The Thinker

Taking Care of Business

It’s one thing to go to work to work. It’s another thing to go to work to work.

This week was a week where my team and I had to put our noses to the grindstone. Separated by geography (I have three employees here in Reston, one in Alaska, one in Oregon and one in Montana) we needed to come together in the same room at the same time and work. I wish it could have been interesting work, like designing a cool new web interface. Instead it was hard grunt work: putting together detailed project schedules that we could commit to for our projects for the remainder of the year.

It was work that we should have done about the time I arrived in February. I had no idea at the time this kind of detail was either expected or required. So we are playing catch up. It meant inhabiting a conference room from 8:30 AM until 5 PM. Everyone brought their laptop computers. We borrowed a big computer projector and threw up Microsoft Project on the big screen. And then we hashed through in laborious detail how we were going to finish our work.

Of course we had an agenda, but it was a bit too ambitious to put together plans for all our projects. So we concentrated on the ones that we had to finish or at least start this year. None of us are Microsoft Project gurus, which made the exercise frustrating at times. Meanwhile since we were all of course plugged in we were all reading our email too. The usual stream of requests kept coming in and we kept answering email and troubleshooting problems even while we hammered away at our schedules.

The pace gave us headaches. But the real headaches came when we reached those fuzzy areas that were hard to define. For example we needed to clarify a lot of requirements in a fairly short time frame with another team that likes to procrastinate. How to get them off their duffs when from their perspective we had been sitting on our duffs? Well, we had not been sitting on our duffs. We were working on things at the time that seemed a lot more important. We sent out exploratory emails wordsmithed by committee. We pondered whether we should CC certain people or not. There are lots of unwritten rules in our organization. There are lots of potential landmines. Sometimes we are criticized for not keeping people informed about what we are doing. Other times we get criticized for keeping people too well informed. We pondered the egos of various personalities who act as gatekeepers for getting our work done and tried to figure strategies that would move us forward. Only time will tell whether we read the tea leaves correctly.

The pace was frantic, the typing furious and the stress level was high. But there were other tensions. Generally my team gets along great, but there are occasional personality issues between members. I am not the most tactful person but I had to find tactful ways to move the conversation along and soothe feelings. Meanwhile I learn one of my team members is not happy in their position. The member is crucial to the success of the team so it’s not like I can just let him go. I can’t keep him and hire someone to replace him. The headache reaches the acute phase. I pop two Tylenol at lunch but the headache doesn’t recede.

I try to find some solace in the evening at home. But the headache is still there. I still feel the frantic pace of the day. The news that one of the members of my team is unhappy in their job weighs heavily on my mind because I feel in an unwinnable situation yet I am still responsible, since I am a manager. I have to figure it out. Then the phone rings.

My wife is across the Potomac River in Silver Spring, Maryland with my parents fixing their computer. My mother, age 84, has fallen in the bathroom and has hit her head. She is conscious. They call an emergency medical technician who recommends a trip to the emergency room. My wife, bless her soul, goes with them. I take my daughter to and from choir practice and fret about my Mom. I phone my sister. I send out emails to the family on the situation. I stay up late waiting for my wife to deliver more news and come home. At 10 PM she is still in the emergency room. Don’t wait up she says. Eventually I go to bed but don’t sleep well. At 1:30 I wake up and my wife is not in bed. I get worried. I can’t get back to sleep. I call her cell phone. I get voice mail. I try not to worry and to sleep but I can’t. At 3 AM she arrives home. I get the update: Mom is okay and they are back home. I manage a couple more hours of sleep but am up at 6 AM to send my daughter to school. Then it is back to the conference room for another day of schedule planning, mine-laden emails, and breaks of humor between my team to relieve the tension.

Wednesday is the night for my team to go out for dinner. Some members of the team bring family to the Italian restaurant we chose. We are very good for business: there are more than a dozen of us altogether. I order a glass of house wine. The persistent headache recedes. I am tired but the company is good. Two of my employees bring their young children with them. The babies move from lap to lap. Everyone laughs. Everyone eats a bit too much. As their leader I feel I need to say a few words so I do. I tell them truthfully that I am blessed to have such a wonderful and dedicated team. In spite of their own periodic personality quirks they are a terrific bunch of people. While few in number they are top notch. My words must have been good because they were heartfelt. I think they like me. But I beg off their plans to play pool. I head home, do my chores, crawl into bed and quickly drift off into a narcotic-like sleep.

Today at noon it was over. We put everything away. I was glad to leave early. Many on my team had a long day of flights ahead of them. I felt sorriest for poor Joe, who had to make it home all the way to Anchorage before he could crawl into bed.

But before we leave I am still not satisfied. We did a lot of work but I wished we could have done more. We are still behind the eight ball. We have our twice-weekly conference calls but this face-to-face time is very valuable and infinitely more productive. We must do this more often. We must get ahead of the planning curve. We are supposed to have plans ready by mid February for the work we want to do in 2006. So we must meet again. At least we have the freedom to choose the location. After some discussion we choose Denver. We’ll meet again there in mid January.

At home my weekend plans to be full of activities. In addition to teaching tomorrow, today was my wife’s last day at work. She is inviting her slash friends over for a party tomorrow evening, and two of them will camp out here for the weekend. It’s going to be a noisy place full of talk about the homoerotic fan fiction universe my wife inhabits. I won’t get much downtime. A long bike ride may provide some stress relief if the weather cooperates. I contemplate the mundanity of a few hours at the local Starbucks with a laptop and a wireless connection. Perhaps that is where I will find my escape … if I can squeeze in the time.

 

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