From smack-bang in the middle of the bell curve

Posts Tagged ‘work’

Curling freekicks and soaring GPAs

In blah, consulting, life, work on June 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Stereotypes. We debunk the idea publicly but cling to them personally and maybe feel guilty about it. Logic suggests that they are at best, exaggerated and at worst, misrepresentations. Think about it, it’s just not possible that every South Indian school-going kid excels at academics and sucks at sport or that every Brazilian kid can curl stinging free kicks around corners (actually am not sure about this one). In some cases we overcompensate to demonstrate the lack of a bias, which by itself proves the existence of one.

But any viewers of American late night talk shows would be led to believe that everyone in America is either progressive and open-minded (Democrat) or ridiculously close-minded and backward-thinking (Republican). Now, I know nothing of politics in general and so I think the idea of such clear and non-overlapping ideologies is convenient. Which means it’s impossible.

One of my work assignments was for a large company with it’s headquarters in North America. Since part of the work involved meetings in India, a senior big-designation type person from above company flew down. Over the course of the next few days, 3 specific interactions stand out:

  1. Within a few minutes of introductions, he had made clear his affiliation to the Republicans, and then went on to criticize the Obama-led government. I wondered at the wisdom of starting a strongly opinionated political discussion within 30 mins of having met someone from a different country but then put it down to him (rightly) assuming that I wouldn’t care about American politics
  2. During the course of the day, he kept going back to what turned out to be his favourite topic, politics. He started innocuously enough, by criticizing policies and went on to slightly dodgy territory, Gun control. He stated his opinion about how guns were a reason rural crime was low. “Any ***** person breaking into a home in rural America knows that the owner probably has guns”. Note that the ‘bleeped’ part of the statement was a reference to a colour. Yup, you read right.
  3. Meetings done, the team (3 of us) and the client executive drove back to the hotel. As is the unfortunate case with our higher-priced temporary accommodations, there was a security check process to get through that included a beautiful German Shepherd. The exec made a remark about how that was a happy dog who probably would think of a stick of dynamite as a chew toy. Polite laughter ensued from the team billing his company by the hour. Enjoying the mirth he caused, he went on to say “That dog doesn’t care if there’s a ****** in the car”. fill in the ‘bleep’, terrorist/criminal? nope, he mentioned a religion. And guess what, one member of our team did belong to that religion. I don’t believe my dropped jaw picked itself up till I got to my room.

For the remainder of the trip, I kept waiting for him to say “Gotcha!”¬† to say that his portrayal of the caricature of the hick Republican was a joke he’d played on us but to no avail. In fact, he only added to it later by asking me if I was from a privileged Indian background going by how I spoke ‘his’ language.

Not quite an ‘aha’ moment but it was one of the few times that a stereotype seemed to affirm itself.


Disengage autopilot

In blah, life, work on August 22, 2010 at 8:48 am

Work. Monday to Friday. Mostly within the brackets set out in the employee manual¬† under “Office hours”. The odd overrun into the late evenings or even a weekend or two. Weekends. Sleeping later, restocking of home supplies, visiting of parents and assorted relatives, movies, brunches, vegetating on the couch, scurrying around malls swiping plastic cards. Not necessarily in that order. Vacation. Couple of times a year, ok once a year. planned well in advance with lots of travel website surfing. Every couple of months, a new acquisition from a retail distribution channel. Technological, decorative, often shrink-wrapped, seldom a need.

How much of our schedule is regimented by convention? In this day and age of laptops, mobile internet access cards and ‘flexi-times’ how many of us manage our own schedules according to what makes sense versus what’s ‘conventional wisdom’? If we exclude blue-collar jobs or those involving responding in real-time (Customer service reps, Emergency room doctors), most jobs have very little to do with number of hours spent and even less with a specific set of them.

Just like one of those internet memes asks “how is that everyday’s news fits neatly into the same-sized newspaper”. How does our workload fit neatly into 10-12 hour workdays, everyday?

No, this post is not about time management, atleast not in the sense of maintaining daily planners and ‘eliminating distractions’ to be more productive.

It is about how most of us willingly write off a chunk of our day as “work hours” and then set about filling that time and then some, performing a variety of tasks from meeting deadlines to responding to email. Basically, juggling a combination of value-add activities with purely administrative tasks to rush through our day. I’ve seen multiple sets of colleagues across organisations slow down in the middle of the day and plod through activities, taking an hour when 15 mins would do, taking languid coffee breaks, then getting back to a frenetic pace towards the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of goofing off, I just have a problem with doing it on my employer’s terms; constrained to the office premises with the limited menu of aimless (and regulated) internet surfing and emailing.

This straitjacketed view seems to apply to what we call our “leisure” time as well. Friday nights, or maybe Thursday if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. We’re thankful for the privilege of spending between 2 and 3 hours with friends. Time barely enough to just to share life updates before its time to bundle into your respective cars to head home. Rinse. Repeat every 3-4 weeks. Now compare these interactions with the no-time-barred conversations that happened when in college over the solitary bottle of domestic booze and often short-in-supply accompaniments where everything from ‘the purpose of life’ to bodily functions were fair game for discussion. Not quite in the same league are they?

What if we actively monitor everything that calls for our time? Most of our jobs would afford us atleast week-long views of our workloads (note, not schedules) to be able to decide to cram in some extra hours when highly productive and to complete disengage when not so much. Maybe instead of taking a couple of extra-long nicotine/caffeine breaks, we just take off when the traffic isn’t ungodly and enjoy (not squeeze in) a game of squash or a few reps at the gym. Maybe even take off at 3pm without feeling the need for a dying relative to justify it, and meet the wife for a movie and dinner, or take parents out for one, or meet friends without traffic and time constraints, or even just go home, crack open a beer and chill to some Pink Floyd.

What if we disengage the autopilot?

Anatomy of a meeting

In blah, email, work on April 26, 2010 at 7:42 am

“Why don’t you setup some time to brainstorm this”. The most productivity-destroying words uttered within office spaces. BCP-DR Plans (Business Continuity – Disaster Recovery) that focus on earthquakes, tsunamis and peaceful party protests have nothing on the biggest threat to corporations; The meeting.

Naxals and other so-called freedom-fighters rely on ripping up railway tracks to disrupt normally productive life. In the white-collar world, all it takes is a Microsoft Outlook invite.

You can either be the unwitting inviter or the invitee. If you’re the inviter (or ‘Meeting Organizer’), you have the enviable task of finding simultaneously blank space across all calendars in question. A task that google has developed algorithms to do in their calendar application! (so much for jokes about it being rocket science to set up meetings) The first attempt at a suggested date/time is knocked back with disdain with reasons like “Will be on a flight” or “Will be 3am in the timezone I’ll be in”. Few iterations later they’ll be whittled down to one troublemaker who says “I’ll be in between flights and can do 25 mins provided the improbable happens and flights are delayed”. A date/time is setup.

Come the appointed time and all shuffle into a suitably darkened conference room with the first optimistic slide projected on screen. The participants settle in as the organizer runs through the introductory/background material. Every now and then a low buzz is heard, followed by the owner reaching for his bberry to read critical emails about “scheduled downtime of the company’s email server in Bratislava” or enlargement of certain organs. Every now and then one of the bberry owners picks up their buzzing phone to dive out while mumbling their apologies and whispering into the device that they would be interested to know more about the latest unobtainium credit card that Standard Chartered had to offer.

Meanwhile the meeting meanders. Until coming to rest and asking, “any suggestions?”. Pause. Longer pause. Someone mumbles about wanting to deep-dive into the background material to which the organizer mentions that it’s the same document that was sent to all attendees 3 weeks ago. The smarter ones have already been overtly (not covertly) glancing at their watch as they cite other meetings beginning milliseconds after this one ends. There are closing comments directed at the organizer about “great work”, “we should build on this”. “Why don’t you schedule time next week” as the participants dissipate.

Total man hours spent: 16 hours. (Time spent organizing: 4 hours. Man hours attending: 12 hours)
No. of inputs: Eh?
Dilbert strip forward email about meetings received by the group in the middle of the meeting leading to chuckles: priceless.

IT “Help!”….Desk!

In blah, email, rant, work on April 17, 2010 at 8:16 am

The early part of the week downloaded an interesting email into my official inbox. It was first thing in the morning and I had opened the digital version of the plastic tray with the large “IN” taped on it with scotch tape. The usual 60-odd new emails message appeared as they started downloading. Every professional today probably has their own sophisticated system of email management. There are folders, colours, message alerts, all that serve as your personal secretary, filing information by priority and urgency (not necessarily related). Being a follower of the Pareto school of thought, the foundation of my system is to identify the emails addressed only to me and to not bother about the rest since they can usually be ignored until someone checks. Outlook therefore has express instructions to show the ones sent only to me in blue in the inbox. The rest usually group themselves into three categories.

Independence: Working at a firm that’s makes most of its money from being official pains-in-the-client-ass, namely audit means there are stringent requirements to ensure no vested interests are spawned, even unknowingly. Hence, Independence emails that serve to inform you that so-and-so Ltd. was now a client and that we had 3 days to sever all dealings with them. There have known to be instances where employees have hurtled out of moving automobiles on learning that the carmaker was the latest big win. Die-hard company loyalists are not averse to refusing to compromise their ‘Independence’ by refusing the last and only batch of a life-saving drug made by a company they audit.

Support Functions: The paradoxically named departments (namely Finance, HR and IT). This discussion only considers Finance and IT since HR does exemplary work. The fact that appraisals and wage hike decisions are around the corner has nothing to do with it. For functions that are quietly expected to ‘support’ the rest of the organization go about their business, these guys have a lot to share. And a lot of what they say has the word ‘policy’ in it. The usual clutch of emails from Finance about the deadline for submitting expenses that have not yet incurred or reminders of how they only accepted sworn statements from landlords signed in blood (not necessarily theirs) as proof of tenancy. I’ll come back to IT.

Hail Marys: In large organizations, there are many people. Astute observation. And so these many people are organized into departments, teams, subteams and so on. This means when someone needs something done, they have the enviable task of identifying the right team for it. Since, given the movement of people in and out and the reorganizations and the promptness at which Org charts and contacts are updated, most senior folk resort to the American Football tactic of lobbing their work requests high and far and send it to as many people as they can muster with the idea that the right person would be among the recipients and would promptly proceed to deliver exemplary service. Who am I throttle their optimism.

Coming back to IT. The email, inspite of not being emblazoned with the blue that some others did, including those from clients with subject lines like “WTF?!”, caught my attention. With a gleam in my eye, I opened the email with subject “IT Helpdesk Support Feedback”. Satisfied that it wasn’t a Nigerian scam email, I clicked on the link to open the survey page and went to town. Maybe it was the fact that the name “IT Helpdesk” in their case only makes sense as the name of a B-grade thriller based on a killer desk that goes on the rampage and makes it victims cry “Help”. It certainly not because it takes a median 7 calls to get them to send their swat team to your rescue. Or the fact that their resolution to problems ranging from “how do i find this file I saved?” to “my 5 year old threw it from our 15th storey apartment balcony” is to “format the hard drive”. Or it could even be that when a virus had disabled my anti-virus program, they were unable to uninstall it since they (the IT team) didn’t have the admin password required to uninstall. Or maybe I was just being plain mean.

Tally Ho and all that jazz

In blah, life, travel, work on March 9, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I’m not a well-travelled person. In a little over three decades I’d only been on three countries other than the one that issued me my passport. With a niggardly number like that I was tempted to think like the bankers who stamped AAA on the tranches of home loans given to the impeccably credential’ed jobless population. Add the countries I spent time on travellators between terminals on stopovers, and voila, we double the number! I knew I should’ve been a banker!

The United Kingdom. My knowledge of this country was built from a combination of Enid Blyton, Frederick Forsyth, Arthur Conan Doyle novels and James Bond movies. So, in essence, I figured everyone to be dressed in Savile Row suits stepping into Aston Martins (or Jaguars), roaring around the cobblestoned streets named after circuses and squares, while keeping a few yards ahead of pursuing german-made sedans in which large men in suits alternate between taking potshots at the car ahead and exclaiming in dubious eastern-european accents. If the chase lasted a while (and if it started to rain which as I found out is inevitable), they’d politely stop off at a farm where they’d be served scones with golden pats of butter and other assorted baked goods with tea. How wonderfully quaint.

Two weeks and five cities later I might not be in a position to corroborate a lot of my impressions, though I am the authority on conference room furniture and office coffee machines. Week 1, London. Leicester Square, cabs and the tube. Once I recovered from the dizziness due to the roundabouts (wouldn’t ‘Stop’ signs have worked equally well?), turns out the city’s quite nice. Lot of activity, a centrally located hotel facilitated walks to most of the places Yashraj cameras rove; Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, London Eye. Nice bunch of pubs, dinners of fish and chips and an assortment of bitters and ales courtesy some of the local colleagues. Getting around the city means the tube or cabs. Convenient and all that but what with all sorts of monetary discouragements for people to bring their cars into ‘Zone 1’ – yes, very imaginative, I was thankful for an expense account, specifically when learning that train tickets to other cities cost nearly as much as flight tickets to do back here, yes, including the 37 different taxes and surcharges. Week 2. Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Leeds and Newcastle. It’s like the colonists forgot about their other cities when putting all of the shiny stuff in their capital. Spent not more than a night in each of the others and seems one would scratch one’s head about looking for things to do after the customary stop off at one of the local pubs.

All in all a nice l’il whistlestop tour of the country and would’ve been better if I hadn’t had to cancel on meeting friends.

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