Cynical and jaded…

My laptop took 90 minutes to boot up this morning. Combined with the more than an hour it took to get access to our primary workspace, that put me about three hours into the workday before I could really even start “working.” That’s the point at which I realized that thanks to some very helpful new “improvements,” I didn’t have access to one of the email boxes I need to do my actual job.

The whole thing got mostly unfucked sometime after I’d have usually gone to lunch, so now you can add general hangeryness to the mix of what was stupid today. Add it atop all the things, unseen, piling up in the mailbox I’m supposed to be working out of today. They were all things piling up on me, because I’m the designated stuckee for the next week, so there’s no reprieve in knowing I can just pass the buck to the next sucker who comes along.

The very best part of today is that even though all my systems are now “working,” in order to send an reply from Mailbox #1, I first have to copy the body of the email and the intended recipients into a Word document, close Mailbox #1, open Mailbox #2, paste in the reply itself and the rest of the email thread, manually build the distribution list, hit send, close Mailbox #2, reopen Mailbox #1, and hope the reply shows up. All told, something that should be as easy as sending email could take 5-10 minutes per message depending on how slowly the software opens and the size of the distribution list. There’s a recurring report on Monday with upwards of 100 recipients. It may be the only thing I get done before lunch.

Normally I roll my eyes at coming to the office to do things I could just as easily do from home. Today, of course, I spent a large portion of the day not even able do those things. If you ever find yourself thinking I’m too cynical or jaded, I promise you, it’s all for cause.

A trusted professional…

I am a professional bureaucrat. Not the best pusher of paper that ever lived, but there aren’t many cases where I have trouble holding my own.

In that role, one of the things you are faced with is that while you can be an advisor – a voice of reason – you’re not in any way to confuse your position as being that of a decision maker. That function is performed by others. It’s a fact that you either accept fairly early in your career or it slowly drives you towards a special kind of madness.

I’ve come to terms with it.

I’ll give the very best advice my seven years of running certain projects can provide. It will generally be insightful and guided by the experience of having been there and tried that at some point in the past. I can tell you where the bodies are buried, why certain ideas have never worked, and the kind of feedback we’re likely to get if you follow any specific course of action. What I can’t do is force you, as the decision maker, to follow the best path. That part is wholly out of my hands – and often beyond my ability to influence.

I can only promise that I’ll always give you my fair and honest estimate of what should be done, the resources it needs, and how to avoid the foreseeable pitfalls… but don’t think for a moment that means I won’t be right there cheerfully dispensing a loud and hearty “I told you so” when the thing turns into a barely mitigated shitshow because you wanted to go your own way.

I might be a trusted professional, but don’t think for a moment I’m above gloating even when the cock up means I’m doing 5x more work than we’d have needed to if we did things the right way from the start.

Professional development reading…

I want to normalize reading at the office. No, not memos or email (although it would be helpful if people would start reading those for understanding too).

First, let me ask that we be very honest for the purposes of this discussion. In all my years as a cubicle dweller I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t dick off some (or most) of the eight hours of any given work day. My best estimate is that in a standard 40 hour work week, most people might spend 20 of them actually knuckled down doing productive work, stuck in meetings, or otherwise engaged. The rest of their time gets pissed away in pointless conversations with people stopping by their cube, out wandering the halls, shopping online, fucking around on Reddit, or otherwise attempting to look busy without really doing anything.

The only difference between any of those time fillers and reading a book at your desk is that some of the other things people use to kill time can give the illusion of “working.”

As an office drone, “Time to lean means time to clean,” doesn’t exactly apply. Sometimes there legitimately isn’t anything that needs doing – or if there is you’re waiting on someone else to do their bit or send a response before you can take the next step. Some days are busier than others – some are jammed full – but there’s plenty of days where there just isn’t shit happening.

I have to think keeping a volume of Civil War history on my desk and reading a few pages in these down moments ultimately feels more workplace-relevant in my situation than chuckling through another post on r/amitheasshole or looping around the cube farm to see what kind of pickup conversation I can get into.

I dissent…

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.

I dissent in the strongest possible terms.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Maxine Waters. I called out Donald Trump when he used his official position as an elected official to incite violence, so it only feels fair that Maxine Waters gets the same treatment. Using threats of violence to score political points with her base is precisely the activity that she scorned Trump and Republicans for doing over the last four years shows clearly that she’s a politician in precisely the same mold. Her calls to “get more confrontational,” should be as roundly condemned as were Trump’s words… but they won’t be in the prevailing media environment. In my books, though, a demagogue is a demagogue regardless of having an (R) or (D) after their name.

2. Excess savings. A CNN article this week blazed a headline that globally, “Consumers have $5.4 Trillion in Excess Savings” and positing that we’re about to see a boom in consumer spending. I only mention it because CNN also likes to run articles highlighting how bad we Americans are at saving for retirement or even just saving in general. The American portion of this “excess savings” is estimated (again by CNN) to be $2.6 Trillion. It feels like a perfect (and passed up) opportunity to encourage our countrymen to do something radical like open a retirement account, hold that cash as an emergency fund, or otherwise think beyond going on a buying binge as soon as the plague is over. I suppose soon enough we’ll be back to the inevitable stories about how no one is saving for retirement or can’t afford a $37 dollar emergency.

3. Reading for comprehension. I’ve responded to approximately 200 emails from people who “can’t find the schedule” for this week’s event. Look, numbnuts. You literally had to scroll past the schedule to find the group email address that lands stupid questions in my inbox. If reading for comprehension is a measure of how qualified companies or individuals are to provide services under contract, I’ve got an impressive list of them that should be rejected out of hand as not meeting minimum quality standards.

The inevitable result…

I’ve been back to work from Christmas vacation for two weeks, but between the time off and plague-encouraged telework, this was my first day back in the actual office in a month.

After ten months of this, can’t we all just agree that for most “office work,” cramming a metric shit ton of people into a physical office is a ridiculous holdover from the age of typewriters, carbon paper, and gray flannel suits?

There are two thoughts that really occur to me at this late stage: 1) If there are still people not pulling their weight while working from home, you probably should consider letting those people go find other opportunities since they’re, by definition, excess to requirement; and 2) If there are “core missions” that haven’t been getting done and it hasn’t caused a catastrophic failure of your office is supposed to be doing in the last ten months, that “core mission” is probably a waste of time.

This was an unprecedented moment to revolutionize the workplace… but it feels increasingly obvious that we’re collectively going to blow the chance and drive straight back to “business as usual” the moment some percentage of the population has gotten their shots.

It would almost be farce if the inevitable result wasn’t so damned predictable.

Don’t worry, someone else will do it…

I’ve realized this week, though hardly for the first time, that a disturbing amount of my workload exists purely because people can’t be trusted to do what they’ve been told to do. 

Let me give you an example. There’s a report that’s been due every Friday for months. Instead of doing something like sending out a message that says “Hey, you need to turn this information in every Friday until we tell you to stop,” and then expect that grown adults will be able to do that, every Friday morning we prep and send out an Official Reminder that the exact same information is going to be due again next week. Instead of doing a thing once time, we do it 52 times… because expecting alleged professionals to do their job is a problematic course of action.

Another example? Sure. We have a system that keeps track of all the official things people are supposed to be working on. Every office has access to this system and can see what’s assigned, what’s in progress, what’s due, and what’s late with the click of a few buttons. We send out a weekly reminder on those things too… actually, now we send out that reminder twice a week since, again, alleged professionals can’t be troubled to keep track of what they’re supposedly doing.

If you’re thinking that failing to do your damned job would lead to some kind of adverse action, you get partial credit. Nothing bad happens to the people who are days or weeks late getting the job done, but my little part of the Great Green Machine finds itself with more work to poke, prod, cajole, and plead with people to do whatever it is they were assigned to finish.

Those at echelons higher than reality seems to think that the problem is in not passing out enough reminders. I tend to think the problem lies in people being irresponsible and not getting a well-deserved ass chewing as a result.

Half done…

Well, there’s day one in the books. No one set the stage on fire. No one fell down the steps. Lights didn’t fall on anyone. The tech (mostly) worked the way it’s supposed to.

Now that I’m mostly in spectator mode there are obviously things I’d change up a bit – items that made sense on paper but less so under the lights. If that’s the worst of Day 1 I can live with that.

There’s still another day to go. Tomorrow has more people and more moving parts. If something is going to cut loose, tomorrow is really when I’m expecting it to happen.

We’re half done with half to go. I’ll still sleep well tonight, but I’ll wake up tomorrow morning wondering what shit will find the fan.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Handholding. If you’re a “professional” well into middle age and need constant hand holding and reassurance, perhaps you’ve got into the wrong career field. I don’t have the time or inclination to sooth your forehead with a cool rag and assure you that everything really will be alright. You might be the most important player in your own drama, but I can promise you’re not carrying enough rank or influence to convince me to give much of a shit before I write you off as a whiny sonofabitch and consign your future efforts to the ever growing file of received, but unread email.

2. $15 an hour. Want $15 an hour, you can start by doing a good job to begin with. The last three times I’ve been through a particular fast food joint they’ve gotten the order wrong – wrong size, wrong item, and then the last time, the whole order, fries included, dumped loose into the bag. I went in to complain about that last one. The manager looked like she couldn’t be bothered, her blank stare clearly not comprehending why I wasn’t satisfied. Pay rates should, in part, reflect the level of difficulty of the job and the quality with which it is performed. Why anyone expects a 100% raise for what seems to be an increasingly abysmal level of service is well and truly beyond me. Maybe think about earning that raise, you’d be amazed how good it feels to have a little self respect instead of getting something for nothing.

3. Interest rates. Mortgage interest rates are bumping along towards or at historic lows. They currently make the first mortgage I got 20+ years ago look almost usurious by comparison. The problem is mostly that the rates are low enough now that it’s starting to tempt me towards refinancing the mortgage on the ol’ homestead. Without fully running the numbers, I’ve got to think there are a few dollars to be saved if I can drop my rate a couple quarters of a percent. And that’s when I start to remember the absolute rage-inducing process that accompanies mortgage refinancing… and I’m left wondering if any kind of savings is really worth going through it unnecessarily. I’ll be off to the next place well before I pay off the note on the current house. The less crazy making course of action may well be keeping what’s already a respectably low interest rate and just ignoring the promise of a few less dollars flowing out every month, tempting though it is.

What I learned this week…

After you’ve been almost twenty years a bureaucrat, you think you know all the tricks in the book. With that kind of experience, one might be forgiven for thinking they’ve seen it all before. Even so, I’ve learned an important new skill this week that is sure to improve my abilities as a professional bureaucrat going forward.

Like the very best skills in every field, this technique seems deceptively simple. All you have to do to start is say “I agree with everything you’ve just proposed.” Then follow that statement with the qualifier, “with the following changes” and proceed to list half a dozen ways in which you’re going to change the proposal you’ve just nominally agreed with.

For a moment, the poor unsuspecting fool you’re dealing with might even think they’ve gotten the approval that they need to move something forward. Only later once they’ve digested the proposed changes will they realize their proposal may have been changed root and stem.

The good news is that this approach doesn’t have to be a one-and-done. You can keep on agreeing with the thing you just changed while proposing further changes through endless iterations. It’s the bureaucratic gift that keeps on giving. If you’re confident enough, you can keep this self licking ice cream cone rolling on for days or weeks, maybe even months under the right circumstances.

A lesser man might be enraged when realizing he’s been played by such a smooth operator. Not being a lesser man, I’ll just consider it a lesson learned and a new skill I’ll very quickly adopt for my own kit bag.