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.

Meaning and subtlety…

I spent a fair amount of today screwing around with PowerPoint. It’s only worth remarking on because I do it far less often now than I did once upon a time.

There are a chosen few people who can make PowerPoint sing. They turn it into a real dark art form. They’ll add all the bells and whistles and make the thing look like the slickest sales presentation you’ve ever seen. I’ve long known that PowerPoint is a tool of the devil, but I’ve always had just a little bit of admiration for these sorcerers and their unholy works.

On my very best day, my own slide decks could best be described as “wordy.” Some people think in charts an graphs. Others think in numbers. Me? Well, I think in words. A big beautiful block of text gets the point across to me far better than any amount of razzle-dazzle you can jam into a chart.

The written word, when used correctly, is a thing of real beauty. When used in conjunction with a slide deck, even the best words are a bit of a red headed stepchild. Even with that being the case, words are still the very best way I know of conveying meaning and subtlety. In retrospect I’m not sure I managed to do that either… but there were a lot of words on the page so I suppose that counts for something.

Partial victory…

As sometimes happens when you write in advance of publication, yesterday’s post went live shortly after “breaking news” that would have changed how I approached the narrative.

My little corner of the bureaucracy has, as I write this, a spanking new telework policy wending its way through the approval process. Late yesterday afternoon it was sitting with the union bosses for their final review. Sure, it’s a union that can’t negotiate salary or benefits or extra vacation days, but there they are – one more inexplicable wicket for policies to pass through on their way to final approval.

Pending this final review and eventual signature by one of our very own star spangled gods of Olympus, I understand the new policy will allow eligible employees to work from home 40 hours out of each 80 hour pay period. That’s not quite as good a deal as the three days per week that was initially rumored, but marginally better by than the current allowance of a flat two days per week – and much improvement over the one day a week that was often the “unofficial” standard.

Would I have liked to see a new policy that went further in really minimizing the days the average person needs to spend in the office? Sure. It’s possible the next guy who sits in the big chair will look upon telework as just normal “work” by another name rather than as something new and different that is frightening and needs to be constrained as much as possible. In this deeply traditional workplace, being able to work from home half the year is a pretty significant shift in how we do business under regular order versus in plague conditions.

Call it a partial victory…. if it ever actually gets signed, of course.

Long and lingering…

So we’ve been back to the new, new normal for a few weeks. I’ve never been in love with cube farm life – much less so after demonstrating that 95% of my weekly tasks can be completed from the comfort of my sunroom office at home – but I like getting paid, so I more or less toe the line. It’s something to bitch and complain about, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

While being back in the office is less than ideal, the shift to two day per week telework has been surprisingly helpful during this transition. Adding a mid-week day at home to my traditional Telework Monday at least breaks up the otherwise unpunctuated days of loitering in cubicle hell between Monday and the weekend. The middle of the week reprieve makes the three other days considerably more tolerable. There’s nothing, of course, that would make a week in the office all sunshine and lollipops, so anything that makes it even marginally more endurable is a net good overall. Never let it be said I can’t acknowledge the small mercies when I see them.

There’s still the vague promise of allowance for an additional telework day or two in every pay period working its way through our Byzantine review processes. As of this afternoon it remains spoken of, but un-adopted. I’d optimistically looked for official word on that to reach us by this point, though that’s obviously more a case of my own wishful thinking than the reality of the speed at which the paperwork flows. That more days, even if only an even split between home and office easily qualifies as a win – an opening gambit for future agitation if nothing else… but with each week that passes without it being enshrined into policy, procedure, and guidance there’s more opportunity to get it twisted or for it to become just one of those things we talked about but never put in practice.

Such is life in cubicle hell… where good ideas go to die a long, lingering death.

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.

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. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Scolding. “Your test results are always oddly good for someone… like you. That won’t last forever.” Doc, look, no one knows better than I do that I’m a walking timebomb. Someday this glorious temple of gluttonous debauchery will fall down and sink into the swamp. I know that. But today, it seems, is not that day. And I don’t intend to spend every day from this day to that inevitable day at an indeterminate time in the future doing things I hate (like jogging around the neighborhood) or eating things that I hate (like kale). Even the healthiest of us eventually drop dead. There’s nothing all the gifted practitioners at Johns Hopkins can do to stave off the end that comes for us all. Better to spend those limited days, I think, doing and eating, things I enjoy.

2. Agreeing with Speaker Pelosi. I never feel entirely well when I find myself agreeing with Speaker Pelosi. Fortunately it’s something that doesn’t happen particularly often. In the case of the House select committee on the insurrection of January 6th, it’s the only investigative vehicle left open to the Speaker in the face of a Republican congressional caucus that would rather hide from or obfuscate the truth than nail down the details of what really happened, who was involved, and what motivated them. Sedition and insurrection are among the most vile offenses against our republic. Making the details surrounding what happened plain is in the vital national interest. If elected Republicans are too afraid of the results of the investigation to call for one, well, that’s probably a decent sign that one is needed without delay.

3. Seven hours. There are seven working hours between me and a nine-day weekend. If that’s not legitimate grounds to be annoyed, I don’t know what is.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Parking. One of the only perks of going to the office occasionally during the height of the Great Plague was that parking was absolutely amazing. There were always spots directly in front of the building, no more than 10 spaces back, regardless of what time you arrived or whether you had the audacity to go out to grab lunch. It was an absolute idyll compared to crossing acres of burning pavement to your car in the Before Times. Alas, what was old is becoming new again. Parking is still decent, but landing the really prime spots is getting harder and harder to do as people are forced back to their cubicles. I’ve said it before, but I really will miss the plague months of 2020-21 as a wildly underappreciated golden age.

2. Matt Gaetz, Mike Waltz, et al. The testimony of General Mark Milley and Secretary Lloyd Austin before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday illustrated what’s probably my bigger frustration with Republican lawmakers. Matt Gaetz, Mike Waltz, and their ilk demonstrate through their questioning that there’s an undeniable stripe of fear among this group. They’re knee-knockingly afraid of ideas. If they were truly convinced they are right, they’d have no hesitation of having a conversation, of encouraging study, or gaining broader understanding. Instead, they assert the rightness of their position as received truth. No further information is needed. Dissent is not to be tolerated. Personally, I tend to think critical race theory and most of the other touchy feely soft science theories that posit everyone is oppressed or needs a hug are largely hokum… but like the good general, I’ll keep reading Mao, Marx, Lenin, and their modern equivalents while being utterly unafraid I’ll be injured by ideas.  

3. Twitter. Of all the social media I consume, Twitter is, in my estimation, the most toxic. I’ve made a point to greatly reduce my time over there for the last few weeks and it’s made for considerably less crazy making. The thing I struggle to remember sometimes, is that even though everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m under no obligation to in any way pay attention to them. Ignoring them won’t make asshats any less asshatt-y, but like a tree falling in the forest, I don’t need to care if it makes a sound.

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.