The Great Plague era, for me at least, will always be remembered as a golden age.
I estimate that I avoided driving about 40,000 miles over the last two and a half years – saving on fuel, maintenance, and general wear and tear both on the vehicles and on me too if we’re being honest.
It was perhaps the first time in my life when being an introvert positioned me uniquely to thrive in a world that is normally built to service and reward extroversion. Staying home, hanging out with the animals, reading as many books as I could get my hands on, and doing almost all of my own cooking is almost entirely the life I was really built for.
Most weeks for the last 30 months, I got to spend four workdays out of every five working from home. No commute, no small talk or interruptions, and not listening to the guy two cubicles over hack up a lung while suffering from “just allergies.” It was a chance to knock down whatever work was thrown my way using a brave, new approach. It feels like, for a while there, we almost embraced it.
I’m enough of a student of history to know that no golden age ever lasts. Eventually the conditions that fuel them gives out and the world then tends to revert to the mean. I’m told that my own personal golden age now has an official expiration date… so now all that’s left is to take a few weeks and mourn the future that almost was.
The world has been and continues to be in a rush to “get back to normal.” You’ll have to forgive me, because I just don’t see the appeal.
Since March 2020, I’ve taken the reasonably prescribed precautions against the Great Plague. The regular advice to avoid crowded spaces didn’t feel particularly onerous to me. After all, avoiding crowded places has been my stock in trade for most of my adult life. It’s the kind of crisis situation I was built for.
When the bosses prioritize asses in seats, though, there’s no way to avoid the office, which is how you get a poor schlub coming in when he’s not feeling 100% and only hours later popping hot on a rapid test. That, of course, leads to the rest of us sitting around wondering if that brief conversation we had in the early hours of the morning was enough to swing us from exposed to infected. There’s no way to tell until something does or doesn’t happen, so we all just keep on keeping on.
I miss the front half of the plague experience. A positive test like this would have triggered an immediate quarantine and deep cleaning of the physical space. Anyone in the room would have been declared “exposed” and sent home to quarantine for as long as 14 days. Now guidance from the top is “Well, we just have to tell you that you may have been exposed” and an accompanying shrug.
Having been vaccinated and boosted, it’s reasonable to assume the plague isn’t going to be my cause of death. That shouldn’t be taken to mean it’s an experience I particularly want to have. Given the couple of underlying conditions I enjoy that don’t necessarily play nicely with the plague, it’s in my best interest to avoid it. If I catch this bug after two and a half years only because someone at echelons higher than reality is mired in the misguided notion that there’s anything at all I can do sitting at my desk in cubicle hell that I can’t do from my desk in the sunroom at home, there’s a fair chance I’ll absolutely lose my shit the very next time someone mentions some absolute tripe like “synergy, collaboration, and innovation” and the importance of having all the warm bodies back in an open bay petri dish.
1. Virtually in person. Monday was one of those days where I was in the office fulfilling the (in my opinion) questionable requirement that our little team must always have a warm body in the building. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the whole enterprise would collapse should we all simultaneously be doing the work from anywhere other than our assigned badly lit, gray-toned workstations. The only meeting I had that day involved seven or eight people… half of whom were also physically in the office. It’s awfully telling that despite so many people being on site, the whole meeting was held over Teams with everyone participating from their desk. If we’re all going to be meeting virtually from our own section of cubicle hell, I’d really love a non-corporate speak explanation of why there’s even a push to have more and more people in the office? You’ll never convince me it doesn’t defy logic and plain common sense.
2. Pulling rank. This week, as I may have mentioned, was the yearly spectacle where I attempt to stage manage / executive produce a three-day series of presentations. This year there were 9 organizations and 21 separate presentations across three days. This event rated permanent support from me, three guys who managed the IT infrastructure from soup to nuts, and a handful of rotating support personnel from each of the participating organizations that fell in for their portion of the event and then buggered off. By way of contrast, there was another event on Tuesday morning. This one lasted 90 minutes. It rated support from a staff director, six subject matter experts, three guys to manage IT, and another half dozen aides, support staff, and various strap hangers. If it sounds like I’m in any way angry and a little bitter, I like to think it’s justified hostility and just one of the many reasons why I hate the last week of April.
3. Choices. At the princely cost of $4.25 per gallon, I filled up the truck this morning from about a quarter tank and spent $77.60. I didn’t jump online to “Thank Brandon” or scream “Orange Man Bad” because I know the American president has next to no direct control over setting global commodity prices. I paid my bill without much comment, because paying his way in this endlessly beshitted world is a man’s job. Well, that and because no one twisted my arm 12 years ago in west Tennessee when I bought a big V8 powered pickup truck knowing full well that on its best day, I might get a little more than 16 miles per gallon. Brandon didn’t do that. I did… and so did everyone else who opted for size and power over efficiency. Want to find someone to blame? Take a hard look in the mirror.
A big part of my philosophy of project management can be distilled down to one simple rule: Never have a meeting when an email will do. I conservatively estimate that on any given project that eliminates approximately 95% of meetings that otherwise would have taken place.
There’s a catch, of course. Periodically, the Gods on Olympus sneak into their questions about the status of whatever project interests them in the moment an inquiry like “When was the last meeting on this?” I can tell you from experience that the answer they’re not looking for is, “Uh, I think we had a meeting about three months ago.”
It won’t matter to them that you’ve got full command of all the pertinent information. It won’t matter that you’ve checked in weekly or even more often with all the people developing content and know that everything is on track. The only thing that will matter is that you haven’t had a meeting. You’ll never convince me that this minor obsession with meetings isn’t one of the big driving influences of why so many bosses are still hellbent on putting asses in cubes. Then, not only can they ask if meetings are happening, they can walk past and see people crowded into a conference room – pure management bliss.
Even though it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve been running a meeting once a month since before the new year. At least that way I can say with a straight face we’ve had meetings. Now that we’re closing in on the curtain going up, I’ve switched it to weekly meetings – because inside the 30-day window Olympian interest can become intense. At least I can tell them that, yes sir, of course we met on that just a few days ago and be 100% honest.
What I won’t mention, of course, is that these weekly meetings never take more than 20 minutes. In fact, today’s lasted a grand total of 21 minutes and conveyed exactly three new bits of information that I’d already sent out this morning by email. We’d have put up a better time but there were one or two technical snags that cost precious seconds.
But, by God, now we’ve had a meeting about it and nothing makes officialdom happier than knowing there was a meeting. I’ll shoot to get next week’s down to sub-15 minutes times. I feel like that level of success is really within my reach.
Sitting in the office all day gives you time to think.
It gives you time to think about smelling other people’s meals, and listening to their phone conversations, and their wandering around from cube to cube looking for an ear to bend, and the hour wasted traveling to and then another hour wasted going from that monument to early 20th century management philosophy.
Yes, sir, sitting in the office gives you an awful lot of time to think.
I’m quite sure there are people out there who are dying to get back to the office full time. God knows there will be plenty of senior leaders who can’t wait to get back to preening in front of town hall meetings and capacity crowds conferences – and seeing their toiling minions stacked elbow to asshole across whole floors filled with cubicles.
More than anything, though, sitting in the office is full of time to think about how utterly ridiculous it is to sit in an office when every single touch point of your day involves email, phone calls, and shuffling electronic information from one place to another. If you’re heart doesn’t seeth with just a little bit of rage knowing it could all be accomplished from any place on the globe with a reliable internet connection and a cell phone, well, I’m not entirely sure you’re thinking about work as a product and not as some kind of half-assed social activity.
As long as those running the show put as much or more premium on the quasi-social elements like maintaining a “corporate culture” and the farcical notion that “real” communication can only happen face to face, no amount of real world evidence seems likely to move the needle away from 1950s ideas of what working looks like.
There’s still no formal guidance on what the new and improved “return to work” plan will look like here in the belly of the bureaucracy. I’m told they’re working on an updated plan at echelons higher than reality. If precedent is prologue, I’ll expect this new plan to cleave as close as humanly possible to exactly how things were done in the Before Times and ignore as much as possible the last two years happened at all.
1. Rabbit holes. I’ve lived these last 43 years without ever needing much more than my regular checkups and copays. Despite that, I recently went down an internet rabbit hole reading about my insurance plan’s catastrophic health coverage and how to avoid out-of-network charges. I mean it’s nice to know and surely will come in useful someday, but there’s an hour or two of my week I’ll never get back.
2. Normal. Turn to any news provider and you’re bound to hear stories about “getting back to normal” or “the new normal” or “life after COIVD” or “life with COVID.” Most of those stories turn on the same general theme of wanting something analogous to pre-pandemic life to return as close to immediately as possible. Personally, I’m in no rush… although that could be because most of what I’ve enjoyed during the Great Plague are the same things I enjoyed doing back in the Before Times. The only significant change I’ll notice in getting to whatever “normal” looks like in the future will be inevitably spending more time commuting and sitting in a cubicle. If you’re waiting on me to do handsprings about that kind of normal, it’s like you don’t even know me.
3. Mud. I plant grass seed in the back yard every spring and fall. Jorah, on the other hand, spends all four seasons doing his best to turn everything inside the fence line into a sodden morass. It’s not entirely his fault. The soil is thin and surprisingly bad – mostly clay and rocky – so what grows there doesn’t grow thick. Being a deeply shaded area, at least a third of the green is moss rather than grass. The minute it’s disturbed, it opens a gash and mud ensues. I only bring it up because his favorite thing to do on rainy days is go every outside at full speed kicking up mud like some kind of teenaged bubba with a lifted F-150. That’s fine outside, I suppose, but it’s current on him, the floors, a couple of walls, and a bit of the ceiling from when he had a good shake.
Thanks to ballooning community spread of COVID-19, presumably among the unvaccinated masses, my employer’s almost 4-week-old effort to begin returning the workforce to something approximating pre-pandemic working conditions has been dramatically curtailed. All that really means, of course, is that instead if extra days of schlepping across two counties to sit in a cubicle, I’m back to mostly working in tatty shirts and fuzzy slippers from the comfort of my home office.
For all the hand wringing that’s accompanied the Delta variant, as a fully vaccinated person with a statistically miniscule chance of dying from a “breakthrough” infection, rolling back our return to the office policy feels like a grace note. It’s the Indian summer following the Great Plague’s golden age of working from home. It’s one more glorious moment in the sun – or at least being able to see the sun since my home office has windows and my designated place in cubicle hell doesn’t.
The whole thing, I’m sure, is giving management several kinds of fit. I almost feel badly about that – at least for a few of the bosses who are in their trying consistently to do the right things for the right reasons. I don’t feel anywhere near badly enough to pass up another, probably all too brief, opportunity to spend my days at work dispensing occasional ear scratches and keeping a cat from laying on the keyboard while writing memos and building slide decks.
All things considered, my mood about the current work environment has once again improved dramatically. It’s temporary, of course, but this is clearly a case of beggars not being choosers and I’ll cheerfully ride out this new, new, new normal for as long as possible.
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.
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 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.