What Annoys Jeff This Week?

1. Tucker Carlson. Tucker staked out a patently absurd position on his Fox evening entertainment program last week. I know, I know. I should be more specific because most of his positions come across somewhere on the absurdity spectrum. I know it was absurd because some of the most serious thinkers in DoD responded more or less instantly to rebut Tucker’s asshattery. They’re not generally people who feel compelled to stake out public positions, except in this case, ol’ Tuck decided to opine about things that are, by definition, these particular leader’s area of expertise. No one “attacked” Tucker. They simply had the audacity to tell him that he’s a moron and explain why that’s the case. No one violated the damned Hatch Act. Having a professional opinion doesn’t undermine civilian control of the military. Differing opinions are only dangerous when you’re so thin skinned or your position is so badly placed that you can’t defend it rationally. In this case, it seems Tuck and his supporters fall into both categories. As usual, the “leading lights” of right wing kook media have left me embarrassed to be an actual, practicing conservative.

2. Higher taxes. They say Joe is working on a new tax bill and it’s likely to be the largest tax increase since 1993. I see lots of people saying they don’t mind paying more taxes. Good on them. With or without a higher tax rate imposed by the government, they’re free to send as big a check as they want over to the treasury. They can do that. No one would stop them. But it seems what people mean when they say they don’t mind paying more tax is they don’t mind so you should pay more too. “But,” they’ll argue, “it only applies to people who make more than $400,000 a year – the ‘absurdly rich.’” Right, I think, because every tax that ever was started out as a tax on “just the wealthy” until our political machine needed a few more dollars over time and the “absurdly wealthy” became most every working sucker in the country. So, please, write as big a check to Uncle as you’d like. Feel free to give of your own income until it hurts. That’s your right and privilege. I’ll be over here fighting tooth and nail to keep every penny I’ve earned and distribute it how I see fit.

3. I spent today doing exactly the same things that I did yesterday. I answered emails, entered information in a fancy database, and generally moved electrons around from Point A to Point B as needed. The only difference between today and yesterday was where I was physically sitting when I did those things. Yesterday I was parked in the sun room with two dogs snoring in the background and today I was in my designated cube with seven or eight conversations humming in the background. Plus, today added an extra 80 minutes to the day since I had to drive to my cube and back to do exactly the same things I did yesterday from the comfort of my home office. “But we need to have a presence in the building,” is the most patently farcical reason I can think of to justify the construction, maintenance, and daily running cost associated with a modern office building. The argument against remote working forever is effectively that we need to have people in a special geographic spot because we happen to have a special geographic spot. As far as I can tell it has absolutely nothing to do with productivity or whether the work in any way depends on unique geographic positioning.

Vestigial snow day…

The home office over in Aberdeen was closed today to all but “essential” business. What essential means, of course, has never been described the same way twice in the nine years I’ve been working there. Every winter they try out two or three new definitions that never quite seem to stick.

Technically today was a “snow day,” one of those random, unexpected, weather related holidays that are scattered about the yearly calendar like birdshot. Snow days in the plague era ain’t what they use to be. Honestly, if it weren’t for the occasional pitter patter of sleet falling on the skylights, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between today and any other Monday over the last ten months. 

Losing the traditional snow day has always been the bitter catch of having a telework agreement. It’s still a trade I’ve always considered well worth making, but sitting looking at the snow-covered woods, I have to admit that I miss the old ways just a little bit on days like this. 

Before the plague, these working snow days were mostly alright. There were so few of us with agreements stipulating that we’d work through adverse weather that it mostly felt like a real snow day interrupted by an occasional email. It might have been an official work day on the books, but when the boss isn’t around to assign work and everyone you need to talk to in order to get anything done is “on holiday,” not much real work was happening anyway. 

Now that the vast majority of us are “telework ready” to cope with the plague, of course, it’s a brave new world. I like to think the ability to have the whole mass of us “work through the storm,” would be major points in favor of a greatly liberalized telework program… but I’m in no way expecting that to be the case. The opposite, reconsolidating central control and management, is always the more likely course of action. 

In any case, I’ve enjoyed my vestigial snow day and would happily welcome more of them.

A wasted opportunity…

I’ve got no interest in being a “digital nomad.” I don’t want to work from a different far-flung location every month, schlepping my life around in a suitcase. I sampled that life enough when I was young, ambitious, and living in hotels to know that being home with the animals and all my stuff is really where it’s at. That I can do with almost no limitations thanks to the amount of technology being brought to bear to make the old school office a bit anachronistic.

In its ongoing coverage of the world in the Great Plague era, National Geographic asks, “Is this the end of the office?”

As much as I’d like to think the answer is an unreserved “yes,” I’ve been bureaucrating long enough to know better. When you hear comments like “I don’t know how anyone works from home” or “I don’t think anyone gets anything done from home,” or a more general “I hate it,” from those in a position to make decisions on whether work takes place from anywhere other than the belly of cubicle hell, well, it’s a pretty clear indicator of what the actual future will look like. Evidence to the contrary won’t, in my professional estimation, be a factor when such things are decided.

It’s a shame, really. This should have been an opportunity to overhaul the way we thing about and do our work – and a way to create a distributed workforce that doesn’t rely on a single point of failure (ex. a big concrete and steel building) to get the job done. Instead, at the earliest possible moment, we’re likely to roll the clock back, and pretend that everything must be just as it was during the before time.

I had hoped that I was settled in to the place where I was going to ride out the last third of my career, but of that means a return to being judged by physical presence rather than output, I’ll likely need to reconsider that thought. I’m not sure I’ll be able to content myself to a world that goes back to valuing asses in cubes as its key metric for success.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Underrated perks…

One of the truly underrated perks of telework Monday is throwing Monday’s dinner in the crockpot at lunchtime and spending the rest of the day smelling it come together. Sure, there are a few better smells than kielbasa and sauerkraut, but it’s one of those that ranks right up there. Yes, the 20 foot commute is hard to be upset about, but having a fresh hot meal ready when you close the books on the day is just hard to beat.

This, sadly, was not one of those nice quiet telework days where you can get a little bit caught up. It was more of a steady drumbeat of questions already asked and answered and repeating yourself until beating your head bloody against the keyboard felt like a reasonable option. There’s nothing about the experience that would have been made better by spending it in a 6×8 foot cube. Far be it from me not to recognize the small mercy of at least endure it while wearing fuzzy slippers and in the company of dogs.

So I’ll use what would otherwise be my commute time to stick my nose in a book and wait for dinner to reach peak sauerkraut-y goodness. It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was good enough.

In my mind, a few quality perks are fine compensation for a whole host of minor sins.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Responsible” adults. If you’re over the age of 18 and find just about everything in your life continues to end up being a big ol’ shit sandwich, might I recommend taking a chance on trying to be accountable for your own decisions and actions rather than trying to pass the responsibility off to any or everyone else. The neat thing about being an adult is that, with very few exceptions, I’m responsible for my own actions – and for the outcomes that follow. Apparently, though, there’s a whole bevy of other adult humans that think the problems lie with everyone except them. This, I suspect, is overwhelmingly the cause of my generally dim view of humanity.

2. “Encouraging” telework. Oh, the paperwork definitely says we encourage telework. It’s an important part of our continuity of operations plan to help us get through a hurricane, the building burning down, or a bad year of the flu. What we don’t do is actually encourage it. I know this because the expectation, no matter how unstated, is if there’s a meeting involving one of the Uberbosses, there’s never a provision made for anyone to participate other than by being right there in the room. Sure, you could ask and they might set up a phone line, but it will be done grudgingly and met with a decided side-eyed look. We’ve gotten very good at lip service to this not being 1975, but how we actually operate hasn’t changed all that much. It’s less than a surprise.

3. A return to “normalcy.” After a couple of days of clocking out at 2:30, getting back to the normal schedule has been… disappointing. It’s hard to believe that a realtively minor shift in schedule can be a significant mood enhancer. It would probably be even more of an enhancement if I somehow managed not to be so relentlessly commited to issues of time and schedule… but as always, I know my key motivators and influences and time is likely to always be one of them. So here we are, back to situation normal, trying to stave off the madness for another day

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Telework. This time of year, the slow choking off of my coveted weekly telework day in inevitable. This week, I moved my regular day to accommodate a meeting that ended up getting cancelled. Another meeting was scheduled creating a conflict with the day I moved it to, so slipped it to a third day and now another meeting has cropped up. I fully expect this third meeting will be cancelled or reschedule around the time I show up in the office tomorrow. My day for next week already conflicts with a meeting request. Everywhere I go I’m often met with an, “Oh, I can’t meet that day because I’m on an alternate work schedule” or “I’ll have to call in because I’m working from home that day.” I’ve clearly got “sucker” stamped on my forehead in giant block letters. I know this time of year it’s inevitable, but I was really hoping to squeeze in one more decent week before the shit began overwhelming the fan.

Voicemail. On Wednesday I got two voicemails in a row that indicated they were from my dentist. One of them was, in fact, from the dentist. The other was from a vendor I’m working with on the current party planning extravaganza… except when I called him back he said he hadn’t called my cell in weeks. So, thanks Verizon, I guess, for delivering the message both late and from the wrong source entirely. This should just serve as a reminder to everyone that voicemail is archaic and really need not be used in the modern era.

Facebook activists. I saw several posts this week decrying the fact that former Vice President Biden was being pilloried by the popular media for being a little handsy on the campaign trail. The argument was something along the lines of “why is the media talking about Biden when Trump is grabbing ’em by the pussy.” I could be wrong here, but I seem to remember the mass media making a fairly large story about that particular quote from then private citizen Trump. In fact they still trot it out from time to time. I’m pretty sure the media isn’t ignoring it… the bigger issue, perhaps, is that large swaths of the population think the job of the media is to tell them only what they want to hear and go apoplectic when it doesn’t.