I have paperwork. You have paperwork. We all have paperwork.
This stuff weighs heavy on my mind right now because it’s annual review time. So heavy that I feel compelled to whine about it for a little while. Paperwork has been scientifically proven to suck turkey-dong, so let’s look at the conclusive data behind those studies.
Annual Reviews Bite
Every single year, at every place you’ve worked, I’m sure your employers required all employees to go through a formal review process, the end result being a definition of your worth to the organization. Despite some small differences between companies — report formatting, the number of little boxes you have to check and fill out, the nuts-and-bolts of the rating system (1-100? 1-5? Excellent, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement?) — the underlying process is the same.
You will dredge through the previous eleven or twelve months of work for items that you can brag about. You will write complete and utter bullshit about how you are meeting or exceeding department goals and objectives. You will break into the hot sweat of embarrassment as you congratulate yourself for a job well done, over and over again, as concisely as possible, typing paragraph after paragraph of vainglorious garbage into word document fields, hoping that no one will actually have the time to read what you’ve produced.
As the employee, you are not allowed to complain about this process. Instead, it’s best if you pretend that this is engaging and fun. Because every good little office munchkin is expected to want to do nothing but talk about all of the incredible things you’ve done. Good employees care about their employers, don’t they? So it follows that they’re therefore doing a lot of high quality work for them and would like to gush about it. Maybe you’ll talk about how you completed projects A, B, and C, on time and under budget, even though you had to deal with unexpected issues X, Y, and Z. Or the way that you handled some vendor. And don’t ever forget to mention what a fantastic team player you are. My god, they like to hear that you’re a team player. That shit never gets old.
Once you’re finally done, you’ll turn it into your manager, who will review it and have a meeting to discuss the content with you. Maybe he doesn’t think you consistently exceed expectations but you do. Or it’s possible he wants to nitpick over some of your comments, or add additional goals for next year. Chances are that he’ll find something or other wrong with it — areas that need adjustment — because as your manager, part of his job to make sure that you know that nothing you submit is perfect on the first try. So you’ll go through at least one more iteration of the review before things get finalized and all parties sign off on this official-looking documentation that proves that you existed and contributed something last year.
Secret: Your final score is bullshit anyway.
Most managers in corporate have buckets that they need to put their employees into. Bucket #1: Consistently exceeds. Bucket #2: Exceeds. Bucket #3: Average. Bucket #4: Needs Improvement (read: expendable.) And in most cases, there are rigid guidelines for bucket quotas. Example: If the manager has 10 employees, he can only select one person for bucket 1 (10%), 3 people for bucket 2 (30%), 4 people for bucket 3 (40%) and 2 people for bucket 4 (20%)
Now, if this manager has a team of all fairly good employees, they still have to put two people in the Needs Improvement bucket. This is usually so that if the company has to make emergency cuts, they can quickly drop 20% of the workforce.
And you know what else? No matter what you write on your self-review, your manager probably already has the final grades already worked out. (Hint: the employee he pals around with is not going to go in the shit bucket, no matter what his performance is like.) So the whole process ends up being a big song-and-dance production, a yearly ritual that needs to be carried out to satisfy HR and other powers-that-be. This is not useful work.
I haven’t even gone into peer reviews, which are simply another example of how to waste time at work. It’s really rare for someone to give a co-worker a bad review, so the data collected becomes effectively worthless. And god help you if you do dump on someone else. Doing this will be sure to result in follow-ups by whoever read your report. Why is so-and-so doing such a bad job? Can you prove it? If you want to avoid drama and hassle at work, you will do what everyone else does when completing peer reviews: provide generic content which states that s/he is a perfectly fine employee.
Other Forms of Paperwork Suck Too
I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of other paperwork to manage besides the self-reviews. Heck, self reviews only come once a year, so if that’s it, it’s really not so bad is it?
The problem is that I also do effort reporting every single Friday. Some people might know this work as ‘time tracking’ or ‘card punching.’ To complete this task I have to tie my 40 hours of work to specific projects so that management can see, at a glance, exactly where I’ve been spending my time over the course of that week. If reading that sentence didn’t make you exhausted, you’ve obviously never had to do this.
When I’m done with effort reporting, I will update operational documentation which has gotten stale.
By then it’ll be time to prove that the work I’m doing still needs to be done. Seriously, I get requests to create documentation that shows that my contributions are necessary. Example:
Manager: You support vendor product A, B, and C. Why are we even using those products anyway? I need a writeup which outlines the business case for our company’s use of those technologies.
Me: Wouldn’t we have justification in the respective project plans which were required to be created when we implemented those projects internally?
Manager: Yes. But we need to re-examine the situation and make sure that those reasons are still relevant.
Me: And what are those reasons again? The reasons I’m going to prove are still relevant?
Manager: I don’t know. It’s all in the original project plans, as you mentioned.
Me: Right, okay. So where are those project plans? (I don’t really want to start from scratch…)
Manager: I don’t have them. Someone else was managing the group when those technologies were implemented.
Me: So where do I start?
Manager: You tell me. You’re the <insert job title here.>
If I somehow manage to complete that task without putting a pistol in my mouth, I will undoubtedly be rewarded with additional inane tasks. Recently I was asked to create organizational flow charts that ZZzzz.. whazzat? Wait, I just put myself to sleep just remembering the shittiness of the assignment. It’s enough for you to know that it involved Visio, lines and arrows, and mapping human resources (employees) to skills. Took me 15 hours of incredible tedium to power through.
End result? I check another box off my task list. Producing this document will allow me to list another goal as complete in my annual review, which, as I stated above, doesn’t really matter anyway.
At this point I think we’ve come full circle and it’s time to talk about
The Emotional Impact of Too Much Paperwork
If it seems like I’m talking about paperwork too much, that’s by design. Since it’s this painful to read about, imagine how awful it is to slog through it all. I’m a healthy dude, with plenty of physical and mental energy. To have to sit down and do so much useless reporting is demeaning to my underlying humanity; my body wants to burn calories, and my mind wants to think about interesting things: problems to solve, systems to architect, what I might read when I get home that night. Who wants to spend years of their healthy adult life doing this kind of crap?
Anyways, I’ve recently spent the majority of my working month (January) engaged in this sort of busywork. A typical day will look like this:
- Wake up, realize I have mostly paperwork to do that day at work, look for sharp object to push into own neck
- Somehow make it to work without auto-destructing. Review emails. Have coffee. Realize this is the best part of my day.
- Steel nerves.
- Open up an editor program for the task I’m working on. MS Word or Visio or the company Wiki.
- Review past progress, i.e. load mundane details of whatever it is that I’m working on into my head.
- Get lost in the zombieland of things I don’t care about. Maybe I’m producing a report of problems I’ve solved over the past year. This might have me cutting and pasting text from one doc to another, listing ticket identifying strings like CR18947234 and IM99427834, and organizing the structure of the content so that management-types don’t get lost in the scary-scary details.
- After an hour, look up in stupefaction at a co-worker who has suddenly appeared in my cube asking for help.
- Help coworker with whatever they need. Realize this is the second-best part of my day.
- Have another coffee.
- Do another session in paperwork zombieland
- Repeat cycle a few times.
- More coffee. Always more coffee.
- End of day: show document progress to management.
- Manager will almost definitely tweak the requirements based on what I’m showing him, which will force me to restructure and take another pass at it the next day.
- Drive home, realizing I’m going to have to do it again the following day.
- Contemplate the usefulness of the paperwork I’m creating.
- Become uncomfortably aware of the empty hole inside of my chest where my soul used to be.