I’ve ranted and railed at length about the seemingly endless trail of mandatory training “experiences” my employer requires each and every year. Some of those trainings are online modules that literally have not changed since I started way back in 2003. I’m looking at you here Constitution Day Training. Having studied history and political science, there are very few documents written in the English language that I prize more highly than the Constitution. Clicking through a few pages of how a bill becomes a law or which powers reside in the Executive and which in the Legislative just doesn’t fill me with an augmented sense of awe and wonder. The fact that so much of this training is stale, though, misses the broader point.
Regardless of how stale or dated the training, it’s mandatory. Beyond it being mandatory, eventually I know I’m going to catch hell if all those little boxes are not check off next to my name before the clock runs out on the end of September. What everything finally translates to is I’m going to suck it up and wade through hours of pointless training not because it’s teaching me something new, but because I want to keep myself out of trouble. I’m sure that’s some kind of pedagogical construct, but it’s not one I learned about a hundred years ago when I was learning to be a teacher and design instruction. Again, however, even that misses the big point here.
The really important thing I have to say about the mind numbing volume of mandatory training is that unlike previous years where I come sliding in sideways and waving one last certificate on September 30th, I’m finished early. Very early. I’m fairly sure that the first time in my career that’s ever happened. It feels vaguely unnatural. Fortunately I know that feeling can’t possibly last long before someone slams a new “must do” training requirement into the system so we can piss away more time on activities that mostly teach you how to sleep with your eyes open.
Yesterday was an eight hour shitshow. There are more polite ways to phrase it, but there are none more accurate so I’ll leave it at that. Don’t let it ever be said, though, that the gods lack a sense of humor. Where yesterday was a colossal effort to make me lose my ever-loving mind, today I found myself wandering through back rooms and hallways verifying that emergency lighting and exit signs were operating in good order during a mock power outage.
I’ve worked in a number of places where the ebb and flow of days was predictable. Whether it was food service with the regular rushes for lunch and dinner to offices that lived by the tempo of weekly reporting they all had some kind of identifiable heartbeat underlying the day to day activities. Personally I’m a fan of that kind of predictability in life. You can count on one hand the number of “good” surprises I’ve ever been party to in my professional life. Come to think of it, I’d be hard pressed to show more than a like number of good surprises in my personal life either. Suffice to say, I’m not really a fan of the unexpected.
I’ve long suspect that at least in part the utter lack of predictability in what the powers that be are going to choose to care about on any given day is one of the fundamental problems we face. Get a little reliability and predictability baked into the system, trash a bunch of archaic process and procedures that don’t make sense in the 21st century, slash half of the management layers off the org chart, and hey, who knows, we might get a little productivity and morale going around here.
Ha. Yeah. Like any of that going to happen.
My organization historically loves to send out surveys. They can be focused information grabs or more broad scoped “climate surveys” that try to suss out everything that happens to be on an employee’s mind. If you manage to get more than 10% of the people to send back anything at all your response rate is excellent. Getting those people to actually tell you anything you want to know, though, is another thing altogether.
Even under the veil of promised anonymity, most people I’ve run into have a difficult time of it when it comes time to tell truth to power. People like to fit in. They don’t want to make waves. Some don’t want to risk drawing undue attention to themselves for any reason. Those are all fine and valid reasons for keeping your mouth shut if you’re intent is simply to ride it out and avoid all conflict.
Now I’m a peace-loving kind of guy and you generally won’t find me spoiling for a fight – especially with those elite who sit six or seven steps above me on the org chart. I might not have started the day looking for a fight, but when someone gives me a free and clear opportunity to tell them what sucks and why, you can best believe I’ll avail myself of it with both vim and vigor. I’ll do it professionally and using my best grammar and punctuation, but I’ll definitely participate in the airing of the grievances.
I’d never be able to live with myself if I were given an official avenue to bitch and complain and I failed to take full advantage. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
I’d guess that on average three weekdays out of every five could be fairly described as being “less than full.” Now I don’t mean to imply in any way that I don’t strive to give our Uncle his money’s worth every time, but there are simple laws of the bureaucracy that say it’s impossible to be busy every moment of the day. This isn’t McDonald’s and there isn’t always stainless that needs wiped down. Usually our days have an ebb and flow that ranges somewhere between comfortable and mind-numbing. It’s that one day in five that’s the wildcard. When it comes along it’s like being stuck with a whole room full of one armed paper hangers. No matter how fast you work, it’s just not going to be fast enough to account for everything coming over the side. In my experience, that’s the nature of the beast.
The real trouble with those rogue days is that they’re absolutely unpredictable. Days that for all outward appearances should be busy won’t be. Days that by rights should be dead slow will open their gaping maw and eat you alive. It would be nice, I think, if those wide-mouthed days would at least give you a fair warning. It feels like the very least the universe could do if it’s bound and determined to spend the rest of the day kicking your ass all over the room.
1. “Emergencies”. We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. The way people throw around the work “emergency” in the contemporary office is basically laughable. No one is bleeding. No one is about to start bleeding. The word you’re probably looking for most often is “embarrassing” as in you’re about to be embarrassed due to something you did, were supposed to do, forgot about doing. Alternately, you might be about to get blasted because of poor decision making skills. In any case, those things might represent a legitimate personal emergency to you, but to the rest of us it’s really just a shrug and a so what. Let’s try to leave the talk of “emergencies” to the times when there really are barbarians at the gate or brass hitting the floor, ok?
2. County taxes. The proposed Cecil County budget for FY18 includes increases in both the real property and income taxes. It’s made all the more noxious because it was proposed by a Republican county executive who ran less than a year ago on a platform of fiscal accountability and no tax increases. I know, lying politician isn’t exactly breaking news. Still, though, I’m left to wonder why at some point it isn’t perfectly acceptable to say that we have X number of dollars to spend against Y number of services and when there’s no additional revenue for new or existing services, some things need to be cut. The politicians first response is always to borrow or tax their way into all the revenue they need instead of being required to live by an actual budget in which they can’t always purchase all the goods and services they’d like to have. In the end the bastards always end up with their hand just a little deeper in our pocket. I suppose that’s just what you get when every level of government desperately wants to buy the love and affection of the voters and seeks ways to be all things to all people.
3. Keeping my head in the game. I’m probably expending at least as much energy just trying to keep my head in the game as I am actually doing any productive work. That doesn’t feel like something that’s going to be sustainable over the long term. It’s easier some days than others, but for the most part by the time mid-afternoon rolls around I’m dumping every bit of available effort into just staying awake and some delusory productive activities. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to read some of the written products that fly off my desk after 2PM. Unless I absolutely can’t avoid it, I hold them as drafts and then clean them up the next morning when I’m still relatively fresh. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.
I’ve spent most of my career as a relatively junior bureaucrat in various organizations. That usually means working in small spaces well away from anything like natural light. My last desk had what passes for a view around here, though. You could see grass, and some vines, and even a few trees. You could tell if it was sunny or if it was snowing. It’s such a small thing but I apparently came to appreciate it far more than I realized.
Sitting now in an interior room with no hope of seeing daylight, I realize I miss that damned window. I made the mistake of escaping the office for a few minutes around lunch time today. The sun was shining, the breeze was freshening off the Bay, and it was all the things mid-day in early spring should be. It was the kind of day that might make it a bit challenging to want to climb back into the bowls of a post-modern office.
The older I get, the more I tend to believe that we’re not really wired for this kind of work. Hermetically sealed glass, concrete, and steel – unless it’s incredibly well designed – really is something of a soul suck. It’s only the pesky things like pay and benefits that makes it tolerable… but only just. I’m realist enough to know now isn’t the time to run off into the wilds to live in a lean-to, but when the working days are done, you’ll be hard pressed to ever coax me willingly into another office building…
and all for want of a window.
My inbox is a war zone. It’s a maelstrom of electronic strife sorting itself daily between the dozens of easy to do things that each take 1-2 minutes or the majestically hard to do ones that command hours and days of constant attention just to sort out. I find if I focus too long on clearing the deck of the easy to do, hard stuff becomes a raging hairy beast. If I focus on the growing beast, however, the easy multiplies until I find myself as Gulliver – surrounded, cut off, and overrun by Lilliputians.
Time management “experts” will tell you to only respond to email at certain times of the day and give you tips and tricks on how to run triage and only engage the “really important” bits. I don’t know who these lunatic experts work for, but every SOB that lobs an email at my box expects an answer. Yes, some are more timely than others, but it’s the rare gem that gets flat out ignored.
To me, it feels like nothing so much as a grand opportunity to pick your poison. On any given day you’re entitled to a death by 1000 cuts or by a enormous rock falling on your head from a great height. Maybe some days, if you really foul things up right and proper you can have both simultaneously, but don’t get greedy because you’ll have to rise again tomorrow and fight the battle all over again.