The death of downtown is greatly exaggerated (probably)…

I read an article this morning that more or less decried the death of the downtown business district due to the continuing popularity of remote work. The percentages cited are hard to get around. 

The city I’m most familiar with, having spent three years commuting into DC five days a week for three years back in the early stretches of my career, it looks like the in-person workforce is about 65% of its pre-pandemic high. Back when I worked in DC, my regular commute involved a 30-minute drive, a 40-minute Metro ride on the Green Line, and a 10-minute walk. So that was an 80-minute one way trip under perfect conditions and assuming I left the apartment no later than 5 AM. That time could easily double if there was even the hint of trouble on 95, 495, or the BW Parkway. The trip home in the afternoon? I never made that in less than 90 minutes and the worst day was 3.5 hours from door to door. 

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I’m not surprised that the average employee isn’t knocking down the doors to get back into their downtown cubicle, burn up fuel, buy expensive downtown lunch, or generally feed the beast when they don’t need to do those things as part of getting their respective jobs done. It’s not captured in any of the articles or studies I’ve read, but if the downtown businesses that supported armies of office workers are losing out, it feels intuitively like there should be a corresponding uptick in the money being spent by these workers at the shops and stores closer to home. Those are more diffuse, of course, and necessarily harder to track. They’re not the story that the big players want to tell.

The death of the great urban downtown is, I suspect, being greatly exaggerated… but maybe there really is a crack in the idea that downtown must be synonymous with gleaming office towers only occupied from 7 AM to 7 PM five days a week. There really is a better way… of course that would involve real estate investors and management companies spending some money to bridge the gap between what was and what will be. Whether they’ll want to do that instead of just paying for bitchy articles about how much better it was when office buildings were full remains to be seen.

Keeping holiday time…

It’s that time of year again. In the last few days of run up to Thanksgiving, it’s obvious that no one’s got their heart in it; Even those that are here aren’t really here. Sure, physically some of us are banging around the office, but everyone is somewhere else in their own mind – tucking in to a proper holiday dinner, Black Friday shopping, or generally being anywhere other than cubicle hell.

Next week everyone will trickle back. There won’t be enough of us to pretend it’s a flood. There’s too much leave to be taken between now and the end of the year. Like dragons, we hoard it just for the joy of seeing that vast pile of time burned in a conflagration roaring across the closing weeks of the year.

Sure, there will still be a few of the bosses who want to pretend that it’s business as usual and everything is getting done. But the rest of us will know better. The five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are a land out of time. To fight against it in any but the most dire circumstances is the height of folly and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

Even now, a few days before Thanksgiving, I can feel the inexorable draw of Holiday Time. And that’s the real magic of the season.

They’re always self-inflicted…

One of the tasks that more or less defines my job was impossible to do this week until around 10:00 this morning thanks to a bit of software that had been migrated to a new and improved flavor last week and then promptly shit the bed.

Look, I don’t personally care. If Uncle wants me to do the work, he’ll make sure the systems and software all function. I can sit around twiddling my thumbs with the best of them. I am, after all, a highly seasoned bureaucrat. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory. 

The only catch is when systems are down for days on end, it tends to create a backlog and then when the boffins over in the IT office get sorted, the whole log falls directly on your head. That’s where we ended up on today – with at least three days of backlogged work in the queue plus whatever extra came in over the side before close of business. 

To at least one person, every bit of it was something ranging between “important” and “urgent.” To me, of course, it’s all just something to blast through as quickly as possible while trying to get about 80% of it tucked into the right places. If I’m being perfectly honest, since I read every single item that passed through my hot little hands today, I can tell you none of it was actually important, let alone urgent. It was mostly the living embodiment of the kind of electronic ephemera the bureaucracy passes around to continue justifying its own existence. It’s the kind of morass you really want to take a bit at a time rather than in anything resembling large chunks. 

It’ll get done – mostly because I don’t particularly want to deal with this particular hot mess again on Monday. It’ll get done, but I’ll piss and moan about it the entire time, because it’s just another wound we inflicted on ourselves for no discernable reason. If that doesn’t define government work, I don’t know what does.

A low-grade crud…

I went from March 2020 to December 2021 without so much as a cough. I can trace my Christmas crud last year directly to the one time I strayed out from normal habits of avoiding people. Believe me when I tell you I was good at avoiding people before COVID. After COVID, I’ve become exceptional… of course that assumes a situation where I exert some level of control over most of the variables. 

I’m in no way surprised that six weeks after “return to the office” I already find myself dealing with a low-grade crud. You wouldn’t be surprised either if you heard the general amount of background hacking, sniffling, and general complaints that “it’s probably just a cold,” floating around the cube farm on any given day.

The good news is that as long as the handy little at home tests can be trusted, it’s probably a run of the mill cold and not the Great Plague. The bad news, of course, is the only reason I’ve got a head full of anything just now is because my corner of the great green machine continues to obstinately cling to the idea that work is a place rather than an activity despite two years of evidence to the contrary.

If you’re wondering when I’ll stop being salty about this world where asses in seats continues to be a more important metric than production, well, I won’t… and I don’t even need this periodic upper respiratory reminder to keep it in the forefront of my mind.

A sad bloody hash…

A million years ago when I was a teacher for about 30 minutes, I was a dues paying member of the local union. I don’t remember how much the dues were, but it must have been pretty nominal if I was willing to part with it when I was making something like $2,400 a month. Part of the deal there was that the union was responsible for negotiating our salary and benefits package. Outside of that, my engagement with them was pretty minimal.

For most if not all of my career as a cog in Uncle’s great green machine, I’ve also been nominally superintended by one union or another. The difference here, of course, is that none of these unions are able to negotiate pay or benefits or much of anything that really makes a strong case for sending them money every other week. In 20 years, the total number of times I’ve needed anything from a union is precisely zero point zero. Other than the few run-ins I’ve had with them complaining about me for taking up whole swaths of the parking lot with giant tents every April there for a few years, I simply haven’t had any reason or desire to deal with them.

After three weeks of wondering why no one has heard anything about when or if the new and improved telework program will be rolling out, I finally decided to reach out directly to the leadership of our local union. I sent over a perfectly professional inquiry about why we hadn’t heard a word about it, what the holdup is, and when it’s expected to be resolved. It’s certainly not as if it isn’t a point of conversation around the water cooler every single day at this point.

I’ll be honest here, I got the sense that the union official who responded either didn’t appreciate the specific questions, didn’t appreciate being questioned in general, or maybe he’d just gotten tired of being asked the same thing 100 times a week. His response did throw in one of my favorite old saws that anyone who’s been around more than a few days has heard – that “we train to standard, not to time.” You can roughly translate that to mean it’s going to take as long as it takes, so quit asking.

As a professional planner I consider it one of the worst possible approaches to doing anything. In my universe, time is part of the standard. A 100% solution delivered months after it’s needed is every bit as bad and often much worse than a 50% solution delivered on time. Neither one has the desired effects when and where they’re needed. Any good planner should tell you they’re working to both time and standard, not one or the other as if they’re mutually exclusive, unrelated factors.

Basically it was a very polite invitation to go fuck myself, which I’m not especially offended by… other than wishing people would just say that up front rather than couching it in euphemism. He made his point. I made mine. I doubt either one of us feels better for the experience. As a non-dues paying employee, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight to the union’s internal deliberations, but that doesn’t mean for one moment that I’m not going to voice them whenever I feel it’s appropriate… and I haven’t seen or heard anything yet that would convince me our “representation” hasn’t made a sad bloody hash of the whole thing. 

Darkness, both figurative and literal…

Today was an office day. I like to think it’s also the day when we reached peak in-office fuckery. In order to understand why that’s the case, I should probably provide a little bit of background information.

When you have a billion dollar office complex, there’s always things that need fixing. It’s an issue probably multiplied because the whole thing was slapped together by the low bidder. Keeping up with general repairs and preventative maintenance given the perennial lack of money and personnel for those things is often more something done with a lick and a promise rather than really getting after the problems and making permanent fixes.

Today was supposed to be an exception to the rule. In order to make this particular fix, though, the whole damned building allegedly had to fall off the local power grid. Those of us serviced by the emergency generator would still have some limited power to run laptops and a few other odds and ends, but we’d be sitting in the dark while doing it since the overhead lights don’t rate having backup power. That’s not necessarily an issue elsewhere, but since the room we’re in is a windowless box anyway, how much natural light streams into the rest of the building from outside doesn’t really matter.

This “planned power outage” was scheduled to start at 7:30 and last four hours. By 1:00 this afternoon, the whole thing seemed decidedly suspect. A half an hour later or so, it was revealed that although it had been publicized as a planned outage, it turns out there wasn’t going to be one in order to do whatever work they were supposed to do. It was a big overture for a little show. You might think that planning, scheduling, and communication would be an integral part of life in the bureaucracy… but in most cases you’d be wrong. It’s more like a never ending game of the blind leading the blind.

Even though the lights didn’t go out this time, I had to wonder if all this wasn’t an allegory for the whole damned organization. Sitting in the dark waiting for stuff to happen is pretty much the definitive experience of being a cog in Uncle’s great machine… even on those days when the dark is only figurative rather than literal.

Value added synergy…

In recognition of my first day back at the office under 2019 working conditions, I’m excited to provide an exhaustive list of things I did at the office that I couldn’t have done if I were home.

– Cleaned off a shelf in my cubicle to restock with coffee, tea, and corresponding additives and accessories. If I’m going to have to be here, mass quantities of caffeine are absolutely going to be necessary.

– Cleaned out a drawer in my cubicle that was filled with crackers, ketchup packets, and sundry foodstuffs that mostly expired early in 2020. Mostly this was just gross. For the record, I should note that mustard packets absolutely do not age well even when stored in a cool, dark place.

– Found two banker’s boxes with lids that someone was sending to recycling. Banker’s boxes are great for book storage. They’re now stashed in my cubicle awaiting a dry day when I can liberate them.

– I spent an hour in a meeting this morning. It was probably one of only 3 or 4 meetings I’ve attended in person in the last 30 months. I have no idea why I was invited as none of the topics were anywhere close to my lane. But there I was, because that’s where Outlook told me to be at 10:00. I could have dialed in for this meeting, but since I was there in person, I’m claiming it as an accomplishment for the day.

– Pushed the button to unlock our room door thrice. As far as I can tell, this is in fact one of my mission essential tasks. In light of that I’ve begun tracking how many times a day I push the button. If it’s going to be the thing that keeps us here in person, I want to make sure I get credit for it on my next performance appraisal.

– Got to listen to at least one person hack up a lung in each and every room I entered today. No idea if it was flu, cold, allergies, plague, or some new and exotic illness, but there they were, spraying the room and everyone in it with their aerosolized gunk throughout the course of the day. I’m just going with assumption now that the office is 100% where the Great Plague will finally catch up with me.

– It was Taco Tuesday featuring a selection of hard- and soft-shell tacos, homemade empanadas, all the appropriate toppings, and a selection of deserts. It was one of the rare occasions when I willingly violated my personal rules against participating in lunch events in badly lit conference rooms. 

There you have it. That’s what extra value you get for your money when I’ve schlepped over to cubicle hell instead doing business from the ease and comfort of my office at home. I’m sure it was all very “value added” or “synergistic” or “team-focused” or something.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Things from the Before Time. People are returning to the office. What I’ve noticed, particularly among a certain set of semi-senior or management types, is a quiet, unspoken determination to do things the way they were done in the Before Time. There’s a willful effort at suspending disbelief and denying the reality of the Great Plague. The fact that people aren’t quietly going along with their fervent wish to roll the clock back to February 2020 almost hits them as a surprise… as if they want to wish away the fact that over the last 30 months, the people didn’t find a better way to work and arguably a more rewarding way to live. But here they are, shocked and surprised that most of their colleagues aren’t thrilled and excited to commute, spend eight hours a day siting in florescent hell, or pile into a charter bus packed elbow to asshole with 53 of their new closest friends to take a two-hour ride. The powers at echelons higher than reality can make people return to cubicle land, but their expectation that anyone will do it with a smile in their heart is going to be sorely disappointed. 

Hurricane coverage. I’ve never really understood why networks make their anchors stand in the rain looking like drowned rats for their newscast. I know television is a visual medium, but I think everyone watching has had enough experience with rain to know what it looks like when you get caught in a downpour. Sure, show the aftermath. That’s probably newsworthy at some level. During the storm itself, though, there’s honestly just not that much to see that can’t be caught through a window or from under some minimal level of shelter. Sending grown ass adults to stand outside to demonstrate that it’s raining and windy, doesn’t feel particularly useful to my understanding of the coverage.

Being a dollar short and three months late. The plumbing company I had originally planned to use to install and new and improved water filtration system (more than two months ago) called rather sheepishly on Monday morning. The voicemail went a little something like “Oh, hey Mr. Tharp… We, uh, have a plan here for your filter system… We, uh, must have put it in someone else’s file and, uh, wanted to schedule a time to come out and get started on that work.” I appreciate the level of audacity it must take to make that call, particularly after I spent a month calling weekly to see where the plan was and when they were going to get started, before giving up and handing the project to a company that came out, drafted the plan, and did the work all within a week’s time. Mistakes, I’m told, happen. This, however, is one that could have been avoided at any of five or six points along the way if they had responded to a customer’s efforts to make contact. I encourage this company to go, and I can’t emphasize this enough, fuck themselves. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Protests. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember a sign waving, getting in the way of things protest that I’ve ever knowingly supported. The tactics most protesters employ seem almost perfectly designed to guarantee that I’ll either quietly oppose them or openly mock and deride them. The small “r” republican protestors who have been popping up in London this week aiming to disrupt the most solemn state occasion of the late Queen’s funeral are probably exactly the kind of friendless cranks you might expect to engage in that kind of ill-timed, boorish behavior. I’m not saying the Crown should necessarily haul them off to the tower, but if the rest of the populace got together and heaved them directly into the Thames, I’d likely look the other way and then have a good laugh about it.

2. Lindsey Graham. For the last six months every Republican who could find a TV camera earnestly declared that abortion was an issue that should rightly be resolved by the states. That the federal government has gotten too large and overreaching is a reasonable argument. The remedy, of course, isn’t to hand that misbegotten power to the states, but rather return it directly to the people, who are the font of power under the American system, and allow them each to decide based on their own particular light. But then here comes Lindsey Graham, boldly introducing a bill that not only flies in the face of small government orthodoxy, but which will be wildly unpopular with 60% or more of the electorate. It might buy him some votes from the Republican base in South Carolina, but otherwise it makes him look like a fucking moron.

3. Eyes. My eyes suck and have since I was a kid. Take away my glasses and I could probably squint my way through things at very close range, but forget about telling the difference between a car and a cow more than a couple of dozen yards away. I’m headed off to my annual eye exam tomorrow, where I plan to spend my hour griping and complaining that by 8PM, my eyes are shot. It’s a situation that’s beginning to interfere with my evening reading and that obviously can’t be allowed to stand. With the return of wasting hours of the week commuting to the office for reasons that defy logic, but make perfect sense to management on the near horizon, I can’t afford to lose another hour or two in the evening with my eyes running everything together into lines of black smudge. 

It’s a long list…

It’s new supervisor day at the office. I’d like to pretend raging indifference, but the fact remains that whoever signs your leave requests and timesheets has a tremendous influence on whether the eight hours you rent yourself out for on a daily basis go well or badly.

After almost twenty years in harness, I’ve accumulated a long list of former bosses.  If I feel like being polite, I’ll say that some were better than others. If I’m not, I’d say that some were princes among men and others were oxygen thieving asshats I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on if they were on fire. Most were somewhere in between the extremes.

I don’t know the new guy, so I’m withholding judgement until there’s a reasonable basis for deciding where he falls on the spectrum. A lot of that is going to depend on just how “energetic” they decide to be in their new position. All new bosses will inevitably make changes, but the real determinative factor is whether they wants to change the things that need changing or whether they end up chasing wholesale changes just because they want to “leave a mark” or because he knows better than anyone ever before.

The dude has got big shoes to fill… and I’m not just saying that because the old boss is now my senior rater. It’s a hard, thankless job made all the more difficult because echelons higher than reality can never quite agree on what the job is actually supposed to entail. I’ve had two chances now to apply for what would be a respectable promotion and opted against doing so both times. I wouldn’t want the job at twice the pay. I’m happy enough letting others sit in the councils of the great and the good while I tend my widgets and get home at a reasonable hour.