Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Oh The Crushing Banality

(I originally wrote this a couple years ago, and stumbled across the draft. It's still an accurate account; there's been some improvement but not enough to invalidate the observations.)

I've noticed a couple of trends at work lately, and they aren't ones I like.

The Fallacy of Saving Cost by Reducing Support Staff

As in so many companies and gov't agencies, we've gradually reduced support staff to a bare minimum over the last several decades. Where we once would have had several secretaries and other administrative professionals supporting our 200-person department, we have one. Where we once would have had a team of technical writers and graphic arts professionals available as a resource, we have none. The consequence of these "cost saving measures" has been to push secretarial duties and assorted skills that normally demand considerable education and experience, onto the technical staff.

The logic is dubious. Eliminating several lower-salary positions may save some money in the short term, but the long-term effects are several and significant:

  • For starters, we now have the most highly-paid personnel in the organization spending their time on trivia: filling out forms, tweaking the format of documents to ensure compliance with various standards, trying (and, for the most part, failing) to produce high-quality figures and graphics to illustrate technical reports, navigating ever-more-obtuse systems for booking travel, procuring supplies, tracking activities.
  • One direct repercussion of imposing non-productive work on the technical and managerial staff is a drop in morale, and difficulty in retention. Why put up with the distractions? Even if the reality is that most other large employers have followed the same flawed logic, the most competent staff are also the most able to leave and find out just how green the grass is over at the competition. The grass may in fact be just as brown as it is here, but the staff are gone nonetheless.
  • The quality and quantity of useful work produced by the staff will assuredly decrease. When I look at the technical publications we produced 30 years ago, I am stunned by the quality of the writing, the readability of the figures, and the consistency of the production. Most of all I am impressed with the depth of thought and the care put into the report by the author(s). It is clear that they had the uninterrupted blocks of time required to think deeply about their subject, analyze their data, and with due consideration, craft what they wanted to say into a cogent text.

This has been a long-term trend, evolving into the present state over a period of decades. Those joining the workforce in the past 20-odd years might simply view this as what is expected; older workers, or those who spent part of their careers in "enlightened" companies, may have seen how it once was.

The Fallacy of Remote Support

As a consequence of the above support personnel reductions, managers decided to rely on technology to improve efficiency of the remaining staff. This took the form of web applications for things like timecard entry, vacation requests, and booking travel. Aside from the lowest-bidder user interfaces and other egregious affronts to the poor users (such as separate password for each application, all expiring on different schedules and with complex but inconsistent rules about what constitutes a valid password) this approach also served to further separate the staff from actually getting things done.

In some cases, the ways the new applications worked changed almost continuously; it bacame obvious that the staff would pretty quickly have to spend all of their time just learning how to navigate the tools! Where the staff could once muddle through and either learn how to navigate the processes themselves, or beg the few remaining support staff to help them out, there was now hired a new cadre of low-level contracted personnel, dedicated to be intermediaries between the technical and managerial staff and the new business applications. However, rather than being co-located with the people they support, and therefore both cognizant of the unique requirements of those particular people and accessible (and responsible) to them, the new group was located together, removed from any direct relationship with those they were ostensibly to support. The resulting level of service, as you might imagine, was not perceived to be high.

Further, because of this distancing of the support staff from those they support, a new pressure on the supported personnel emerged: the support staff was getting bogged down by requests and data that didn't follow procedure, necessitating considerable back-and-forth with their "customers" to clarify. Arguing for improved efficiency, they developed complex procedural instructions and provided them for their customers to follow.

Never mind that the published procedures were almost always inconsistent with actual practice; the customers were now somehow expected to follow the undocumented procedure, and the support staff was not likely to pick up the slack. This sorry state resulted in ever-more-ludicrous situations, such as one I had the misfortune to encounter today: having duly submitted the six (six!) pieces of documentation requested by a published procedure two pages long, I has an email exchange that went something along these lines:

Support: Thank you for sending your request, you're missing five of the required items and I can't process this until I have them all.

Me: If you look again, you'll see that you are in fact in receipt of three of the five items in question; the fourth was ambiguously stated in the procedure, but here it is (attached.) The fifth wasn't mentioned at all in the procedure, but here you go. (attached.)

Support: Thank you, please take the information you sent in items 2 & 5 and use it to fill out these Word templates, attached. I can't process any of this until you've done that.

Me: Arrrrrrrgh! (Pounds keyboard in abject frustration.)

Now mind you: they could have provided the templates in the published process but didn't. They had all the information needed to fill out the templates, but didn't. The total amount of time spent reading the process, interpreting the poorly-written requirements stipulated by the process, generating the documents to respond in accordance with the process, and then negotiating what was really required with the "support" staff was completely out of whack with what should reasonably have transpired, which should have gone something like this:

Me: Hello, I need to do [blah], what information do you need from me?

Support: OK, we need these four items; you can email me the information.

Me: Great, thanks, here they are (attached.)

Support: Got it, we'll have this ready for you by noon three days from now. We'll give you a call if there are any questions, but it looks like everything we need is here.

Even better if the support person actually knew who I was, and thus whether my request carried any particular extra weight or urgency (does Chad ask for this a lot? Is it always approved by the boss? Or does he frequently make requests only to cancel them shortly thereafter, or have them declined?) And to improve upon that, what if I knew the support person, and what their workload might be at any particular time? The exchange would be more productive and satisfying for all involved. But with the support staff at a distance, both physically and psychically, there seems to be little incentive, let alone mechanism, to establish such a useful relationship. It quickly devolves to "us" and "them".

This has been a shorter-term trend, but its influence on daily worklife seems to be profound. Staff's ability to get things done has been curtailed in a fundamental way, with incomprehensible barriers erected for no coherent reason. I have rarely heard such dissatisfaction from people otherwise happily engaged in meaningful and productive work -- I believe it is because the roadblocks are now so frequent, and so complete, that their impact cannot be subsumed to the more enjoyable aspects of the workday.

I don't know if this is cropping up at other workplaces, or if it has been prevalent for years and I'm just now seeing it in my own workplace; I'd be very curious to hear from others what their experiences have been.

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