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What we can learn from unwanted office chairs

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I once had a colleague who said “Be your own boss, but make sure you use somebody else’s desk because it’s going to get messy.”  I would never advise someone to infringe on somebody’s personal space, especially in a work environment.  You can certainly stink up the office with microwaved fish, dial up the heat and get everyone angry, but when you start grabbing pens out of the little cutesy jars that people have on their desk or you borrow their chair and change the settings – have you no conscience? Here’s how I would calculate the No-Fly Zone in my cubicle.  If you disagree please chime in.  If you are sitting in your chair facing your monitor stick your arms out to the side (because it looks silly).  I would say everything from your fingertips to the back of your desk is a No-Fly Zone for cube guests, meaning they need serious permission to touch anything in that area.  It goes both ways.  Your guests probably don’t want to encounter your germs or crumbs or anything else hiding in the Zone.  IT, of course, has an exemption from the No Fly rules because they are taking their own lives into risk by touching your keyboard and mouse.

Where’s the troll head pencil topper? (picture courtesy of http://www.oddee.com/cool-gift-ideas/)

The pen thing is bad, but there are a lot of pens in this world.  There’s only one office chair.  You invested two hours in sliding things up and down, there’s casters rolling, cranking lumbar supports,  flapping ailerons.  You even watched a video on how to use your chair.  You are certain that the office looks strangely brighter from your new perch.  With your armrests cocked in that particular position the computer actually runs faster.  Glory, glory hallelujah!  It’s not a pretty place where they take your old chair (but I have a feeling that it will return).  You don’t care.  You’re like Mary Tyler Moore throwing papers into the air (then you pick them up because your boss is a little concerned that you’re losing it).  “It just so pleasing that the company spent $750 for a nice chair to help guide me through the coming years,” you think.  And you go home that day telling everybody how you got the sweetest chair. “It’s an Aeron, it’s got like 36 settings!”  Like your boss, your grandma’s a little concerned with your sanity, but as the months go by your relationship with your chair matures.  You’re just a good match.

Then one day you come in after a long weekend and something seems not right about the office.  You call over the cube asking around to see if they notice it too, but it seems to be you.  You go to reach for a pen out of your Staples Supreme Desk Organizer and you realize your arm has shrunk since Friday!  No, it’s the chair.  You try desperately to reset it, but it’s statistically impossible to get it back to where it was.  For forty-five minutes you’ve been hitting levers and rolling dials, but it’s not the same.  You coolly ask your neighbors whether they used the chair employing the phrases ‘any chance’, ‘possibly’,  etc.  OK, before you start terrorizing your neighborhood, let’s think this through.  Why would the people around you who have chairs of their own mess around with your chair?  Either they are playing a joke on you, in which case they should have hidden your cell phone in a ceiling tile and then repeatedly called the phone, or the neighborhood watch fell apart.  The third option is that they do know, but they’re not telling.  And I guess there is the outside chance that you’re just paranoid, but that couldn’t be it.

Ironically enough you had noticed the previous Friday that Barney Finklestien’s name plate was no longer on his cube.  Talk about a paranoid guy.  You wrote something a inappropriately mushy on his going away card, but hey, you were feeling good that day.  The good old days.  Anyway he had one of those rear view bike mirrors affixed to his monitor.  That would work really well to make sure nobody’s creeping around looking at your chair.  Unfortunately Barney’s cube now looks like a Dollar Store for used office electronics.  The 21 inch widescreen flat monitor is now a clunky old 17 inch.  Forget about the mirror.  There are like three keyboards all in various stages of rot, a couple of mouses, a printer that seems to missing a power cord, a bunch of pentab folders.  It wasn’t even a nice adding machine that he had, but it’s gone.  He had a serious scanner.  IT might have grabbed that one for their black market list.  You know, the list of special equipment that you need like eight signatures to get approved? Not because they don’t have it in a closet downstairs, but really just because you’re not allowed to play with really cool stuff until you have proven your worthiness by being on The List.  And, wouldn’t you know it, Bernie’s nice Aeron chair, the one he got a doctor’s note for, gone and replaced by your old chair.  Here’s your chance to bring that old beast of a chair out of the minor leagues for one last callup.  You’re like ‘Ugh, no.  I will stick with my new tainted chair.”

What is your best pickup from the employees who have gone to a better place?  Was it willed to you or did you have to sneak in ninja-style to get your prize?  Why do co-workers who should have more respect break the no-fly zone in a cubicle?

The remote office

 

Yes or no on used deli meat?

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There aren’t a lot of picky eaters in finance.  Yes, there are probably some vegetarians/vegans who are more discerning, but I’m sure they make up for it by drinking all day at corporate outings.  For the rest of us free food meets three essential characteristics:

  1. It’s free
  2. It’s edible (usually)
  3. It’s potentially in a common area that doesn’t have a sign on the door describing gender

Now you’re saying to yourself, ‘This is all well and good, but what if it’s a trap, or, at the least, a test.’  Of course it’s a test! You’re testing the boundaries of your own stomach by noshing on that empanada or philandering with that deli turkey.  You know where that turkey’s been?  Of course you don’t.  They don’t put a chip in the turkey to track it.  That would be a disgrace to a nice animal like a turkey.  Let me tell you where it’s been.  It had a deli spa treatment.  Then it got slathered with mayonnaise and listened to a presentation about why our product is going to revolutionize the marketplace if we can just get the accounting rules changed.  Despite the warmth of the laptop sitting next to it for a half an hour, that little turkey sandwich stood tall ready for a big time exec to go dancing.  Then a miracle happened that saved this turkey for the greater public – those wise executives could not tell the difference between roast beef and turkey.  Meetings all day, every day apparently make you blind and destroy other senses like taste.  Anyway, around 1:00 a special delivery to the kitchen has brought us all face to face with free food.

 You are older and wiser and probably a touch disgruntled.  You say ‘Bah! I already ate lunch and now they bring sandwiches. Nice.’  You are not Steve Stasher.  Steve is 25 and every time you see him he’s eating something.  You hope it’s food, but you’re not really sure.  Steve’s motives are two-fold – he’s trying to save money by utilizing free food and he’s obviously running a homeless shelter in his free time.  He marches into the kitchen to throw out his McDonald’s bag and then he is stopped. “Oh dude, sandwiches.”

Steve has a fairly well established procedure down, we’ll call it the 33/66 plan.  He eats one sandwich on site to ensure high quality and then he takes two for the road.  Strangely enough Steve is very chipper in the mornings, but by 4:00 he looks kind of like Grimace.

While Steve is a nice guy and everybody likes him, there is a more insidious creature among your ranks, isn’t there?  Sara Stickyfingers.  We don’t know for sure that Sara is the one stealing microwave meals out of the freezer or a sandwich here and there out of the fridge, but the circumstantial evidence starts to mount:

-She doesn’t eat lunch in the kitchen

-She swipes handfuls of candy from desks, but only when the owner is not there

-She drinks her coffee with milk she didn’t buy

-When you try to have a conversation with her it strangely ends with you disclosing what food you have in your desk drawer.

I am not trying to stereotype that this type of colleague is always a woman.  There a lot of sketchy guys that you probably work with too, but they are often too busy ogling the busty newbie to have time to plan out a massive food snatching operation.

They say that bonding employees does not prevent theft of cash.  Similarly, putting your name on your lunch does not prevent it from being eaten by someone who is not you and not Steve Stasher because God knows, he’s building sandwiches with yesterday’s executive meat.  How do we catch these people?  First we need to think like them.  They like to prey on the people that are most hungry and aren’t carrying a lot of extra cash.  Who am I talking about?  The people who get to the office earliest.  They come in early to avoid the commuting traffic to save the little bit of gas money and leave early to be able to pick their kids up from day care before getting charged late fees. They are organized and planned out with a good substantial lunch.  These folks are rabid by 11:15, but they fight through the hunger until 12:00 so they can eat with everyone else.  Wouldn’t you know it, they’re thinking about that lunch bag when somebody else is walking off with it.  Then our poor colleague struggles for the strength to open the fridge at 12:00 only to realize the bag with their name on it is gone.  They have no cash on them so now they have to borrow and go out.  Oh, the horror!  The irony is that while they’re out feverishly looking for food, Sara Stickyfingers only ate half their lunch because she’s on a diet. And, as a double-whammy the executives have left a tray of salad and pepperoni in the kitchen.  You haven’t even gotten past lunch and your day is quickly suffocating.

What is the worst thing you’ve had stolen at work?  I actually heard about someone having their breast milk stolen.  Sorry folks, Steve cannot replace breast milk (let’s hope), but he will console you with an ‘Oh, nasty.’ and offer up a half a muffin that came from a breakfast meeting this morning.

The Elusive Link Between Worker’s Comp and Bad Corporate Outings

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Cubicle Envy has a ring of being slightly negative about this life of ours in the office.  Traffic, food snatching, printer malfunction, etc. are small encumbrances to trade for what we want to do (until that lotto ticket has us taking space shuttle rides with Richard Branson).  If we were trained musicians we’d complain about cell phones.  Complaining is actually a form of showing affection.  If you really did not like the daily hokey pokey in the office you’d probably leave and become a violinist or something.

How do you show affection to your co-workers?  Well, hugging your boss every time you see him might not be healthy unless you are constantly wearing one of those fake sumo wrestler suits, in which case  sorry for bringing it up.  For the rest of us we commiserate by talking about experiences.  It’s pretty much the same as what we did on the playground in the old days except more confusing.  You’re thinking, how can seven year olds with sticks be less confused than thirty-seven year olds with smartphones?  I think you’ve just answered your own question.

I took a Dale Carnegie course a number of years ago.  Their suggestion for relieving stress within a situation was to calculate what the worst case scenario was and confirm to yourself that you could live with that outcome.  On the playground the worst that was going to happen to you was that you’d be tackled and the others would stick dirt down your pants.  “I am going to use this dirt, suckers!” you’d yell to prove to everyone that, yes indeed, boys are dumb, but their stress levels are often low.  In the office it’s harder to clean off dirt.  Instead of dirt mongers you’ve got CC Deville cc’ing the world to let them know that it’s not his fault an account reconciliation isn’t completed.  He/She, of course, doesn’t actually invoke your name because that would be over the line.  CC just uses the power of the org chart to help deduce who is at fault.  Usually your boss is wise to CC’s antics, but his bosses’ boss only reads the juicy emails.  Hopefully the MegaBoss is not the kind that starts congressional investigations over small things like a late account rec, but probably by the time you realize CC has gotten you in trouble others have been implicated in much worse stuff.  So it’s dirt.  It washes off, but if you throw it back be careful.

Commenting on your office CC could be dangerous so we’ll talk about a subject that’s a bit brighter – motivation.  Everybody’s got stories about how their company has tried to motivate its employees.  When I worked in public accounting we’d have grueling tax seasons lasting from the middle of January through April.  One firm I worked at liked to take one night in February and bring us all to a casino down in Connecticut.  It was nice to collectively get a break from work and just hang out – motivating.  One year I lost all my money and feared for my life driving back up in the middle of the morning through a snowstorm only to be expected in a suit and tie at the client’s office at 9:00 AM – demotivating.  Luncheons, ice cream socials, Beer Fridays, trust falls, and quarterly meetings can all be positive, but their motivational powers are suspect.  Well, Herzberg had a thing for beer so potentially he would subscribe to beer events as being motivational, but it’s all potential motivation.  You’ve got to find a meaningful factor within the employees to flick the switch.

My friend Jen, told me a story once that is so silly I vowed to take it on the road with me.  She was working for an organization that, at the time, was being run by new people who didn’t quite get the culture of the organization.  Anyway, long story short there winds up a group of grown adults sitting in a cardboard box being implored to pretend to row a boat to show that collectively they all will be rowing in the same direction to reach the organization’s goals.  I hope for her sake that moment is not captured on video anywhere.

My goals as a professional have been to learn individually and share my knowledge and skills with my team to make everyone’s life easier.  The most motivating event that I can recall happened recently and it was simple.  You can do it at home!  Somebody from a different team that I helped thanked me and praised my knowledge over email.  Wouldn’t you know it, he CC’d my boss and the MegaBoss.  It felt damn good.  I think I like email again.

Have you been part of supreme motivation?  Have you been part of motivation gone horribly wrong? Are you concerned that a decrease in the world’s chocolate supply could have an impact on your motivation?  Tell us about it!

The hidden benefits of carpooling with jerks

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There’s always somebody at work who keeps getting those bonuses for bringing their old colleagues aboard.  Not only have they cashed in with an instant army of work friends, but they also have a cute little carpool group that HR points to when hiring new people.  You reluctantly agree that it is, in fact, a cool idea and you’re saving the environment and maybe a bit of stress in not having to focus on driving every day.  Now, what your wise colleague didn’t tell you is that there’s a woman named Ronda in her carpool group who she recently brought  to the company.  She doesn’t like Ronda personally, but if Ronda brings in a $2,000 bonus she’s worth the hassle even if you’ve got to put her in your carpool group. What’s better than getting a bonus check?  It’s getting a bonus check and offloading a less desireable carpool buddy onto somebody else. Ronda seems nice and you don’t really understand why they don’t want her in their carpool group.

The key term there is ‘group.’ If you carpool with one other person you might as well just ask them to drive you directly to the doctor’s office.  Of course, they won’t because they will have some excuse as to why they can’t drive that day.  Maybe you could ask Ronda for a doctor’s note and a note from her mechanic stating that the car is in working order and maybe like four forms of ID.  She’d probably give it to you because Ronda is so thoughtful in the office.  She puts new paper in the copier.  Sometimes she’ll slide a little note in the suggestion box.  She cleans out the fridge and best of all she lives three blocks over and her schedule is about the same as yours.  Fantastic! If you could sign up to have a lingering cold it would be like matching yourself up with Ronda.

The first week Ronda has driven twice and you’ve driven three times.  The next week she’ll do the majority.  Actually Ronda’s got a deadline on Thursday so you’ll skip the carpool that day – no biggie.  That first week everything’s going great.  You’ve talked about your crappy commutes in the past, the places you’ve worked at – man, Ronda knows a lot of gossip about the office.  You give her that knowing wink when you see her in the copy room with the VP of Sales.  Even Ronda’s car is basically what you would expect.  She has a couple of books and cds on the back seat, but not too cluttered.  She’s not an insane driver.  Though you were hesitant, this setup is not as bad as you thought.  Then it happens, an innocent remark about stiffness in her knee.  Now she’s made this thing personal and there’s no going back.  You’ve been snookered in by a thoughtful person.  Be prepared for the arrival of a mysterious spouse and the litany of responsibilities that this spouse has that requires Ronda’s car on days when she’s supposed to drive.  Suddenly Ronda has a cat that has some sort of flesh eating bacteria so instead of leaving at 5:30 Ronda needs to be out by 5:05.

She, of course apologizes every single time, but it doesn’t stop her from asking if you don’t mind if she runs into Walgreens.  She’s also taken to having you just drive directly to your house in the evening and she’ll walk the rest of the way home (because its good exercise and it’s easier on you, right?).  Once she starts showing up on foot in the morning it’s clear she’s turning into Kathy Bates from Misery.

You’ve done your due diligence around the office to blacklist Ronda from any future carpools.  There are muted comments on Facebook.  You even thought briefly about accidently deleting her from your Linked in network, but that would go against your blood buddy promise you made on that first Tuesday as you sat in a jumbled mess of cars in Waltham.  And when there are no escapes left, save for stabbing her with your Blue Cross Blue Shield card, (you can feel how sharp that thing is against your own palm) you start making excuses as to why you can’t drive tomorrow and the next day.  It’s going to work.  We’ll just let the carpool fizzle out.  No, because nice people are needy.  Every time you deliver an excuse to Ronda she smiles and says “not a problem.”, but the phases of her eyes have gone from optimistic to realizing you’re trying to break this off.  Hopefully for your sake she’s not a crazy, overbearing, nice person who will show up at your door on weekends.  Let’s assume she’s somewhat normal and will take whatever goodwill you once had and stab you with it metaphorically by badmouthing you around the office. Eventually she will show the balls to call you out to your face on trying to end the relationship – the carpool relationship.  This exchange, of course, will be on the day traffic is backed up everywhere and you have to sit in your car alone thinking about what you’ve done to this poor, nice lady with a diseased cat.

Carpool with angry people  (as characterized by the Onion News Network) because initially they’ll be frustrated with the traffic and say funny things.  Eventually they’ll wonder why you’re not so angry and they’ll have the balls one day to tell you how soft you are and kick you out of the carpool that you suggested in the first place.  Kids, if a stranger asks you to get in a car with them – don’t. Adults, if a coworker asks you to get in a car with them – don’t.

Have you ever been part of a carpool that’s gone horribly wrong?  Are you on the run from your former carpool buddy? Do you want to start a carpool group with me?  Tell us about it.

At least they didn’t give you the weird cubicle

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Everywhere I’ve worked they have a group of cubes that are all built the same way and then there are one or two odd ones.  Maybe they are galley style which are nice because nobody can sneak up on you, but every time you get up your chair hits the file folders sitting on the floor behind you.  Nothing makes you feel more like part of the team than to be squeezed into an area initially reserved for file cabinets. Now that we’re paperless we’re building cubes like we own Mediterranean and Baltic Avenue.  Squeeze ’em in there! Maybe you have a special cube with a sliding door for privacy.    Or one that has a peek-a-boo window at the top – your nose picking days are over, but that leaves room for a new OCD hobby! 

When you’re 23 the cubicle is a fantastic place.  You explain to your unemployed fellow grads, if we had cubicles in our dorm rooms I could have spent hours making out with my girlfriend while my dorky roommate was doing whatever creepy thing he was doing and I wouldn’t have to know he was watching me.  When you’re 33 the cube is, at best, a claustrophobic vacation from being maligned by your boss or a place to toss your stuff between meetings when you have to pee.  When you’re 43 you’ve hopefully given up hope of moving beyond the cube and it’s your 401K emergency center.  It’s got a phone and an internet connection to help make hasty stock market decisions and you’ve given up caring who sees you do it. 

You know how they talk about a ‘window of opportunity’? Well, at age 33, mine was kind of grimy and stuck, much like my actual windows at home.  After years in corporate America I finally pried the damn thing open and fell out.  I’m writing a novel tentatively called Cubicle Envy and once I serve my community service for blasphemy against life in a square box somebody might actually give me a job again.

Did you know the cubicle was actually invented by Henry Ford?  Yeah, it was for his grandkids.  They’d drive their little mini cars to the side of their mini office, make calls on their mini phones, dig around in their mini file cabinets.  Edsel would call Henry and he’d be like “have you seen the kids?” and Henry would say “The cube is four feet high and the kids are only three – they can’t see me, ha ha!” So, I guess the only difference between us and Henry Ford’s grandkids is that once they outgrow the cubicle they get a billion dollar trust fund.  Hey, when you grow tall enough to see over your cube you get a clear view of your neighbor’s shoulder acne – that’s pretty good, right?

The cubicle was not invented by Henry Ford lest you think I have a degree in history.  I’m sure you’ve got a guy (it’s always a guy), we’ll call him Andy Internet who has three internet windows open at all times.  One, of course, is ESPN to track his fantasy college football, one is a music sharing site where he’s probably downloading Rush.  Does it even matter which Rush songs? No, it doesn’t.  The other window  is probably left on the search he did 20 minutes ago to find out where Chuck Norris was actually born.  Even though he has headphones on Andy’s bat ears hear every query ever.  He’s also got download workarounds so when your company blocks certain sites he’s got the Contra code taking you to the next level.  Doris likes him because he helps her unjam the copier and he never says “Doris, your God-damned colored paperclips stuck in the feeder are keeping me from downloading more Tom Waits songs”.  Anyway, Andy would know who invented the cubicle and he’ll be in the office until like 7:00 trying to actually get his assignments done.

You’re saying, ‘Geoff, what are your qualifications for talking about cubicles and corporate life’.  Let’s just say I’m starting to get some gray in my beard.  Not enough to actually blend in to the static shade of gray fabric that lines the cubicle walls, but I’m getting there.  Years of accounting will do that to you.  The bright side is I don’t have asbestos poisoning! Now that I’m writing, though, I can take a break and scout out class action lawsuits to jump on by watching the lawyer commercials that play during the Judge Ray Parker show.  Have you been forced to work in an inadequate workspace?  Do they make you eat lunch at your desk?  Have you ever questioned whether the printers at your workplace have actually been programmed to hate you? Don’t fix it yourself.  Call the law offices of Shady Lowlifeski. Of course, just as I start dialing another commercial comes on: Do you feel like your internet searching skills are giving you a competitive advantage?  Is your name Andy Internet? Come to A.S.S. Tech and let us show you how to take those skills and make you a workforce powerhouse for a real company (not a minimum wage consulting job like most of our graduates go to).

Remember before they started giving kids drugs and they’d just plop them in front of Mr. Rogers’ Neighboorhood and old Fred Rogers would dope the kids down with his goofy smile and slow talk?  Well, think of this as Mr. Jarok’s  Cubiclehood here to calm you down until your loud cousins show up with candy and punch you in the head waiting for you fight back (whatever the office equivalent of that is).