The catch, of course, is that I’ve made the conscious decision to live in rural America precisely because it doesn’t think (or behave) like urban America. I could have just as easily decided to live in Baltimore, Wilmington, or Philadelphia but none of those places support the kind of lifestyle or the quality of life that’s important to me. If the capital “D” Democratic Party ever wants to make serious inroads into the vast swath of country beyond reliably Democratic voting cities and inner suburbs, they’re going to have to come up with a far better argument than “you should just think like us.” The day I declare I want to give up wide open ground, backyard wildlife, towering oaks, no traffic, and idyllic quiet for “everything the city has to offer,” consider this my written permission to begin proceedings to have me psychologically committed. 

3. Recognition. After spending the better part of six months mixed up in delivering a final product that’s “rolling off” the proverbial line next week, there’s nothing more cheering that sitting in a meeting where one of the Gods on Olympus turns to you quizzically and asks, “Ummm, why are you here?” Oh, no particular reason, I saw a meeting forming up and I didn’t have anything else to do this hour so I thought I’d hang. I don’t ever do things for public credit to see my name in lights – in fact I actively avoid those things. Still, though, sometimes it might be nice to know it’s recognized that I’m not just wandering the halls lacking anything better to do. You can just color my morale well boosted today.

The year without a Christmas (party)…

This time of year my social media posts are usually well represented by comments about an upcoming office nondenominational winter holiday party. In recent memory these events have mainly consisted of an office pot luck lunch or if the power that be were feeling more expansive, heading out to one of the nearby food service vendors. These activities weren’t so much festive as falling into the broad category of just being better than being in the office. Their highlight, as often as not, was that after lunch and the requisite amount of socializing with coworkers, we were able to punch out a few hours early.

I didn’t always participate in these functions. Some years meetings interfered and during others I just didn’t have the mental energy to devote to small talk or other mandatory niceties. What I did enjoy, though, was having the option of “buying” a few hours of time off for the low, low price of going out to lunch. 

This year, it seems we’ve decided that it’s not worth the effort to even pretend to be interested in morale and dispensed with the holiday lunch altogether. I’m not here to shed any tears over the demise of forced employee social functions, but I do hate to see the fine and noble tradition of those couple of extra hours off fall by the wayside. Some traditions are, after all, worth preserving.

New rule…

Ok, so I’m going to use today as a learning experience and opportunity for growth and professional development by implementing a new rule. Effective immediately you don’t get to spend two weeks wringing your hands wondering why morale is in the shitter and then start scheduling meetings that don’t start until 6PM. Frankly there’s no better way to wreck whatever small satisfaction I manage to find in the work than making sure I don’t get home until 4 hours after I’m supposed to. It’s fine to preach the importance of balance and being laser focused on people, but if you don’t actually practice those things, I’m not sure why even bother talking about them. Nothing gives the lie to “taking care of people” like doing the opposite.

Another pot luck pot luck…

“Sooooo… not many people have signed up for the pot luck next week.” Because I somehow managed to be anointed Keeper of the Pot Luck Sign Up Sheet, this fact wasn’t a surprise to me. The fact that a week before this kind of officially designated team building mandatory fun event, almost no one had signed up to participate shouldn’t have surprised anyone, really… but it does, time after time.

You understand going in to this line of work that it’s not Silicon Valley. We’re never going to have a water slide in the lobby and a full bar in the break room. Our bosses aren’t going to rent out a beach house or ski lodge. What we end up with, then, are events planned to “make do” with whatever minor leeway we do have in terms of building team spirit and morale. Of those, the pot luck lunch is the staple.

Maybe there was a time when this kind of thing was popular – make a dish, bring it in, pass it around. Smoke, joke, and relax for an hour or two. Now that we can’t smoke, no one can take a joke, and a long lunch is looked on as the ultimate form of slacking, I just can’t imagine why it’s not drawing a bigger crowd. Face it, I cook for myself in the evenings out of necessity – making another dish to carry along on the commute is just another layer of hassle I’m ok with avoiding.

The only thing I can tell you is that my morale has never been significantly improved because of a plate full of lukewarm and/or over crock-potted food offered up in some drab, windowless conference room. I’m willing to stipulate that the intentions here are probably good, but the execution is something between bland and ineffective. Sure, if it makes anyone feel better, I’ll send out another reminder, but you can go ahead and mark me down as a hard no.

When dentistry is the lesser evil…

I’m not a fan of the dentist. Being a responsible adult I try not to let time drag out too long between visits… but given half an excuse, I’ll almost always opt to kick my appointment down the road for a few weeks before showing up.

Today I had ample opportunity to dodge my scheduled time in the chair. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Give the tenor of the week so far dentistry felt like the lesser of the two awful ways to spend an afternoon.

The fact that I’d rather face the drill than another afternoon of meetings probably says a lot about the head space I’m occupying currently. When days have a tendency to roll on with a grinding certainty, any deviation towards something different is a relative bright point. That fact that it’s true even with that “something different” is a couple people jamming sharp objects in your mouth should probably be more alarming than it currently feels.