A mid-summer thaw…

I don’t think I’m giving away state secrets when I say the internet connection that my office uses is about as reliable and effective as two tin cans tied together with twine. If shame was a thing people still felt in this modern world of ours, I’d say whoever was supposed to be making the whole mess work should be rightly embarrassed by how often it doesn’t. 

Before the Plague Era, our frequent network outages were one of the reasons I kept a pile of magazines on my desk. You just never knew when you were going to need to kill a few hours at the office in the absence of any way to actually do any work. The magazines filled that gap.

In the post-Plague Era, I like to think the bosses have started to see the virtue of working from home – or at least how it’s a system that can be of reasonable benefit to them. After only two hours of sitting around shooting the shit and watching Jeff Bezos hurled into space, word made its way around that anyone who couldn’t connect should head home to work for the rest of the day. I could comment on it taking two hours to reach that decision, but since it represents an unprecedented move by management in the direction of favoring the notion of teleworking, I’m going to withhold any judgment there.

The fact is, it’s issues like today’s outage that having a remote-enabled workforce was built to help address. For the cost of letting people drive home “on the clock,” the bosses bought back five hours of productive time. It feels like a reasonable deal for everyone involved. 

It’s the barest hint of a sign of reduced resistance of the very notion of working from home, but it’s progress – a mid-summer management thaw – and I’m here for it. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. There’s nothing like being back in the office to really drive home the absolute absurdity of basing employment in the information age solely on the ability of / requirement for someone to sit in a specific geographic space for eight hours five times a week. I’m sure there are some jobs where “being there” makes an actual difference in how well or swiftly the information flows, but in my little corner of the bureaucracy, this week has stood as stark evidence that where work is location agnostic, corralling people into an office just because it’s how we did things in the before time isn’t so much strategic decision making as it is acquiescence to organizational inertia.

2. The end of an error. The fact that a serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other unformed officials were put in a position to actively ponder how to counter the possibility of a coup d’état in the United States isn’t so much annoying as it is horrifying… but I’ve been thinking a lot about it the last 36 hours or so. I suspect that as history sorts the wheat and chaff from January 2020 the details will be far more horrific than anything we know in the present. That so many among us still think the end of the Trump Administration was “business as usual” or it was somehow the victim of a vast and unprecedented left-wing conspiracy is both heartbreaking and infuriating.

3. Renovation. With multiple proposals now in hand, I’m edging dangerously close to becoming a broken record that says only “That’s almost what I paid for my first condo” or “I could buy a new damned pickup truck with that.” Evaluating the proposals shouldn’t be hard since they’re all within 8% of each other. I suppose technically that’s good news insofar as it means that’s probably a reasonably accurate estimate of what it’s going to take to put a new bathroom in this place. The hurdle I’m trying to get over, is that across the range of proposals, we’re about 50% over my original planning factor and into a point where cash on hand isn’t going to get the job done. Logically I know home equity loans can be had near lifetime low rates, but it all begs the question if I’m willing to pull a loan because I’m tired of schlepping down the hall to get a shower in the morning. 

First line…

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.

The old fashioned way…

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.  

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.