It’s not so much the “going back to the office” that’s agitating. I mean it is agitating, but that part was predictable. Sitting in a windowless room decorated in shades of gray and tan for eight hours to do exactly the same things I do while having a view of the woods of Elk Neck is, in a host of ways, unimaginably stupid. Even so, what’s raised my ire today is more the little things – like the 90 minutes a day utterly wasted every time I have to schlep to and from an eight hour stint in cubicle hell.
If I were a younger man, less vested, less tethered by the promise of lifetime health insurance and a pension, I’d be casting an awfully broad net right now. As it is, I’ll have to content myself to search for more flexibility among a smaller pool of potential employers. Many of those, I’m sure, share a common love of looking out over a vast sea of filled cubicles, because no one does group think quite as well as those whom our rich uncle has trained up for lofty positions of “leadership.”
Commuting, as far as I can tell, is nothing more than an added insult to the original injury of having an open bay cube farm inflicted on you in the first place. It’s mind boggling that we’ve collectively decided that this is the “normal” everyone wants back.
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.
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.
It’s Friday. That used to mean something. Usually I’d welcome it unreservedly. This week, though, it just means the countdown to the inevitable raft of stupid that will consume all of next week is about to set sail.
There’s one final waypoint on Monday. It’s the last formal opportunity for the gods on Olympus to inject changes into a timeline that’s been tinkered with for months now. Certainly it’s been sloshed around long enough that a reasonable person could have already spotted anything they wanted to change. Life in the bureaucracy, of course, mustn’t rely on the expectation of the gods being reasonable… or even that they’ve looked at anything until the last possible moment.
It may be Friday, but there remains an entire weekend and a Monday before things start to happen and inertia exerts itself on the course of events. On Friday evening it’s still entirely possible for someone to breathe the wrong way sometime in the next 72 hours and send the whole thing spiraling off into a chaotic hell dimension.
But sure, other than that lurking in the background, I’m ready to enjoy the weekend.
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.