Hidden Virtues

I often wonder how much time in traditional jobs are people there less to do the work, but more to fill in a “slot”.  Now, I’m not saying people in jobs don’t work…but rather, how much of their working time is defined by the needs of others, of organizations rather than the task of work itself.  I say this reflecting on my own past work.  I was hired by a place because my background matched perfectly what they wanted me to do which they thought would take 2 years. So I left my older employer, got a fairly big raise, and looked at the task they wanted me to do….and it was nowhere near 2 years work.  Not even close.  It took me awhile to realize that no one there had really thought through what a software project would take.  They weren’t programmers…far, far, far more hardware oriented folks.  When I took the time to sit through and code what they needed (in a tiny, tiny closet filled with hardware racks, air conditioning vents to keep the hardware from frying, 1 Monitor, no phone, barely room for one chair, set in the midst of a titanic industrial environment)

4 months later….I was done.   What a mistake!  At first my bosses didn’t believe that I could finish a ‘2 year task’ in 4 months…..this involved me ever-so-politely pointing out to them they had no idea how software projects are designed, which, after a time sunk in.  When I asked ‘what now?” they said, “We’ll figure it out.”  Weeks later they had not.   More weeks went by.  My coworkers resented me not working on their hardware projects and only dimly grasped that I knew absolutely nothing about their hardware and they had zero patience/willingness for teaching me.  So I sat.  And sat.  And sat some more.  People thought I was being clever to get a check and do nothing. I hated it.  Every attempt I made to try and break out of my rabbit cage was discouraged with flamethrowers.  ‘No. Sit. We’ll get back to you’  When I made a huge list of the software projects that could have been done…just by me…my boss looked at me like I wanted to re-enact the Manhattan Project on his budget.  No. Sit.

Eventually, I quit.  Today, I probably would have cashed the checks and laughed at the Fools Employing Me, but back then I just hadn’t reached Schadenmaturity.  I could sure use the cash now.

Think this an isolated case?  That capitalism would weed out such companies?  I have dozens, literally dozens of such stories from folks, from failed companies and still prospering ones.  Get a few drinks in me and I have stories about a yacht club(!) that was conned into a computer that the NSA could use to crack codes…and the Potemkin staff they hired for a set of bizarre set of reasons, none of which were around the machine they bought.

I apologize for the long screed.  How does this connect to EOW?  That’s easy.  More, and more and more of work can’t afford this kind of nonsense, within companies and without.  No one wants to really say what they feel:   Companies frequently make people unproductive.  As the responsibility gets push on us, we’ll develop more of a sense that the reward will move downward as well.  It may not, but that’s what we feel should be the case, and the more we feel that way the more we will be trying to make it happen.  Companies have, for a long time, berated “inefficient” employees; this will turn on the companies themselves when people really embrace their awareness of how effective they are compared to the organizations they are with.  You know better what makes you work at your best more than your boss does.




Filed under Ron, Uncategorized

45 responses to “Hidden Virtues

  1. wj

    I have certainly seen this disconnect between how long a job is expected to take and how long it actually takes me. But I have evolved a somewhat different explanation:

    Expectations are set by how long an average employee would require to complete a task. As long as it gets done that fast, management doesn’t really care that you could have done it faster. In fact, as your experience indicates, doing it too much faster is sometimes extremely disruptive. Not to mention that it makes co-workers unhappy because it raises expectations for them as well — expectations that they may not be able to meet. Beating expectations is valued . . . but not by too much.

    The solution, if you are a lot faster/better than required for the job, is to “coast.” Get the job done, sure, but do other stuff as well. Sometimes, for me, that involved spending the excess time on education — job-related education, mostly, since there was always more to learn. It meant there were more things I then knew how to do . . . and increased the breadth of things I could put on my resume for the next job.

    Other times, it went to self-generated projects: stuff that I thought ought to be done, and which would make the place run better, but for which it was hard to make a formal business case to get a project approved and budgeted. For example, there were always issues which were irritating the Computer Operations staff, but which they couldn’t get anybody (else) in Systems Programming to address. If I hung out with them enough, the operators would mention them to me. And, being officially in a group outside Operations, I had the traction to write a recommendation and get it fixed. (Which made me a hero to the operators. And meant that, if I needed something from them, I got great service. Just another form of networking on the job.)

    One time, early in my career, I even wrote a book. Not, in that case, anything even remotely work-related. But I was working for the best boss I ever had (the best for a lot of reasons totally unrelated to that project), and as long as I was getting my work done for her (and more besides), she didn’t care what else I did. (She did, however, ask for a copy when I was done. Not that she had any interest in the topic. Just that “Since you wrote it on my time, I ought to get a copy.” But she was smiling as she said it.)

    I suppose this ties back to the End Of Work question. If less work needs to be done, we each will have to find other things to fill the time. Some people have hobbies. Some people can come up with things to do which are interesting/fun/valuable. But some people simply are not creative in that particular way. And for them, having the extra time may actually be a problem, possibly even a serious problem, rather than the blessing you or I might find it to be.

  2. This sounds like every job I’ve had since college, and, barring an act of God, any job I’m likely to have for the rest of my life.

    Like WJ, I’ve found it handy to bring in other projects. Once I transcribed tapes for a book. People around me thought I was listening to my Walkman.

  3. kngfish

    Ah, but notice what we’re saying here… Coasting, other projects…if you had total control/responsibility of your time you have to wonder how things would get better for you (in several ways) if you didn’t have to go through this Kabuki, and just concentrate on the work. Imagine writing that book (or whatever!) as a serious part of your life, not just a “make work” thing to do to placate an employer by sitting at a desk.

    People are still wasted in far too many work situations.

    • That’s the problem…I’d have to be independently wealthy or have some kind of anuity coming in, because the job I’m “supposed” to be on is my safety net. So I’d have to have that safety net in some other way, or be a homeless person sitting on the street with a lot of electronic equipment.

      • kngfish

        Exactly, Melinda….what I’m trying to say is that you have to feel these types of inefficiencies will be eliminated over time.

      • wj

        Ah, but would those inefficiencies be eliminated over time? Even in a relatively small organization, planning mostly has to be done based on the average worker. (That average may be way off the mean for the overall population. But it still has to inform organizational planning.)

        So any worker who is significantly more capable than that average is going to have “extra” time available. Because the organization cannot plan based on the assumption that he will be the one assigned, or that he will still be around for the duration of the project. A wise organization (surely there are a few of them out there!) will make provision for staff to spend time on “unofficial projects” — provided that the official projects are running on schedule. There is a lot of value to be gained there, for the organization willing to sieze the opportunity.

    • wj

      I think I was unclear. I’m not saying that I wrote a book at work as a “make work” effort to fill time! I was working on it anyway. Having time at work to do it merely freed up time outside of work which would otherwise have been absorbed by the book. Not to mention that the book would have been a lot longer getting done.

      But perhaps this illustrates part of the problem. Some of us (e.g. me and Melinda) are able to think up things to do for ourselves. But I’m not convinced that this is anything like a universal trait. In evidence I offer up the kinds of mindless TV shows (note, I am excluding the ones which actually have a plot-line or some other significant content!) which people use to fill time that they cannot invent projects for on their own.

  4. Then I’d have to have the safety net in terms of the sheer number of opportunities coming in, while trying to maintain a balance so that I’m not overwhelmed.

    Also, each of those things and clients would have to pay. That’s the problem I’ve had freelancing as opposed to temping. One place said I’d never given them an invoice. I went up to the account’s office and found my invoice sitting right on top of her wastebasket. At least throw some coffee grounds on there!

    • wj

      I think that everyone who accomplishes something new has to have some kind of safety net — some source of at least minimal living available. It could, as we discussed, be a job which doesn’t take our whole time and attention. It could be a “regular job,” with innovation occurring at other times. It could be personal savings. It could be family (parents, spouse, whatever). Once upon a time, it could be a patron. I suppose that, in the modern era, the “patron” function could be venture capitalists. 😉

      But something new, almost by definition, is not going to provide income, certainly not reliable income, early on. And there has to be some way to keep the lights on, and food on the table, until it takes off — if it does.

      Because that is the other feature of innovation: it may well not succeed. Which means that not only does the would-be innovator have to worry about survival while they work on whatever. They also need to devote at least a little consideration to what happens if things don’t work out. Spend too long on your own projects, and it can be challenging to get back into the regular job market. (Tip to anyone doing this: make sure that your efforts are wrapped up in a label that at least sounds like it is a real company. Even if it is just you in your basement.)

  5. It’s the difference between “eke out a living” and “EEEK! out a living.”

  6. kngfish

    I think you are both not quite getting what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter if you can do something at work “unofficially.” Wj, in terms of your employer, working on your book is — in theory — not what he wants you to do!

    Plus, I am obviously leaving salaries out of the equation; I’m simply talking about the work you are trying to do for the tasks you are assigned, and how we could now figure this out for yourself on what is needed rather than having it figured out for you.

    • wj

      I’d say that, if you are figuring out for yourself what tasks you should do, you are self-employed. (Or the chariman and CEO, I suppose.)

      I see the attraction of a job environment where everybody just figures out what seems to need doing and does it. In fact, I know a couple of (very!) small companies which manage to run that way. But once you get beyond a handful of employees, your ability to select for “self-starters” is limited.

      And the flexibility to deal with a combination of self-starters and non-self-starters is not trivial to achieve. Which, in short order, gets you back to having most decisions, especially planning decisions, taken at a level beyond the individual. And that, in turn, means spare time for those who work significantly faster.

      P.S. I wouldn’t say that doing personal projects is necessarily “not what your employer wants you to do.” For example, suppose you are on salary — so there is no cost to you putting in more hours, nor benefit to you putting in fewer hours. Suppose further that the employer does something along the lines of what management speak calls “management by objective.” As long as you are meeting those objectives, and the amount of time you spend on them is not really a concern.

  7. I was working on it anyway. Having time at work to do it merely freed up time outside of work which would otherwise have been absorbed by the book.

    Yeah, same here. Doing the tapes during the day job meant I had more time at home…to do yet a third project!

  8. Ron, I think corporations are lousy at correctly estimating how much time and how many people it takes to do a project. That’s why for years I had lots of downtime to unofficially multi-task, followed by companies saying three years or so ago, “We don’t need any of these silly marketing support people; I can have my secretary do this in Word,” followed a few months later by my getting long-term assignments because they realized they couldn’t do it without us but they didn’t want to make a commitment to anybody full-time, with benefits.

    So I think the thing you’re talking about may be happening already, where they’re getting rid of these inefficiencies, but the hiring/firing decisions are usually made so far up the ladder that the bigwigs don’t know what’s actually going on in the department.

    • wj

      Proof that management is not doing their jobs: a directive for “across the board” actions, whether staff cuts or budget cuts in general. That kind of thing only makes sense if everybody in the organization is equally skilled and productive and everything being done by the organization is equally valuable and important.

      There may be a company somewhere in that position. All I can say is that I’ve never encountered it. But I’ve sure seen a lot of blanket directives that show no sign of knowledge of the diversity involved in reality.

  9. kngfish

    Melinda, this is exactly the point I’m getting at….the older approach is forcing more and more responsibilities on us when we ourselves know what we need to be more productive. Suppose you had absolute freedom to get done what you needed to, both in time and location. How much time and where do you think you would be doing what you do? Exclude “unofficial multi-tasking” (I’m curious!)

    wj, I don’t see it as a distinction between self-starters and non-self-starters. I see it as a function of the work itself, not the individuals “Management by objective” is closer to what I’m suggesting…but I suspect most firms are still suspicious of it! Even today, most of the places I know would frown upon “personal projects” being done “at work”. I’m trying to say these distinctions are moot.

    • wj

      I would go further and say that most firms, while giving lip service to valuing them, are actually quite leary of self-starters. For exactly the same reason that they are, in practice, unenthused about management by objective. It is hard to feel “in control” when the people working for you are making their own decisions about what to do next. It’s actually akin to the insecurity that some self-employed feel about not knowing where the next contract, product order, consulting gig, etc. will come from.

      And, given that perspective, it would not be surprising if management was happier having people working (strictly unofficially, of course) on their own projects, while still doing what The Plan called for them to do.

  10. For corporate graphics, I would still want to work onsite…I don’t want some of the people I’ve worked with/for calling me at home. And the changes are frequent, and sometimes a team will want to stand over you as you make the changes.

    For anything else, the idea of a co-working space is appealling:
    It would get me out of the house/out of sweatclothes and mixing with other working people, rather than sitting in my living room in front of my computer with a “Law & Order” marathon in the background.

    • kngfish

      Excellent response! The kind of thing I should have been more direct about asking for! 🙂 My own experience has some of those aspects, especially at the beginning of a project… intense involvement with people, then the need to go away and work alone…repeat that cycle several times, with decreasing involvement needed.

      I work best at home with videos, stereos, cooking and working all going on at once…and maybe a load or two of laundry! But that’s just moi…

      • wj

        I think that the discussion about the relative merits of telecommuting usually misses this point. There are some things that just work a lot better when you can get a bunch of people in the same room. Especially efforts involving brainstorming and which benefit from chance encounters and random conversations in the hallway during breaks. And there are other things which work better if you can get away from constant interruptions. (All that background stuff isn’t really a source of interruptions. Well, unless the washer is signaling that it has finished the current cycle.)

        Instead, all of the discussions of telecommuting seem to envision it as an either/or question. It might be better to approach it from a how much/how often perspective.

    • wj

      ROTFLMAO! For me, it would likely be an NCIS or Castle marathon. For my wife, probably Top Gear. But I can definitely see it happening.

      It occurs to me to wonder about something, tho. At work, we have other people around us and other things happening. But when we work at home, there is a strong tendency to have the TV or the radio playing. Do you suppose that there is something in the human mind that gets some benefit from some level of background distraction? A kind of anti-autism, maybe?

    • wj

      I suspect that the background noise/activity helps us stay focused precisely because it gives the parts of our brain which are not needed for the task at hand something to process. Without that, they have a tendency to “try to help” . . . with all the actual contribution of a 5 year old “helping” with a complex task.

      I wonder if that is not part of the pain that most people experience in solitary confinement — the lack of anything to process. I suspect that the ability to engage the whole brain in thinking/imagining something is rather rare. Lucky me; my father used to say, “I’ve often been completely alone, but I’ve never lonely” and I seem to have inherited that from him..

  11. kngfish

    wj, other types of stimulus help me stayed focused on the main thing I’m thinking about over the long haul. An image, a sound….they make other parts of the brain work, which I think makes a ‘3D’ thought process work.

    I used to be a Role Playing Game Ref, and for the non-player characters I had to develop different voices for them to speak in….my players loved some of these voices…and would call me from their work to give them advice on how to do something…in the RPG voices they liked me doing!
    (no kidding!)

  12. amba12

    I remarked on facebook once that I could work to background jazz but not to blues. The strong rhythm distracted me, while the sprung and off-beat rhythms of jazz seem to be conducive to thought . . . at least, editing. Writing, I might turn it all off. Not sure anymore. We’ll soon find out.

  13. Icepick

    Hopefully I can ellaborate later, but not all organizations value efficiency. I don’t mean it isn’t their priority, or that they’re necessarily poorly run, but that it may not be as valuable to them as one would imagine. In fact, some value INefficiency. Like I said, I hope to elaborate later.

    • Icepick

      I’ll probably have to do this in parts. [Nope, I got it in one long shot.! Hopefully when I read it tomorrow it will be coherent, ‘cause I’m posting tonight anyway.]

      Consider The Walt Disney Corporation. Inefficiency is built into large parts of the company on purpose. The idea is that they’ve got a good thing going, and they do NOT want things getting changed wily-nily. So you get a multi-layered bureaucracy in which it takes a LOT of buy-in (one thing I do not miss is corporate jargon) from a LOT of different partners to make any kind of major changes. This works its way down over time so that it becomes hard to make minor changes too, if they cross over any kind of bureaucratic jurisdictions.

      The point is that you don’t want some director or general manager, or even an Executive Vice President, deciding that instead of It’s a Small World using the “It’s a Small World” song, it should instead use The Geto Boys’ “Resurrection”. Actually, you don’t even want that executive deciding that the song should be kept, but a new recording should be done with modern arrangements. People will notice, and they’ll be pissed. So it’s very hard to get some things changed at TWDCo. Michael Eisner eventually figured that out, but only after some boondoggles – e.g. deciding to build a real honest to goodness castle at the center of Disneyland Paris. (That and some other design features of DP have made it a money pit – why build a real castle in the middle of a continent full of real castles – if the people are going to go to a Disneyland, it’s because they want to see Disney castles and such.)

      The downside to that is the bureaucratic structure becomes all important. It is VERY risky to step outside of whatever one’s official purview, even on small things. The experienced manager always makes certain that if they DO step outside of their official purview, it will be some underling tasked with the actual dirty work.

      This connects to Ron’s post. If one does become skilled at one’s job, and can do it well and quickly, you find yourself with a lot of free time. In an organization like Disney (at least the non-creative parts, which is most of it) you CANNOT start working on random projects. This will get you in trouble, and possibly fired. You CAN ask your superior if they’ve got something else you can do. They may oblige and give you something. However, it may be a project that you shouldn’t be working on, like doing another department’s job behind their back. (I have been involved in such work, big and small, for reasons that were good (the other department was screwing things up and we needed to know how it was going to impact us by coming up with better results) and reasons that were bad (the boss wanted to look like a know-it-all in front of some other director).) These kinds of extra-curricular activities are NOT good jobs to have, even if they keep you from putting your head in a vice and tightening it just to relieve the boredom. There is every reason in organizations like this to just make it look like you’re working, or to be on VERY good terms with your boss.

      I know of whence I speak. I was hired by my department to do something that they had never done before. The department that had been doing the work decided it was too much trouble, and the change in financial/project management software allowed our group to have more independence generating its own data, and thus more independence in analyzing that data. So my boss took advantage of the situation to add headcount to his little dominion, and thus my position was born.

      It took about a year to figure out all the little problems with the system. It could have been done much quicker, but the higher-ups didn’t want it done quicker, not at that time. Eventually I figured out not only the problems in the system, but where the opportunities were to greatly enhance the system. I knew enough (from my mother, who worked at Disney for 20 years) to not push things. So I tinkered and made small changes, and added some new tools behind the scenes when I could get some traction for a new analytical tool. I had three main functions – tracking monthly expenses, creating the annual operating plan (AOP), and working on a five-year plan (5YP) every summer. The AOP and 5YP processes were always time constrained and when I got there we often had to work through weekends to get them done.

      Two years into my career our department got a promotion of sorts. As part of a re-organization of WD Parks & Resorts (change is difficult, it isn’t impossible – and org charts are always a fun way for the bureaucrats to expand their fiefdoms at the expense of their enemies) our little section started doing what we did not just for Walt Disney World Resort, but also for Disneyland, Imagineering (our famous design branch) and the newly formed Parks & Resorts Administration. Now these different units varied tremendously in size and structure, but we were going to produce the same analysis for all four (and occasional analysis for smaller units as needed), and doing what we did would require pretty much the same amount of time whether we were dealing with a few hundred people or 55,000. Thus it would not have been possible for me to keep doing my job the old way.

      Fortunately I had a lot of major changes I could make. I had been toying around with doing them, but there was no need. Now there was a need. After the first yearly cycle through all the processes I had everything set. So in year four I only had to spend part of one Saturday working on a 5YP, and that was because we had to wait on someone else’s data to insert in a presentation needed first thing Monday morning.

      In the end I was officially doing four times as much work, and taking less than half the time I had before. That’s an eight-fold increase in productivity. But that doesn’t really cover it – because I had also improved the historical files, making year-to-year comparisons of forecasts much easier, had improved the analytics on the medical cost side tremendously, knew the ins and outs of several areas of the business that no one had bothered to figure out before (with good reason in my opinion), and had tied all three processes together so that they were essentially just one ongoing project. Along the way I had made everything MUCH easier to use, had corrected problems with the math of my superiors, and had even made it easier to insert data into presentations, which technically wasn’t part of my job but it just seemed like the civil thing to do. And did I mention that I helped the finance department figure out it was doing some of its BIG reporting incorrectly?

      Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to do things quickly in a clunky old bureaucracy. One year we missed on an annual projection very badly. I won’t bother giving a number, but unless you work for the government it was a big piece of change. Superiors got irate. Calls were made to their lessers, who called THEIR lesser for an explanation, which gets us to the level of my boss. He was getting called to a captain’s mast, at least. (I believe someone may have actually used the expression “Explain yourself!” LOL)

      By this point my boss had moved up a slot in the org chart, and I had a new direct manager. But the boss is the one who can actually hire and fire people and has authority, so my manager wasn’t really my boss, just the guy that told me what the boss wanted. Anyway, the command comes down from the lessers’ lesser to HIS subordinate to me to explain why we missed by [large sum of money] on our projection. There was a hint of panic in the air. The manager said, “We’ve really got to get this done, and it needs to be good.” I said, “Okay, it’s done. We’re only responsible for ~7.5% of the miss, and that’s mostly on PTO expenses coming in a little lower than projected. I’m still working out with finance why the true-ups were off.” (This is how demented things can get – we were being called to task not for leaving the company exposed to added expense, but because we had made conservative estimates on expense that proved overly gloomy – our “miss” was pure upside gold to the company.) My manager said, “No, we need all the details on how everything went wrong.” I said, “I know, that’s part of my standard reports now. The miss was because of bad headcount numbers given to us by Labor Management, bad pension estimates by the actuary, bad average hour forecasts by so-and-so, etc.” I had it all RIGHT THERE – rate-volume analyses (with corrections to the bad math of my superiors) of everything, and exactly where all the information had come from. I wasn’t trying to throw the blame off on other people, but we can only work with the stupid data we’re given, even when we know it’s a crock. We ran that back up the flag pole quickly and got salutes. Turns out we hadn’t missed by much, and what we had missed couldn’t really have been foreseen. I don’t know if the other departments got heat from that or not. Turns out “our” miss was really “their” miss.

      The amazing thing (to me) is that having the analyses available was a surprise to anyone, as such features should be a normal part of this reporting process. Duh. And yet it was a surprise. That was really satisfying.

      But it revealed problems, too, and I should have moved on to a different job right then. Unfortunately, I got complacent, and my mother started having health problems, so I was happy to have a job that I knew well and could do spectacular work while basically sleep-walking. So I didn’t change jobs and eventually earned the ire of my boss and got sacked over bullshit. Such are the fortunes of business.

      One of the biggest problems I had in that situation was that my boss never actually understood what it was I DID. I mean the nuts-and-bolts of it. He’d get his (dumbed down, in my opinion) reports out of it, and some analysis, but he didn’t really know how any of it was generated, massaged, analyzed, made fit for management consumption, etc. He really had no clue. I didn’t realize until late in my run (no one had told me) that the whole process I was working on had only just been implemented a couple of months before I was hired. That explains the bugs early on, obviously, but it also explains why my boss didn’t know what I was doing – when he had been more involved in the process, there had been a lot less process to be involved with. (Frankly I don’t understand what our little department was doing, even with reduced headcount, before we took over that function. How did they possibly need 2-3 people to do that work when all they were doing was looking at someone else’s final output? Mystifying. Of course, I thought our whole department was a waste of time, space and money, but that’s another story, and I was happy to have a job.)

      My boss, not knowing what I did, also didn’t understand my strengths (analysis & process) or weaknesses (I don’t really care about your opinion, shit-for-brains, show me the analysis), and so when I asked for more work he had no idea what to give me. Actually, I don’t know that that’s completely fair. He could have given me more work, but then he would have less justification for hiring more people, and that would keep him from moving up in the org charts.

      This kind of bureaucratic thinking is endemic to all large organizations, as is the idea that the organization can sack you for not following every procedure to the letter. (I covered that uncharacteristically briefly in another comment.) So a good deal of a worker’s time needs to be spent not on doing their job, but on brown-nosing the boss and making certain they’re in tight with the bastard. Doing the job, even doing the job very well, is only about a tenth of the actual work you need to do in a big organization, at least if you’re a desk worker.

      To sum up:
      A. Bureaucracies are sometimes designed specifically to be inefficient, therefore they don’t care if you are doing YOUR work efficiently or not. They may actually prefer that you do it inefficiently.
      B. If your boss doesn’t know what you actually do, s/he may not be very amenable to your doing other tasks, either for the company’s benefit, or your own, or just to keep you from sticking an icepick into your ear out of shear boredom.
      C. There’s a good chance the boss will not WANT you doing anything else productive for the company, as it may reduce the option to bring in more headcount.
      D. Free time should be spent schmoozing, especially in ways that put you in tight with the boss. Also, you don’t want to look like a jerk to your co-workers by being both uber-efficient AND highfalutin.
      E. If it becomes convenient, or even just fun, your bosses will contrive to fire you. Your position on the org chart only matters as a position on the org chart. As long as it stays your boss has no reason to keep you. This is ruinous in bad times. So ignore A, B, C and D at your own peril.

      • Icepick

        For the sake of argument, let’s assume you DO have free time at work. Here are the ways it is best spent in a large bureaucracy.

        The best way is to use it to schmooze with co-workers. (They can call it networking, but I’m not in the corporate world anymore, so I’ll call it what it is.) The next best way to handle it is to do things your boss wants done, like calculating odds for one of his betting pools, doing research on his prop bets, or best still running your own book in the office. The third best way is probably to work on self-improvement. The least good way (or the most double-plus-ungood way, if you prefer) to handle the down time is by doing whatever it is your boss does without getting his express written permission first, i.e. wasting time on the internet. (Things are a little different now, though. One could probably do this with a smart phone or a tablet. The only problem will be battery drain and it won’t be long before the big companies start monitoring electrical usage by outlet and wireless transmissions. They may not know what’s in the data packets, but they’ll know they’re there.)

        Note that this list is very cynical and not exhaustive.

        Also note that if you’re looking to climb up the org chart then the above may not apply. I’ve got no advice for you on that front.

      • wj

        My immediate reaction was: We’re all caught in a Dilbert strip, and we all need to become Wally. Although my temptation is always to become Alice — although I like to think my interpersonal skills are at least a little better.

  14. Icepick

    A wise organization (surely there are a few of them out there!) will make provision for staff to spend time on “unofficial projects” — provided that the official projects are running on schedule.

    And crafty organizations will be certain to have policies in place so they can fire anyone who does anything they’re not supposed to. Don’t assume that because a policy isn’t enforced, or is actively violated, by management doesn’t mean they won’t use it when the feel like it.

    The Voice of Experience

    • wj

      Absolutely true.

      The challenge, for managers, is to avoid getting into a position where they can be accused of unfair treatment precisely because lots of other people were engaged activities which were not authorized . . . but known to be happening. And didn’t get terminated. In that kind of situation, it become necessary to demonstrate both that the other activities did not result in material harm to the firm (i.e. waste something other than staff time) while the activity being sanctioned did result in such harm. It’s not an easy case to make.

      The situation is made more difficult, from a management perspective, because corporate policies tend to be written in sweeping, black-or-white terms. “Nobody shall do anything that is not formally authorized. Or else.” And nothing that sweeping is ever enforced. Just for example, in many corporations, personal use of company phones is prohibited. But (in pre-cell phone days) most managers preferred to have staff make the occasional call from their desk, rather than walk away (frequently to another floor) to make a personal call. It was a perfectly rational cost/benefit decision . . . and totally contrary to formally stated policy.

      In short, the whole area is a mess. Maybe we can find someone with an HR background who could comment on how things “normally” work in practice.

      • Icepick

        In that kind of situation, it become necessary to demonstrate both that the other activities did not result in material harm to the firm (i.e. waste something other than staff time) while the activity being sanctioned did result in such harm. It’s not an easy case to make.

        That’s an amateurish way to do it. All they have to do is call you into the HR department, make you sign an agreement (before you know what’s happening, of course) stating that there won’t be any finger-pointing (I forget the technical phrasing of this) or else you’ll get fired anyway, and then act as though you were the only person ever who has ever emailed your wife asking “What’s for dinner?” All the while your drug-addicted boss (everyone was too polite to ask him how he got Hep-C, natch) who gambles on his work computer using aliases of infamous Klansmen acts as though you’re Joseph Mengale reborn. After a few days of “consideration” you will get called back in and will be fired. That’s how its done, wj.

        No really, I AM the Voice of Experience

        PS Not that I’m bitter!

      • wj

        How well I know. I actually got laid off in the early 2000s for having the bad taste to go the extra mile to do my job. Said extra mile involving flying from SF to Phoenix at my own expense (and while using a couple of vacation days) because I needed to see people and there was no travel money in the bidget any more. The VP actually was in HR screaming and leterally pounding on the table demanding sanctions. HR told him he had no complaint. But for the next couple of years, all my Reiews got the ratings lowered — so when layoffs came aroundm I was head of the queue.

  15. Everything Icepick just ranted about is why I’m glad I’m a pixel-tweaker for hire.

    “Paladin, paladin, where do you roam…”

    Although the benefits can be great, I was tired of having some jerk say, “Oh, you’re an important part of the team,” and I was the batboy…and she’d hit me on the head with the bat.

    And I would think, “It’s me.”

  16. But for the next couple of years, all my Reiews got the ratings lowered — so when layoffs came aroundm I was head of the queue.


    The last review I had, a couple of months before I was swept up in a massive layoff, was the worst review I’d ever received after years of very good reviews (in the middle of taking care of a terminally ill husband plus two major surgeries of my own.)

    I started wondering if I had “gone bad,” like meat or cheese.

    I suspect they were trying to get me to quit so they wouldn’t have to give me the “lovely parting gift.” (Severance, COBRA, etc.)

    Or else it was the “mark over the lintel” that HR was looking for, since the other two people in the dept who were laid off when I was got similar reviews.

    • wj

      In my case, it was easy to tell what was going on. I knew what was on the original review that my supervisor wrote. The company had a “normalization” process — designed to make sure that a supervisor who “graded easy (or hard)” didn’t distort his staff’s ratings compared to others. But when my supervisor’s reviews went up to the VP, no words were changed, and nobody had their ratings changed…except me. Not really subtle, that.

    • kngfish

      One company I was at hounded us all to quit so they wouldn’t have to pay unemployment costs.

      When they were doing this, my mother was far along in the process of dying of cancer, and my spouse was in process of cheating/leaving.
      As you might imagine….I had not the most chipper of moods.

      At the moment of my review, they noted this and said it may have hurt the companies relationship with the customer base. But, I had gone and collected over the year glowing letters from my customers. Sent to my house. I revealed these after being what I just told you and asked that these be placed “in my file” as well. Naturally, this offended the Great Thinkers that were my bosses….

  17. wj

    Here’s another thought. We seem to be moving towards a business model where most actual work is out-sourced. If you think about it, that means, the jobs which are left are mostly managers. But where do managers come from?

    In a few cases, it’s just a matter of hiring MBAs fresh out of college. Do that very much, when there isn’t ,much institutional memory on how real work gets done, and your company is not long for this world. But if you want managers with company experience, where do they come from if you have out-sourced most of the work?

    That may be a case of taking a trend to a logical extreme which would never be experienced. But the question arises, how far is too far when it comes to having work done elsewhere?

    • kngfish

      Perhaps at the managerial level they may return to an older model….sort of internal apprentices, with mere trappings of degrees.

      • wj

        Ah, but where to draw potential management apprentices from? Today, the typical first step on the management track comes from being a technician. (At least, that has been my experience in IT. I was asked a couple of times if I was interested.) But if you cut way back on technicians, you pool of possible candidates gets very small.

        Which brings you back to grabbing people right out of school to train as managers. But that has one severe downside: if you have no experience at the company and doing the job, how do you know what ought to be done — whether by in-house staff or outsourced? The answer, based on seeing the occasional manager who came in that way, is that you have no clue. And are overwhelmingly likely to make decisions that anybody who knew personally “what the organization does” would never even have considered.

  18. Icepick

    My immediate reaction was: We’re all caught in a Dilbert strip, and we all need to become Wally. Although my temptation is always to become Alice — although I like to think my interpersonal skills are at least a little better.

    Alice would certainly be more fun, but I suspect the Wally’s live longer.

  19. Icepick

    All of which just reminds us that Hell is, in fact, other people.

  20. kngfish

    Really? I thought Hell was a place very much like Newark! M’bad…. :0

  21. Icepick

    Ron, thanks for the clip! I remember seeing that when it first aired. I’ve been meaning to look it up for sometime and always forget about it.

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