Over the last few days, I’ve watched a handful of news segments and read several stories all striving to make a common point – that businesses from local mom and pop restaurants to heavy industry are having difficulty filling vacant positions.
Some of these stories cite the “Amazon Effect,” that has entry level new hires streaming to fill openings in warehousing and distribution. Others lay the blame with too much free money passed out in the form of federal stimulus payments and increased unemployment.
It seems to me that the most straightforward way to resolve this particular imbalance between the demand for these workers and their limited supply is to increase wages to the point where there are enough people to fill vacancies.
Admittedly, I’m not a fancy big city economist, but raising wages feels like a fairly basic, tried and true way to attract people into a particular job or even into an entire segment of the workforce. Yes, it means in some cases the products and services being offered by those businesses will cost more, but if your business can’t generate the revenue necessary to hire people to do the work, you have more of a vanity project than a business anyway.
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.
1. The two weeks of Christmas. I was sitting in a meeting this week where the great and the good were calling for all manner of things to happen in the next two weeks. It’s cute when they’re optimistic like that. Experience tells me that even the most dedicated senior leader is going to find it hard to get jack-all done when 75% of his or her workforce is sitting snug in their homes or on the road for the week before and after Christmas. It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to have goals. It’s also important to know your limitations, especially when you’re working with a skeleton crew just barely large enough to keep the lights on. Reason 7,471 I have no interest in bossing ever again.
2. Not knowing when to STFU. There is a time and a place for raising new topics or for asking every question. When the guy sitting at the head of the table is trying to close things out and the meeting has already run twenty minutes past its scheduled ending, though, is neither the time nor the place. That’s when you should have been a bureaucrat long enough to know that it’s time to sit there and shut the fuck up.
3. Emergency slide flipping. If there’s anything worse than being stuck in your own meeting, it’s being unceremoniously suck into someone else’s meeting because their computer crapped out and getting it fixed takes days. Look, a) It’s not my program; b) I actually have my own work to do; and c) If we keep finding work arounds to the shit tech support we get it will never have a reason to improve. Being a slide clicker on your own material is bad enough, but the number of times I’ve been yanked away from whatever it was I was doing to flip slides for someone else is astounding. It’s like no one in this place has heard of opportunity cost or return on investment. There are days when I’m entirely convinced I’m the best paid clerk/typist in the whole damned country.
When I started in the current gig way back in ye olde 2010, there were 8 people doing the job in my little corner of Uncle’s vast universe. I won’t tell you that we were always busy, but we had our moments of mayhem and chaos even when all hands were on deck. That number ebbed and flowed – up one, down one – over time, but was remarkably steady until about six months ago when people started racing for the exits. From there, it’s been a foot race to get out of Dodge.
By this time next week, the number of the counting will be reduced to three. By all outward appearances, we’re just going to reallocate the workload and drive on as usual. That strategy might be ok when you drop from 8 to 7, but by the time you go to three there simply isn’t enough time in the day to keep up. You reach a point where doing more with less isn’t just impossible, but it becomes detrimental to an office. It reminds me of an vintage Dilbert strip where Pointy Haired Boss tells Dilbert to pick up someone’s functions. Dilbert’s response? “I have infinite capacity to do more work as long as you don’t mind that my quality approaches zero.” I wish I could tell you that was farce, but it bears too much resemblance to reality. With every position left vacant, the quality of the work is diminished. Getting the job done just to that “good enough” standard is something that makes me just a little bit crazy.
I’ve worked in places that were more toxic, but the older I get the less tolerance I seem to have for the asshattery of it all. The only reason I’ve let it ride as long as I have is I happen to enjoy the particular piece of geography we occupy. I supposed even that’s not really enough to hold me if a change needs to come. As much as I don’t want to dive back into the land of the three hours commute, it’s time, past time, to put all the options on the table.
Two days after calling the vast bulk of the Department of Defense workforce back from our legislatively imposed furlough in the dead of night, some unmitigated asshat at echelons above reality decided it was a good time to launch a “command climate survey.” For those who don’t speak bureaucrat, these surveys are conducted a couple of times a year and are supposedly designed to gage employees feelings about leadership, their work environment, colleagues, managers, and get a general sense of the temperature of the organization. At the best of times I’ve always thought these surveys are of questionable value. A week after being told by my political masters that I’m nonessential, well, my immediate response was a stream of under my breath swearing and a resounding facepalm.
After six days of furlough this summer, four days of furlough last week, a sequester that means reductions in defense personnel are matter of when and not if, and a political class that’s bound and determined to undermine the long term stability of the nation, you really want to know how I feel about my job? You have absolutely got to be shitting me.
Morale? In the crapper. Opportunities for advancement? Nonexistent. Faith in our leaders? I won’t even dignify that one with a response. Work area has sufficient light? Well, at least you’ll get good marks on that one. They’ve managed to keep the electricity flowing to the building. I suppose under the circumstances, that’s a milestone achievement.
Walk around the building and you’ll learn all you need to know about the “climate.” We’re frustrated and we’re angry. We’re exhausted from being loyal pawns in some half assed urination contest… and we’re more than a little sad to see the strength of the nation being pissed away for no purpose other than the misguided self-aggrandizement of those we elected to lead.
If they’re dumb enough to asked how I feel, I’m just hostile enough these days to tell them how it is. Now they know. Now you know too.
Everyone likes to feel like they are an important part of what’s going on around them. Even though most people wouldn’t be missed much if they spun off into oblivion, organizations everywhere help mollify their workforce by engaging in the ridiculous pantomime of holding “town hall” meetings where everyone troops into the auditorium and tries not to look too bored as executives click through several dozen slides that someone made for them. Then they open the floor for a handful of delusory questions, give the shiny happy answer, and close the meeting because 99 times out of 100 no one in the room wants to ask what’s really on their mind. Most of us leave with no more information than we had when we showed up, but at least marched an hour or two closer to the end of the day. That’s a mercy at least.
Of course it’s only a small mercy if it’s not a two hour town hall scheduled to start an hour before most of your employees are supposed to be heading home. There’s also a good chance that if it’s the third “mandatory” meeting in the last four weeks to cover the same general set of topics and it’s just being presented by a different talking head, it could be overkill. As good an idea as these meetings were when they were held by our sainted forefathers in New England, they’ve lost a little of their zip. Maybe it’s time to get out the ol’ thinking cap and come up with a better way to engage the people.
Of course if you’re not actually looking for input from anyone, then feel free to disregard this idea in its entirety.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.