How to improve cubicle hell…

I was in the office today. Even five months into the Great Plague, the rhythms of the place carry on largely unchanged. With upwards of 70% of the staff working from home it has a bit of a ghost town feel… but the phones keep ringing, the email keeps flowing, the day-to-day work seems to be getting done, and ridiculous ideas continue to abound. If it weren’t for needing to pick up the phone instead of sticking your head over a cubicle wall, I’d honestly be hard pressed to know that today was any different than the before time. I suppose you can decide what to make of that information.

What I noticed most about the day, though, was the absence of periodic fuzzy interruptions throughout the day. I hadn’t noticed until now how much I’ve come to expect the cat to occasionally jump onto the keyboard or work through the next email one handed while one or both dogs lean in for ear scratches and ear rubs. Even with that, they’re among the least distracting coworkers I’ve ever had.

The golden age of working from home will end eventually – killed off by the unstoppable force of an employer who believe asses in seats equals productivity as much as by the immovable object of employees who equate working from home with a paid vacation day.

I’ve known for most of my working life that there’s very little I can do at the office that I couldn’t do from anywhere that has a reliable internet connection… but these last few months have only just reinforced that having the animals alongside makes the fuckery of the standard eight-hour work day infinitely more tolerable. If we’re all eventually going to be stuck back in cubicle hell eventually, adding some coworkers with wagging tails or a steady and reliable purr would be incredibly helpful.

Red shirt Fridays…

Since the beginning of the Great Plague, I’ve been an “occasional” essential employee. That mostly means I schlep over to the office on days when a warm body is needed to meet the mandate that someone physically be there.

Like my Pepto-Bismol pink shirts of yore, worn as a mark of being sick of a never-ending monthly series of hours long meetings that accomplished absolutely nothing, I do my best to arrive on duty these days wearing my finest red shirt. Like the red-shirted crewman of Kirk’s Enterprise, I know too well that my role here is to be utterly replicable phaser fodder.

What I’ve learned through four months of working through my occasional role as a red shirt is that easily 90% of what I do professionally can be done from anywhere in the world that offers a stable high speed internet connection. As often as not, it can be done faster from such far flung locations as my home office or back porch because the work isn’t interrupted every 15 minutes by chatty colleagues or impromptu meetings. If I’m brutally honest, the other 5-9% of work that I need to be in the office to do could also be done from remote locations, but would require something more than the current “basic load” of software we have to work with.

That leaves somewhere between 1-5% of work activities that require specialized access or equipment that can only be provided in the actual office. Even assuming the upper end of the range, which I’m not conceding other than for illustrative purposes, that’s a legitimate need to be in the office about one twentieth of the time spent working.

I have to wonder if, at some point, the universe of bosses will figure out that constructing these monumental buildings of concrete and glass are ultimately a bad return on investment. They’re literally billions of dollars of infrastructure that can’t be justified because the work doesn’t need those buildings to get done. Better, perhaps, to build smaller, more cost effective offices that people could use “as needed” rather than continue to proceed from the assumption that nothing can be done if it’s not happening in a cubicle.

I’ve got, hopefully, less than fifteen years left in this ride of mine, so I doubt seriously I’ll see that glorious awakening – not when the current generation of uber-bosses still like to throw around phrases like “team cohesion,” “collaborative workspace,” or “synergy.” They’re still too hung up on seeing asses in seats and slavering at the bit for the day they can bring everyone back to cubicle hell.

They have the power. They can return the office to (almost) exactly what it was before the Great Plague. They can, but they shouldn’t want to. They should replace the old constructs with something better, more cost effective, and employee friendly.

I know it’s a dream, but it’s a happy one – and one I won’t stop advocating for even when they bring all the red shirts back.

Friday on Wednesday…

I’m on the cusp of taking my first vacation day since January. With a four-day weekend stretching out in front of me, I’m nearly as giddy as the proverbial school girl. I’m not going anywhere and I have no particular plans. It’s just an extra day not spent fighting with the help desk, or figuring out what the right teleconference number is, or ferreting out what people are actually asking for through email that was possibly written by four-year-old ring-tailed lemurs. 

It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but it really is.

At 4:00 this afternoon, I packed my work laptop away – out of sight and mind – instead of letting it occupy the same real estate on my desk where it’s been nearly every day since mid-March. It’s a small thing, but for me, deeply symbolic of the transition between working from home and just being at home. It’s a small difference, but an important one.

So, it’s Friday on Wednesday and that, friends, does not suck.

Windows…

I think I’ve said it before, but it feels well worth repeating that the standard work day is considerably less onerous when you’ve got a view of your own sun dappled woods rather than the inside of a concrete box coated in low bidder paint with a view of your closest colleague’s lunch leftovers. Increasingly, as spring weather tries to take hold, the windows in my home office have become the best part of the work day. 

I’m not a head shrinker, but I’ve long suspected that at least some of the general antipathy I feel about most days at the office can be attributed to having spent the vast majority of my career occupying horrifyingly bland interior rooms. I’m sure there are a host of other reasons too, but just now, with the good light streaming into the room, that feels like an element that can make a significant difference in the day’s mood. Having a couple of dogs and a cat who are blissfully indifferent to rank around shouldn’t be undervalued either… though my chance of having a window to look out feels far more likely than ever working in an office where bringing your pets to work is encouraged.

For now, though, I’m focused mainly on the idea that my office here at home is more comfortable, better laid out, and significantly more pleasurable to work in then even those reserved for the most high of our own little band of Olympian gods. Giving that up to go back to sitting it a poorly ventilated, badly lit, and overcrowded little corner of cubicle hell will probably be the single hardest thing I’ll have to do in my career.

Tempo…

Most work days during the Great Plague have had a tempo. An ebb and flow. A period of hurry up and then one of wait. There are days that don’t conform to that simple pattern, though. It’s been easy to forget about those outliers these last few weeks – because almost uniformly the pace since mid-March scratched along somewhere between slow and steady. 

The last couple of days were a reminder that the other kind of days are still lurking out there – the days when it feels like you barely look up from spending hours trying to swat down email as fast as it arrives and wondering what ridiculous shit is going to land on your desk next.

It’s a reminder, if nothing else, that working from home still finds its base in that most ugly of all the 4-letter words. There’s more to the story. There always is, but this little bit of it is what I’m going to focus on while a bigger, far more ridiculous effort rises in the distance. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll start to chronicle that little gem right here very soon, because it’s the zombie conference from hell that just won’t die and it’s a story worth telling.

The bitterest end…

I was sitting in the kitchen this morning and the realization came that this – endless early weekday mornings of the cat expectantly watching for the first birds to arrive at the feeders, dogs snoring comfortably after their breakfast, and a book in my hand – this is going to end eventually. 

This is going to end and mornings will again be about rushing madly to leave the house on time and get to the office. We’ll go back to sitting for 8.5 hours doing the things that the last month have proven don’t need to be done in a special box, in a certain room, in a specific building. 

It will end because old management philosophies die hard. It will end because despite evidence to the contrary the bosses are never likely to accept that work gets done if they can’t see asses in chairs. There are outliers, of course. People who can’t or won’t function on their own initiative or a few tasks that for reasons can’t be conducted “in the clear.” Those are the outliers, though, and could be resolved through proper performance management or innovative scheduling. That’s likely too big an ask for a creaking old bureaucracy.

Eventually this will end and the relentless tentacles of Cubicle Hell will reach out and pull us all back down into the pit forever.

It’s the most bitter of bitter ends.

What I learned this week…

I’ve had a raging coffee habit since my freshman year in high school. Under normal circumstances,  my average intake is about a pot a day, so call it 10-12 regulation sized cups.

While I’ve been more or less at home continually over the last two weeks it seems my intake of tea has increased dramatically while coffee consumption has cratered. I still need that 5AM kick in the face that only steaming hot coffee can provide, but after three or four cups, I’m moving to tea for the duration of the morning and the entirety of the afternoon.

I’m sure someone could uncover a deep psychological reason for the shift, but at least some of it is practical, I’m sure. Coffee and plenty of it is easy to come by in the office – mostly by way of the thermos on my desk that keeps it scalding hot through most of the day. Proper tea brewing isn’t impossible in a cube farm, but it is, even if only slightly, harder than making a regular cup of joe… Mostly because of my refusal to use the employer provided tap water or the kettle surely tainted by the aforementioned water. 

I suspect when all this is over, assuming the republic doesn’t collapse into some Mad Max-style free for all, I’m going to end up needing  to buy a damned electric kettle to take to the office.

Thats’s it. That’s the big voyage of self discovery triggered by a week working from home. Sorry if you were expecting some kind of big finish.

Agreement…

I’ve had my current telework agreement in place for over three years. That represents about 150 weeks of working from home at least one day per week. There have been occasional technical issues, but I like to think my performance over those last 150 weeks hasn’t suffered. My yearly performance assessments under two different bosses seem to back up that theory.

The telework agreement I’m working under, and I’ll quote here, says in part, “Employees’ participating in the telework program enhances workplace flexibilities and it allows he Command to maintain Continuity of Operations (COOP) during any emergency situations, pandemic health crisis, or special event that causes disruption in the workplace.” I added a bit of emphasis there.

We are currently living through the exact reason why employees are issued laptops and encouraged to have telework agreements in place. I can perform 95% of my daily tasks right here in my sunroom without a problem. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has declared offices in DC “open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees.” The Centers for Disease Control is recommending that no gatherings of more than 50 people take place for the next eight weeks. The President of the United States lowered that to groups of no more than 10 during this afternoon’s coronavirus working group briefing. Every news outfit on the planet is preaching the gospel of social distancing. I spect sooner rather than later, many jurisdictions in the United States will find themselves with soft “lock downs” similar to what Italy is experiencing.

Letting people who can work from home go do that makes eminent sense. The fewer potential vectors wandering the halls the better for everyone. My particular part of the vast bureaucracy, though, has opted to remain utterly silent on the issue. I can only assume that means they think piling hundreds of people into a hermetically sealed building is somehow a more advantageous strategy to ensure the business of the organization continues to get done.

It’s a bad take… and it’s the very definition of an unnecessary risk to personnel. Maybe I’ll catch hell for saying that publicly… but of the things I could catch in a room where 30 people are packed in asshole to elbow breathing recirculated air and not seeing the sun, catching hell should probably be the least of my worries.

I’m lucky that I got to work from home today. Unless someone steps up with a little leadership before tomorrow morning, I’ll be expected in the office the rest of the week. Ultimately, though, I’m responsible for my own health and welfare. If I can’t depend on the powers that be to make good decisions for their employees, I’ll continue to conduct my own daily risk assessments and determine for myself when it’s time to hunker down until the worst blows over, regardless of whether that means working from home or burning off the mountain of leave I’ve banked over the last 18 years.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Sheetz. The quintessential gas station of my youth which has grown to be a regional juggernaut. For the last couple of years I was able to order ground coffee and k cups through their online sales arm. I went to plug in a reorder this week and find that their site has gone defunct. Twitter confirms that there are currently no options for ordering online. I’ll either have to start buying the stuff 20 pounds at a time when I’m west of Baltimore or just go ahead and give up on the idea of being able to brew the good stuff at home. Both options are… disappointing.

2. Bureaucracy and decision making. Very rarely some things benefit from the application of a little bit of bureaucracy. Most things don’t. Mostly all ratcheting up the bureaucracy does is make sure that decisions happen more slowly and result in shit tons of extra work for everyone involved. I’ve encountered a rare few leaders who can manage to slice through the bureaucracy and get things done… though it’s hard to remember the last time I saw one of those in person.

3. Jealousy. The state of Maryland is kicking off a great big batch of telework for eligible employees in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. Uncle Sam is opting for the more traditional, approach of telling employees to wash their hands and disinfect hard surfaces (supplies not included), and wanting as many people as possible sitting asshole to elbow breathing on each other in his vast cubicle farm. In this case it’s more jealousy than annoyance. Once the Feds collapse, I guess it’ll free up some job opportunities for our friends in state government, so it’s not all down side.

Against the tyranny of the cubicle…

I spent most of the morning having another close encounter with modern dentistry. It was a little “warranty work” on a filling that failed way earlier than it was supposed to, so at least I wasn’t out of pocket for the extra pain and aggravation. That said, my general hatred for visiting the dentist’s office isn’t really the point.

Since I was a slobbery mess and the day was more or less half over, I plugged in my laptop and spent the late morning and afternoon working from home. If I’m going to spend a few hours dribbling coffee down my chin, I’d rather do it in the comfort of my own office than in the open bay cubicle hell where I practice my trade most other days.

Let me start by saying that I’ve missed working from home. Circumstances the last couple of weeks have conspired to make it something like too hard to do. eventually I hope to get back on a semi-regular schedule. Instinct tells me that’s going to be a long time coming, so I’ll need to steal a day wherever I can.

What struck me most today, though, was how easy a time I had getting through something that I’d spent the last two days in the office trying to knock out. It wasn’t a particularly hard task, but it required integrating information from a couple of different sources into a reasonably coherent whole. It’s the kind of thing that requires attention to detail… and frankly I can’t think of any place worse than a standard office cubicle to try to make sense of something that requires focused attention. Between the random meetings, people dropping by just to chat, the gods on Olympus deciding you need to work on other “priorities” for a few hours, and the general hum and buzz of 30-odd people all working in the same 25’x75′ space, it’s a bloody marvel that anything ever gets finished. Of course that’s assuming that anything actual does ever get finished, which could easily not be a valid assumption.

In conclusion, whoever decided that cubicles represent the best way for information workers to get their job done was a fucking idiot and I hope his soul is condemned to eternal torment… like by never getting more than 37 uninterrupted seconds to try completing a fairly simple and routine task.