I’ve realized this week, though hardly for the first time, that a disturbing amount of my workload exists purely because people can’t be trusted to do what they’ve been told to do.
Let me give you an example. There’s a report that’s been due every Friday for months. Instead of doing something like sending out a message that says “Hey, you need to turn this information in every Friday until we tell you to stop,” and then expect that grown adults will be able to do that, every Friday morning we prep and send out an Official Reminder that the exact same information is going to be due again next week. Instead of doing a thing once time, we do it 52 times… because expecting alleged professionals to do their job is a problematic course of action.
Another example? Sure. We have a system that keeps track of all the official things people are supposed to be working on. Every office has access to this system and can see what’s assigned, what’s in progress, what’s due, and what’s late with the click of a few buttons. We send out a weekly reminder on those things too… actually, now we send out that reminder twice a week since, again, alleged professionals can’t be troubled to keep track of what they’re supposedly doing.
If you’re thinking that failing to do your damned job would lead to some kind of adverse action, you get partial credit. Nothing bad happens to the people who are days or weeks late getting the job done, but my little part of the Great Green Machine finds itself with more work to poke, prod, cajole, and plead with people to do whatever it is they were assigned to finish.
Those at echelons higher than reality seems to think that the problem is in not passing out enough reminders. I tend to think the problem lies in people being irresponsible and not getting a well-deserved ass chewing as a result.
1. Microwaved tuna. In a world where Jeff is king, I will decree any pigfucker that microwaves tuna fish in an enclosed space such as an office break room guilty of treason and subject to either being stoned to death by his or her colleagues, or being tied to a large rock and flung into the sea, whichever is more immediately convenient.
2. Bad takes. It would be a mistake for you to interpret my calmness in the face of gale-force stupidity as indifference. While I may well be indifferent, even when I’m fully engaged and focused I’m never going to be the guy who runs around flailing my arms wildly to demonstrate just how concerned I am. It’s counterproductive and makes you look like an idiot. I prefer to, when possible, remain outwardly placid and consider the array of possible options in a frame of mind that doesn’t look to an observer like the end credits of a Benny Hill episode.
3. It’s the day before the formal start of President’s Day weekend. That’s great. I dearly love it. It’s one of my 10 favorite federal holidays. But with its inevitable departure on Monday it means we’re right in the teeth of the long march through late winter and early spring… a period that’s well known for its dearth of regularly scheduled days off. Added to it that it’s the period of the year when my workload tends to be at its most ridiculous and it’s practical a magic formula for turning my regular sunny disposition absolutely foul.
Nothing good ever starts with the boss coming by asking “How busy are you this week?”
The answer, the answer I should have given, true or not, is “I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger, sir… Doing great things for God and country.”
Instead the answer was “Meh, what do you need?” I made the cardinal mistake of showing even the least semblance of interest. I made a mistake and the consequences were swift and certain.
One little slip up, friends, is precisely how you get yourself drug into the middle of a three and a half hour meeting on Friday that up until just a few minutes before was none of your damned business.
I’ve lead the internet in warning future bureaucrats about the dangers inherent in volunteerism. In my career, I’ve never been rewarded for putting up my hand and asking for more work. Although it leads the list by a fairly wide margin, volunteerism isn’t the only form of creeping workload adjustment that can ruin your day.
While I didn’t quite volunteer today, I did present myself as a convenient target of opportunity. Just being at the wrong place at the wrong time can result in two reports and a half a day worth of briefings ending up slipping from someone else’s pile to yours before you even realize what you’ve done.
“Surprise!” Says the universe. “That nice easy week you were planning… the one with the low pressure slide into the weekend? Yeah, you can go ahead and forget all about that.” The universe is a real son of a bitch like that.
That’s what I get for being caught at my desk. I know better. And now I’m going to pay the price for not turning that knowledge into action.
1. Lacking consistency. A few weeks ago a kid jumped a fence and made his way into a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. Social media erupted with criticism of the parents who let this happen and the zoo administrators who opted to kill the gorilla. A few days a go a kid waded in to a lake in central Florida and was killed by an alligator. Social media erupted with criticism of Disney for not having put up signs warning about the potential presence of said alligators. There’s barely a mention of the two grown adult humans who reasonably might have been expected to know that alligators are common in Florida, if not knowing that nighttime and shallow water are among their favored feeding conditions. On one hand we have the captive, but “cute and cuddly” mammal and on the other the “scary” looking reptile living in its natural habitat. I’d simply be remiss if I didn’t comment on the complete lack of consistency with which people and the media responded to these two different, but very similar events. As usual, I’m forced to come down on the side of the animals, if only because humans are apparently too oblivious to their surroundings to be allowed to operate anywhere within 500 yards of animals larger than the family cat.
2. Knowing me. Yesterday someone actually opened their mouth and suggested that I might enjoy going to the Firefly music festival being held in Dover this weekend. I really didn’t know how to respond to that. A weekend camping out with nearly 100,000 unbathed concertgoers sounds like the third or forth level of my own personal hell. Honestly. It’s like some people just don’t get me at all.
3. We are a “technology” organization. When the computer, that most basic piece of office technology for the last 20 years, decides not to function there’s precious little I’m able to do that could even be accidentally thought of as productive. There’s only so much time you can spend staring at the ceiling, playing with the paper shredder, and walking loops around the hallway. Without access to email, various websites, and sundry databases there is simply not practical way to do my job through no fault of my own. Since this situation is bound to happen again, it would be helpful if everyone could remember that when my system is eventually placed back in service after a four working day absence, there’s going to be a backlog. I’ll work through it and answer requests for information in as logical an order of importance as I can manage to discern. I will do so as quickly and efficiently as meetings, additional tasks from the bosses, and other office distractors allow. What I will not do, however, is accomplish 4 days worth of work in the six hours of the day still available. I’m happy to take the blame when I’m responsible, but I’m damned well not going to take heat for processes, procedures, and equipment nonavailability that is utterly beyond the scope of my authority to change or even influence.
If you stick around long enough occasionally good things happen to good people. Most of the time that’s not the case, but just occasionally the universe gets one right. It’s nice to see someone finally get compensated for the level of responsibility they’ve already had. It’s a damned rare thing and I’m happy to see it.
The flip side of such recognition, however, is that when these good people move up and out you inevitably end up with a pile of their old job on your desk because someone still has to do it when they’re gone. Anyone who’s been in the game any length of time at all has been on both sides of the “workload balancing” equation. So it goes.
My advice at times like this is to remember that the day is only eight hours long no matter who’s trying to cram 12 hours of work into it. Wash, rinse, and repeat as needed until the weekend arrives. A decade ago, this kind of thing would have made me nervous and jerky. Now I mostly just shrug and accept there are some things that will never rise to the top of the list of things to do – and even if that’s not technically ok, it’s just the way it is.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was as close to coming unglued today as I’ve been in at least four years. At one point around 2:30 this afternoon, email was hitting my inbox and I was taking on so much verbal guidance that I’m pretty sure I could see the code in the matrix. I wish I was joking. There was a minute there this afternoon when I’m almost positive that I could hear the synapses firing in my brain.
In the middle of my boss talking to me I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my temples, muttering something to the effect of “I think I’m losing my mind back here.” At least I think that’s what I said. Whatever it was that came out of my mouth in that moment must have been a doozy because the boss’ face was a decided mixture of curiosity and concern when I opened my eyes. It wasn’t my finest moment. Then again, it wasn’t anything close to a good day, so I don’t know why it would be.
I don’t mind hard work – physical, mental, it makes no difference to me. I’m the guy who comes home from his day job and spends another four hours at the keyboard chasing the dream of making a living and a life from the written word. I’m the guy who spends hours on the yard until it looks “just so” and order has been restored from the chaos. With that being said, I need to note that there’s only one of me. I can’t change one thing sixteen times and have any hope of keeping up with the two dozen other things people want. I wish I could tell you that I could. Hell, I wish I actually could do it all but there are limits… and I’m old enough to know better than to spend all day every day working beyond those limits. Nothing good comes from that.
So tomorrow I’m going into the day knowing that I’m already running close to max RPM. Some people are happy enough to rev the engine until it blows apart. I’m not one of them and will make decisions accordingly.
I wish I’d have had the wherewith all to jot down a few notes today. I think it might be instructive in describing exactly why there is currently so much dissatisfaction with the state of things. To illustrate my point, here is my best recollection of an actual conversation that took place just after I got back from lunch:
Other Person: “Uhhh… he’s adamant that we get that random tidbit of information from that guy who doesn’t want to give it to us.”
Jeff: “Yeah. Well, this report has to be sent in by 1:00, I need to finish that thing that was due Monday but no one told us about until this morning, and that other thing that needs approved four levels above me before I can send it out at noon tomorrow needs finished by the end of the day. Oh, and I haven’t had time yet to prep for the meeting I’m nominally supposed to be in charge of tomorrow, so there’s that… but I’ll add the random tidbit to my list and see what I can find out after I managed to carve out some time to hector the Air Force into doing something they’re probably not going to want to do.”
Other Person: “So… Do you want me to look at the slides for tomorrow?”
As far as I can tell, today was mostly about learning to put the right coversheet on the TPS report. Again. And Again. And Again. And again. I’m fairly sure this is real life, but it feels so close to fiction that it’s almost frightening.
The 40-hour work week where everyone arrives and departs at the same time each day probably made eminent sense when it was instituted for a country with a massive manufacturing sector committed to assembly line methodologies. When you’re living in an electronic age and the output product of your efforts live in a storage device as a series of ones and zeros, a fully regimented work schedule is a little harder to understand. In a plant where they build cars, you can expect X number of frames to roll by a given point on the line each eight hour shift every day of the week. OK, a standard 8-hour day makes sense there. In the information sector, Wednesdays might be the heavy volume day and represent 11 hours of required work while Monday only requires five hours of work. Even though the requirements have shifted, we largely cling to that magic eight hours a day, five days a week concept.
If I were king for a day, I’d propose a new standard for information workers. In this system, you’re paid your base salary for 2080 hours a year. On days when you get the work done in 5 hours, feel free to go on home. On days when workload is high, plan on staying a little longer to get it done. All things being equal, I’d be willing to bet that in most cases, the time would even itself out over the long term.
Of course we know that all things are not equal. Some people are going to abuse a system based on them being honest about their workload. Some people will work half days every day and others will put in 12 hours every day. So yeah, I intellectually understand that there are pretty high barriers to getting away from the standard work week. I get that my new system is a managerial nightmare and completely impractical, but on those days when I blow through my assignments in 4 hours, it sure would be nice to have the option of punching out for the day rather than sitting around watching the clock tick on towards the end of the day…. because let’s face it, when their actual work is done, no one is sitting around dreaming about what other great things they can do for the overlords, right?
Some supervisors live and die by the clock. I’m not one of them. If you get your job done, why should I care if it takes you five hours or eight? Of course if I know it takes you five, I’m going to find something else for you to do, but if you’re quiet about it and don’t draw attention to yourself, what’s it to me if you check in on Facebook or look up the afternoon’s scores on ESPN?
I’ve never understood the people who live to catch someone taking a long lunch or coming in a handful of minutes after their scheduled start time. If the work is getting done, who’s being hurt? Seriously, if you have nothing better to do than run a stopwatch on your colleagues, maybe it’s time to take a look at your own workload and see if you’re doing all you can. More importantly, if you want to continue keeping the official shot clock for the office, remember that it’s very likely someone just might start watching you and waiting for an excuse to follow your example.
Payback is what it is, so don’t be surprised when you get got.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.