There’s a blog I really like called livingafi.com. It’s by a US blogger who documents his journey from university through to wage slave and eventually to financial independence. It’s inspiring and very entertaining stuff. But what I found most interesting about it was his stories of work; horrible bosses, ridiculous targets, stressful hours and so on. He talks in some detail about the different jobs he’s had and you really start to understand why he was so intent on retiring early and escaping work altogether.
I remember reading livingafi’s blog with a mixture of fascination and horror at how bad work practices seem to be in the US. And it made me realise how lucky I am that I don’t have to suffer so much here in the UK. I’ve had crappy jobs, sure, but now I’m in a relatively well-paying job, with a good work/life balance, and a decent manager. Or so I had thought.
Towards the end of last year and throughout this year work seems to have been getting shittier and shittier. It has been a gradual change, a slow creep. Today I had a full-blown argument with my boss in which I laid down why I was unhappy and why I’ve become somewhat withdrawn of late. Here I’m going to lay out the same and let you, the reader decide.
Perhaps I’m overreacting. Perhaps I need to get some perspective, see things more objectively. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s them not me.
The Work ‘Culture’
It has probably always been there, but managers where I work seem to think it’s intelligent to come up with some acronym for the way we should work, our values as it were. For the last couple of years our values conform to the acronym ‘RISES’, that is; Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence, and Stewardship. Everything we do should be lead by these ideals, the way we treat customers, colleagues, the community, and so on. And it sort of makes sense, you should treat people with respect, and give great service, and so on.
But let’s think about this for a minute.
Firstly you could come with any old word and make an acronym work. One of my reportees was trying to do just that for our team. His acronym was the word ‘ONE’. He came up with ‘ownership’, and ‘networking’, but he was struggling with the letter ‘E’. I suggested ‘enterprise’, the first word I thought of, and so the ‘ONE’ acronym was born. It turns out that as long as you use vague and all-encompassing words – like ownership, networking, and enterprise – you can come up any old set of values for your team and it sounds good and covers most scenarios.
The latest acronym by our new big boss is ‘EDGE’, which stands for ‘Engage, Delight, Grow’. Yes that’s right, it’s an acronym that doesn’t even work! The letter ‘E’ at the end isn’t even being used! Perhaps they could have used my ‘Enterprise’ word to fill it out.
It’s just f**king bullshit.
I mean come on, are we really that immature that we need to remember a word like ‘integrity’ to act with integrity? I think I can do that already thank you very much. And yet when you enter our office there it is in huge blue letters on big glass plinths the word ‘RISES’, to remind us of how we ought to be behaving.
I get it, we in the banking industry have gained a bad reputation and rightly so. We managed to cause a massive recession that is still being felt today. We’re probably partly responsible for Brexit and all the untold misery that will cause. Every week you hear of fines in the billions of pounds/dollars being levied on banks.
But at the same time, that is a small minority of bankers and there are d*cks in every industry. And it is the system that broke down, these people shouldn’t have been given so much control. Anyway, I don’t want to get into that debate here, I made my peace with the industry I work in (I had to right?).
The point I’m trying to make is that coming up with some bullshit acronym to try and tell people how to behave is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard of. It’s demeaning and patronising.
Agile and Lean
Well, where to start. The term ‘agile’ describes a method of management/work that apparently works really well for delivering tech projects. It’s about being iterative, completing small tasks at a time and getting something that works. The term ‘lean’ is often associated, and roughly means cutting out waste in projects and thinking of the customer and end goal at all times.
On the face of it, they both sound great, until you realise that either (a) they don’t apply or work for your team, or (b) you were already doing those things anyway.
There are lots of made up words, borrowing heavily on Japanese culture, include Kanban, and Muda, and Muri, of which I still can’t remember what they mean. And there are new names for people in the team, such as scrum master who holds daily ‘scrums’ (basically a team leader holding a quick daily meeting). And there are different levels, you can become a green belt in Lean and so on.
I’ve lost count of the number of courses and meetings I’ve sat through on the subjects of Agile and Lean. I dread to think how much the company has paid contractors to come in and teach us about these methodologies (I hate that word ‘methodology’, is it even a word?). Talented people were taken out of their roles to become full-time devotees to Agile and Lean.
And guess what? After two years Agile and Lean are now quietly being swept under the rug. I hear less and less about them every day.
For a good 2 years that was one of my main targets, to adopt and encourage Agile and Lean practices. Never mind my actual work, I had to be a role model for this crap that didn’t make any difference and is now being forgotten.
Personal Development and ‘The Bonus’
I remember when I first started in my current business, thinking how great it would be to receive a bonus. Amazing, I thought, a random lump sum of money to be spent however you want. And I thought how lucky I was to be working in an industry where this was the norm.
Well, let me tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The bonus is held over you to make you do things that are not part of your job. It’s held over you to get you to agree to things you don’t agree with. It’s held over you and makes your life far more stressful than it needs to be.
How can this be? Well it’s through the Personal Development system, and the ratings system. You see every year around October/November time your manager and other managers at the same level will get together and decide on your rating. It used to be a rating of 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘outstanding’ and 5 is ‘poor’ (now it’s a rating of 1 to 3 which is basically the same). If you do a fantastic job all year round you could get a rating of 1 say, and that means your bonus will be better. If you get a rating of 5 on the other hand you won’t receive a bonus at all.
What they don’t tell you is that very few people are given this top rating, and sometimes no one in the team at all will receive it. And because you are being compared to other people in the team, if everyone in your team is fairly decent (which is hopefully how it should be) then they start trying to find ways to mark you down. You had a disagreement with your manager? Well you need to be more open-minded. You made an easily made mistake? Well you should be delivering projects flawlessly. And so on.
Recently I was asked to look after a project I didn’t really have time for. This was ‘side of desk’. ‘Side of desk’ is when you are told, okay, you aren’t theoretically resourced to do this so it’s not obligatory. Except, when there is a bonus system, suddenly all ‘side of desk’ activities become obligatory, because if you don’t do them your rating will suffer. Indeed some ‘side of desk’ activities become more important than the job you’re being paid to do, but you better not mess up your actual job because then your rating will suffer.
So last Tuesday my manager comes up to me and asks how this particular ‘side of desk’ project is going. I say, ‘Sorry I haven’t had time, I’ve got a major piece of work that needs to be done and it’s quite complex.’ My manager, unperturbed, says ‘But you’ve had 5 days to look into it’. At this point I’m thinking to myself, he asked me on Wednesday afternoon, and now it’s Tuesday morning, is that 5 days? Realistically that’s Thursday, Friday, and Monday, so 3 days. But I don’t want to get into a big argument in the middle of the office, it’s my rating that will suffer after all, so I keep this to myself.
I look down at my screen and all the emails that keep popping up, knowing I need to keep on top of them. My manager is still standing there over me. And then he says, ‘Did you understand the brief I gave you, I thought it was clear?’ Bear in mind this is in the middle of the open-plan office, my colleagues are sat around and probably listening in. And I’ve already given him an answer which was that I haven’t had time yet.
At this point I have to quietly say that ‘Yes I do understand the brief. I’ll look into it this afternoon.’ He responds saying there is a meeting tomorrow and he’d like to see some progress before that meeting takes place. It’s a loaded response. He’s basically telling me to get on with the job he asked me to do, and to hell with my actual work, if that needs doing as well then I’ll have to stay late to complete it.
I guess conversations like this happen all the time in offices up and down the country. That doesn’t make it any easier when it happens to you. This isn’t the first time it’s happened either.
So this is the big stickler that on the face of it seems like a good thing but in practice is massively annoying. Basically different projects are assigned resource values, so if a project requires 1 FT, that means it should take up the time of 1 full-timer in a given month. Typically you’ll be assigned a few projects, say with the values 0.3 FT, 0.25 FT, and 0.5 FT – it should all add up to 1 for each person but invariably it adds up to a little more, and that’s okay as far as I’m concerned.
The trouble is the way they decide these values. Last year I was working on a project that had 1 FT assigned to it, and it basically meant I could spend all my time on this project. At the start of this year, without warning, one of my managers changed this resource value to 0.5 FT. There I was, blithely working away, unaware of the extra work that was about to be sent my way.
Suddenly I start receiving emails from people, asking me to do things I know nothing about. Then I get colleagues saying, ‘Hey can you just do this, you’ve got loads of resource spare.’ At which point I look at the resource tracker and realise, yes I’ve been screwed over. I appeal to the manager who assigned this resource value and he says ‘Well, other people give me a detailed list of what they do on their projects. I didn’t receive anything like that from you so I have to assume you don’t have that much to do.’ (I later find out that actually hardly anyone else provides a detailed list of what they do on their projects.)
So I start producing a list of the main tasks I do on the project I’m working on. It takes me a while to put together. It’s a complex project, and we don’t always know what will take place from month to month, but I give it a good go and send over the list. The manager turns around and says, ‘I don’t see where you’ve got the resource from. If you add up all the tasks they don’t make 1 FT.’
‘Well sure,’ I say, ‘but you’ve got to account for all the other things I do to make the project run smoothly, analysis for upcoming campaigns, volume reports, and forecasts.’ He says, ‘Put that in the list then.’
At this point I’m starting to get a bit annoyed. Surely your manager should have some level of trust in you? I’m actually pretty good at my job, I’m one of the faster members of the team, and I pride myself on treating our stakeholders well. But okay, I think, I’ll start keeping track of every little task I do, and so I start compiling a list of all the necessary things I do to make the project work. I put these into the list and show it to the manager.
‘Yeah, I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘Next month the list isn’t as well populated and even less so the month after that. So does that mean you don’t need as much resource?’
I try and point out that I don’t know exactly what I’ll be required to do next month and the month after. I want to say ‘I don’t have a f**king crystal ball’, but I keep that to myself. Even so, at this point I’m starting to lose my cool. Then the resource manager does what any d*ckish manager does in such a situation: he cc’s in my direct manager.
What that means is he starts copying other people in on our emails. And so my direct manager starts asking me questions. ‘Why don’t you know what you’re doing next month? Surely this is a simple spreadsheet to fill out?’ And I’m thinking all the time, I do actually have work I need to do, am I really being asked to fill in bullshit spreadsheets just because they don’t trust that I need the time I say I need?
And so it goes on. At some point I lose my cool, not in any outward way. I lose my cool completely internally, because that’s how I deal with things. Because nothing I’m saying seems to be making any difference. Eventually I speak to my manager and say ‘Look, fine, if you want me to work overtime every day, then that’s what I’ll do. That’s what I’ll have to do.’ At which point my manager says ‘Oh well you should be able to manage your workload within the hours you’re given.’ I just laugh and walk away.
I could go on
I could go on. I could talk about the lack of opportunities to progress, despite the constant talk from management about helping us with our ‘careers’. I could talk about the time I won ‘Colleague of the Month’ out of a team of 900 people and yet it did nothing for my rating. I could talk about the time one of my managers tried to come up with a new way of measuring effort which did exactly the opposite, making our life harder and encouraging idleness.
Basically it all makes me more determined. More determined to get out as fast as I can. To free myself from the daily bullshit that makes my life so stressful.
The sad thing is, I actually like my job. That is, I like the work I’m paid to do. It’s all the extra crap that comes with the job that I hate, the workplace culture, the difficult manager, the bonus system.
I’ve probably already said too much so I’ll leave it there. Maybe one day I’ll look back at this blog post and shake my head at the sheer madness of it all. Maybe when I’m feeling annoyed about something in future I’ll look back at this post and laugh and think, ‘Well, it could be a whole lot worse.’