I don’t suppose there will be any official notification. No proclamations. No drums or trumpets. There’s likely to be nothing but my own angst and deep disappointment to mark the passage of what I’ll always consider a golden age.
You see, by the time I get back from taking a bit of time off next week, we’ll have already passed out of the era of “maximum telework” and begun phasing back towards “normal” operations. As it turns out, we’re opting not to observe any of the lessons of 2020 and making preparations to restore things to precisely what they were before the Great Plague. Passing on this literal once in a lifetime opportunity to create a better way to work, we’re going to take a knee… because our particular Olympian god doesn’t get a warm fuzzy unless he sees asses in seats. It would be laughable if the outcome wasn’t so utterly predictable.
After 18 and a half years on the job and with 14 years left to go, I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that the best, most rewarding fifteen months of my career are about to be over. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance more suited to my personal and professional temperament than the one we just worked through. Watching what worked so well being garroted to suit one man’s vision is damned near heartbreaking.
If there’s ever a time in the next 14 years where you think I’m sounding bitter about a stark refusal to embrace new modes and methods of “accomplishing the mission,” there will be a good reason for that… because I don’t plan on passing up an opportunity to continue agitating for a workplace that isn’t mired somewhere in the land of the gray flannel suit when it comes to their philosophy and practice of management.
It won’t make me the most popular kid in class, but fortunately I’ve had a lifetime of experience in knowing how to carry that role.
1. Timing. The 76 billion cicadas camping in my back yard are fine – aside from the dogs wanting to eat all of them. I generally don’t get freaked out by bugs. Their early morning screeching is what I’d charitably describe as “troublesome.” It’s made my favorite pastime of sitting on the patio for an hour each morning with coffee and a good book decidedly unpleasant. I know they’re temporary, but the little bastards are stepping all over the last days of full-time working from home. That’s just exquisitely bad timing… and I hate them for that.
2. Eligibility requirements. Marylanders who received the COVID-19 vaccination are eligible for daily drawings for $40,000… unless you’re one of the Marylanders who got the “federal” vaccine instead of the state jab. That puts me out of the running. Would I have waited a few more weeks to get the vaccine if I knew I could win a sweepstakes? Maybe. I suppose the world will never know… but I want my damned money.
3. Good intentions. The people who control the Thrift Savings Plan, the federal government’s version of a 401(k) retirement plan are being pressured to make two significant changes to how the fund is managed. The first would see the TSP divest from fossil fuel securities, with an eye towards, supposedly, making the investment funds “environmentally conscious.” The second major change would be driven by proposed congressional legislation to prohibit TSP from investing an any company based in China. Maybe both of those are admirable objectives and people should feel free to target their own money in whatever fashion they want… but for the TSP in general, which bears the lion’s share of responsibility to secure federal employees’ retirement. Personally, I want fund managers laser focused on driving down costs and maximizing return on investment… while keeping the “good intentions” of socially crusading politicians as far away as humanly possible
It took just under 100 minutes from the time I pressed the power button until the time my computer was fully booted up and ready to work. I’m sure it was downloading and applying some very important patch or update that we just couldn’t live without, but why that sort of thing couldn’t have been pushed on any number of the nights when my computer was dormant, but connected to the network by VPN, I’m sure I don’t understand. Later in the afternoon,I got the opportunity for another restart and update. Whatever. If that’s how our rich uncle wants me to spend a third of my time on the clock today, that’s his issue… but don’t ever tell me that having asses in these seats is about “productivity.”
The rest of the day was mostly keeping up with email and fiddling around with databases that it was my job to fiddle with today. This was all accompanied by the background noises, from a few cubicles down the row, of a colleague deeply in the grip of allergy season and their regular snorting, coughing, and hacking. Of course then there were the seven other people here with their own phone calls, random conversations, and general distractions rounding out the day. Remind me again why I should be in a hurry to return full time to a room full of this?
With the exception of being the designated warm body present to press the button that grants access to our little room, I’d be hard pressed to identify one thing that was better or more effectively done today because I was sitting in my cube rather than in my own office at home. Reports didn’t get done faster or with more precise information. The databases weren’t updated any more promptly. Yet, there I sat. Because it’s how we’ve always done things… and we operate in a world where that’s more than enough justification for the people who make the decisions.
1. Workforce “recovery.” This week I’ve started hearing the first rumbles that planning is picking up for the inevitable “return to work” phase of the Great Plague experience. It’s part of the workforce recovery plan that’s lain more or less dormant for the last year. The bosses will talk about it in grand terms of “bringing people home” to the office or of the supposed productive benefits of stacking thousands of people into 6×8 foot cubicles. They’ll talk of being “better together,” of having team synergy, or a hundred other phrases that mean, more or less, nothing. That’s the story they’ll tell themselves. Some people, I suppose, will even believe it. Me? Well, I’ll know from fourteen months experience that there’s almost no part of my job that requires being in a specific place during specific hours. I won’t have the audacity to say everything I do could be done from somewhere else… but I will say my time sitting in a cubicle could be limited to, like the old National Guard slogan, two days a month and two weeks a year – and every lick of my work would keep getting done on time and to standard.
2. Intellectual property. In a press release yesterday from the White House, the Biden Administration announced that it supports waiving intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines. Patent protection is among the most important functions we expect from government. It creates a safe and secure environment for innovation. While the federal government, through its expenditures supporting Operation Warp Speed, has a vested interest in vaccine development and distribution, the more rational course of action would seem to be continuing to ramp up domestic production of vaccines for export and cooperation with a few foreign manufacturers as trusted agents rather than handing over the keys to the kingdom without sufficient safeguards protecting the monumental intellectual effort that went into creating these vaccines.
3. Schedule. I had some maintenance scheduled here on the homestead this week. The day before they were to do the work, their office confirmed that “Yep, they’ll be there at 8:00.” Perfect. I like and appreciate early hours. The catch, because there’s always a catch, is the crew didn’t actually roll into my driveway until 9:05. Had the arrival time been given as “between 8 and 10,” I’d have been fine with it. I’d have even give at least partial credit for a call letting me know they were running behind. Yes, I know I’m more a fanatical devotee to staying on schedule than most. I tend to leave so far ahead of my projected arrival time that I’ve been known to tuck in to a nearby shop’s parking lot for a few minutes to avoid arriving obscenely early to appointments. I don’t necessarily expect that from other people… but if you say you’ll be somewhere at 8:00, being there at 9-something tells me you’re not even trying.
1. A plastic bag. There’s a white plastic bag in the top branch of one of the trees in my front yard. It makes me unreasonably angry. Mostly because even with a ladder I don’t have any implements long enough to haul it down. So, I’ll have this damned plastic bag stuck in front of the house forever or until I cut the tree down, I guess. Just another reason why I hate people. This bag belonged to someone but because they are an irresponsible asshat, now I get to look at it indefinitely out the front window.
2. The days of the week. The only real trouble I’ve had in this long stretch of working from home, is that the days have a real tendency to bleed together. Monday is a lot like Thursday which is a lot like Saturday and on, and on, and on. Hey, I’m a creature of habit, I’m not really complaining… but it does lead to a lot of minor moments of crises that start off with “Oh shit, that was supposed to do that today.”
3. r/wallstreetbets. The Redditors of r/wallstreetbets were mad geniuses last week, executing a classic short squeeze and costing at least one hedge fund a couple of billion dollars. Everyone likes it when the scrappy upstart scores one against the big guys. I get it. The fun part was once things started happening the broader world thought, inexplicably, that everyone could ride GameStop shares to the moon. Now there are posts awash with disbelief that people have the audacity to sell shares and take some profit. Maybe the folks over on Reddit play by different rules, but expecting anyone to ride a stock as wildly overvalued as GameStop had become and then hold it there at its highs indefinitely as the knife started falling back to earth, feels like exactly the kind of wackiness I’ve come to expect from message board people.
1. Accessories. I’ve been using the same iPhone case manufacturer since sometime around the 3rd generation. It appears that sometime early this year, they’ve gone defunct. That means I have a new phone coming tomorrow and now have to go through the paces of finding someone else who makes as close an approximation as what I use to be able to get, because, let’s face it, I’m not going to be satisfied with the first two or three or dozen I try. They’ll probably all be fine cases in theory, but none of them will be exactly what I wanted. Sigh. It’s going to be stupid and expensive and I don’t want to do it.
2. Vaccine. Reports this week are there’s a COVID-19 vaccine coming soon from Pfizer. Moderna seems to be hot on their heels with their own version. It looks like a footrace to see who will be first to market and able to make a supply chain work effectively. If your biggest concern is fighting back against the virus, this is all basically good news. My contrarian instinct, though, can’t help but remind me that the arrival of a vaccine is the beginning of the end of the golden age of working from home. Getting “back to normal” will inevitably sign the death knell of being home all day with the animals and give the upper hand back to bosses who value asses in chairs more than measurable productivity… and that’s not so much annoying as it is sad.
3. The Republican Party. Do I really need to even explain this one? As a (mostly) lifelong Republican, I’m embarrassed by the elected members of the party who are too cowed by the ebbing power of the president to say publicly that Donald Trump has not won reelection. The numbers tell the tale. I know that constituents will almost always rather hear sweet lies than hard truths and staying elected means not pissing off your base too badly. Even knowing that, I can’t quite get past the feeling that the Republican Party establishment is, perhaps as soon as the Georgia special election in January, going to be punished for its cowardice in a moment that begs them to tell truth to power.
I was in the office today. Even five months into the Great Plague, the rhythms of the place carry on largely unchanged. With upwards of 70% of the staff working from home it has a bit of a ghost town feel… but the phones keep ringing, the email keeps flowing, the day-to-day work seems to be getting done, and ridiculous ideas continue to abound. If it weren’t for needing to pick up the phone instead of sticking your head over a cubicle wall, I’d honestly be hard pressed to know that today was any different than the before time. I suppose you can decide what to make of that information.
What I noticed most about the day, though, was the absence of periodic fuzzy interruptions throughout the day. I hadn’t noticed until now how much I’ve come to expect the cat to occasionally jump onto the keyboard or work through the next email one handed while one or both dogs lean in for ear scratches and ear rubs. Even with that, they’re among the least distracting coworkers I’ve ever had.
The golden age of working from home will end eventually – killed off by the unstoppable force of an employer who believe asses in seats equals productivity as much as by the immovable object of employees who equate working from home with a paid vacation day.
I’ve known for most of my working life that there’s very little I can do at the office that I couldn’t do from anywhere that has a reliable internet connection… but these last few months have only just reinforced that having the animals alongside makes the fuckery of the standard eight-hour work day infinitely more tolerable. If we’re all eventually going to be stuck back in cubicle hell eventually, adding some coworkers with wagging tails or a steady and reliable purr would be incredibly helpful.
I’m on the cusp of taking my first vacation day since January. With a four-day weekend stretching out in front of me, I’m nearly as giddy as the proverbial school girl. I’m not going anywhere and I have no particular plans. It’s just an extra day not spent fighting with the help desk, or figuring out what the right teleconference number is, or ferreting out what people are actually asking for through email that was possibly written by four-year-old ring-tailed lemurs.
It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but it really is.
At 4:00 this afternoon, I packed my work laptop away – out of sight and mind – instead of letting it occupy the same real estate on my desk where it’s been nearly every day since mid-March. It’s a small thing, but for me, deeply symbolic of the transition between working from home and just being at home. It’s a small difference, but an important one.
So, it’s Friday on Wednesday and that, friends, does not suck.
I took a break this long Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t watch a bit of news. I didn’t write a word. The only bit of information leaking through came to me via social media… and that wasn’t utterly intolerable after last week when I silenced the dozen or so most ridiculously ill-informed and/or confrontational of the people in my various feeds. It was a few days where I mostly lost myself in the books, and futzing around the house, and tending to the critters. Aside from needing the mask for my early morning grocery run on Saturday, it was exactly the kind of weekend I’d have had been gunning for even in the absence of the Great Plague.
As it turns out, finding a “new normal” isn’t particularly difficult when it’s nearly indistinguishable from the old normal.
That sense of normalcy will, of course, fade when I have to start rescheduling doctor, dentist, and vet appointments that shouldn’t be deferred too much longer. It will be rattled to its core once Uncle decides we should all pile back into Cubicle Hell. With beaches crowded, hosts of businesses reopening,
I’m living my own little Golden Age over here… and know with certainty that it’s drawing to an end. No matter how much we’ve proven can be done while remote, regardless of the best scientific advice, people who have what I’ve always considered an inexplicable need to see and be seen will call the shots. Because surely if no one sees you doing the things, there’s nothing getting done. As if visual confirmation is all that measures output.
So now all that’s left is to enjoy as much of this brief golden age that remains. The new normal can’t last forever… but if the old normal makes a comeback soon, at least I can go ahead and start looking forward piling up some leave around Independence Day and making a last stand.
I think I’ve said it before, but it feels well worth repeating that the standard work day is considerably less onerous when you’ve got a view of your own sun dappled woods rather than the inside of a concrete box coated in low bidder paint with a view of your closest colleague’s lunch leftovers. Increasingly, as spring weather tries to take hold, the windows in my home office have become the best part of the work day.
I’m not a head shrinker, but I’ve long suspected that at least some of the general antipathy I feel about most days at the office can be attributed to having spent the vast majority of my career occupying horrifyingly bland interior rooms. I’m sure there are a host of other reasons too, but just now, with the good light streaming into the room, that feels like an element that can make a significant difference in the day’s mood. Having a couple of dogs and a cat who are blissfully indifferent to rank around shouldn’t be undervalued either… though my chance of having a window to look out feels far more likely than ever working in an office where bringing your pets to work is encouraged.
For now, though, I’m focused mainly on the idea that my office here at home is more comfortable, better laid out, and significantly more pleasurable to work in then even those reserved for the most high of our own little band of Olympian gods. Giving that up to go back to sitting it a poorly ventilated, badly lit, and overcrowded little corner of cubicle hell will probably be the single hardest thing I’ll have to do in my career.