Be In The Room

Over the past weeks, several major companies have announced various return-to-office policies. That means a requirement to be in an office some number of days each week. Thus far I have resisted sending a similar memo because I think for the most part this is best left to the judgment of department leaders who understand their goals, More than that, I am counting on the good judgment of individuals to make sense of advancing their career horizons.

Let me offer this one bit of advice: If you have the opportunity to be in the room and are not taking it, you might be doing yourself an enormous disservice. The time you spend at home may make your current life easier. I have significant doubt it will make your future more successful.

In my experience, there is no substitute for being in the room. It is where true bonds are created. It is where you can see in person how difficult challenges are met. It is where your gifts can be shared and recognized not just by your peers and boss, but by your boss’s boss, and anyone up the chain who might poke in their head and see you in action.

That’s not office politics. That’s reality.

Willingly giving up a chance to be in the room is a choice you make at your own risk, to the extent you have the choice. If you still have that choice, consider what you might be giving up in exchange for those nasty commute hours and a refrigerator full of your own preferred food.

Several decades ago, I was a recent college graduate desperate for an opportunity. I offer the word desperate quite deliberately. Despite a bachelor’s degree in the humanities from a known college, a string of paid jobs and internships, and a resume filled with extracurricular projects, I was just another unknown job applicant in a huge pool of recent college grads. The economy was in rough shape. It seemed no one who mattered even wanted to talk with me, let alone hire me.

All I wanted was to be in the room.

Like so many others, I ceaselessly kept at it and eventually got interviews. After many of those I got hired into a lousy job, then another lousy job, then several other lousy jobs, then finally a good job that I believe started my real career. At no time during that arc or any subsequent arc did the notion of willingly working remotely ever cross my mind, although one of those jobs happened to be such four out of five days each week because they had no desk for me. Any time I was able to be at work I considered it a catapulting privilege to be among accomplished, ambitious colleagues.

I never forgot what it was like being in a small apartment waiting for the phone to ring for an invitation to be in the room. I also can’t imagine doing what I do today without those many decades of watching other people perform their jobs across the spectrum from expertly to incompetently.

Every chance to be in the room for me has been a chance to learn. At the same time, it has been a chance to collaborate, creatively engage, and be a part of innovation.

Have I taken solo work home to review evenings and over the weekend regularly? You bet.

Do I believe there are times when telecommuting makes sense? Absolutely.

Do I see the internet as an unrivaled tool to share ideas globally among people who might never have the chance to gather under the same roof? Without question.

Would any of it convince me that forgoing an opportunity to be in the room for comfort, convenience, or an alleged increase in productivity was a reasonable trade? Not on your life.

Working alone may increase efficiency. I don’t see it increasing creativity.

Covid-19 response was an anomaly. Did it teach many of us a new set of behaviors, that we could accomplish things remotely if it was a necessity? It certainly did. Is the continuing right to work remotely an entitlement that is the result of that learning? Well, not exactly.

I suppose in an employment market where talent has unlimited options, the benefit of working remotely might be a trading card that management can offer to attract team members. Yet if management is only offering this benefit because it has no choice if positions are to be filled, how positive do you think management feels about that? Hiring managers want choices just like you want choices. When anything becomes a mandate, it often does so with a nagging amount of reservation.

One of the things I noticed when Covid first grounded us was how quickly and well our leadership team adapted to remote meetings. In many respects, I think it is the reason our company succeeded and curiously accelerated during Covid. Many colleagues at other companies weren’t as lucky. Some tragically saw their companies in demise, not only as a result of unprecedented business conditions but of the challenges in responding to those conditions with untested practices.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that we succeeded because of the years we previously spent together in the room. Those many years of collaboration established a solid foundation for crisis management we could apply remotely. We were able to talk in shorthand because we had established that shorthand. We were able to use humor because we knew each other’s sensibilities and sensitivities. I couldn’t even imagine the idea of trying to onboard a VP into a remote setting, where I knew others were trying and failing at this.

Our team knew this management paradigm was intended to be temporary and that we would be back in person as soon as practicable. Personally, I couldn’t wait and was back in the office as soon as I could. We also didn’t overreact. We knew that five days a week in person for everyone no longer made sense because it had never made sense. It was obvious that forty or so required office hours was too broad a brush. We knew workplace equilibrium would work itself out, while we counted on individuals to make sense of their careers in tandem with company needs.

Moderation always seems like a better approach to consensus than absolutes. Individual decisions always seem preferable to sweeping mandates when inspiring people’s best work.

I had a sense that every individual would come to understand the value of being in the room. To be in the room is to absorb the skills you will call upon to address the next set of challenges you will face. To be in the room is a gift, perhaps not every day, but on the days that matter and will stay with you for a lifetime.

You may be arguing with me in your head. You may be telling yourself this is a new day, a different generation, a wiser and more inspired collective that embraces work-life balance and knows to mistrust corporations that don’t have their best interests at heart. You might be convinced that because technology advances have made remote work viable, we’d be silly not to ride the horse in the direction it seems to be going. You might be right, but I am always reminded of those very dangerous words that creep up every time I think they are going away forever: “This time is different.”

I have written before about leverage in getting your way. It can be an effective tactic as a matter of last resort, but it is seldom a path to trust, long-term relationships, and compounding progress. If the only reason you are allowed to work remotely is that you think your employer has no other choices, I wonder whether you really want to work for that company. If there is a mutual understanding about workplace arrangements that benefits you and your employer in agreeing to a schedule that helps you with childcare, quiet time to think on your own, and still leaves room for in-person collaboration, that’s one thing. If either side is making a demand of the other, that seems like a shaky platform to advance together.

Some types of professions like software engineering seem particularly well suited to remote working as has been evinced by decades of sharing libraries and contributing to enterprise projects, where most of the engineer’s time is spent on individually created program code that is later assembled with other modules. Even then, when I see software engineers in a room with marketing and finance professionals, I often see exponential progress in shorter windows of time.

Don’t undervalue intangibles. Learning to read a room can help you secure unexpected allies to support a controversial strategy. The most unassuming bits of advice acquired from unfamiliar colleagues in the breakroom can be life-changing. Lifelong friendships emerge and develop from unplanned acts of empathy and compassion. You can say all of that plus mentorship and coaching are available electronically and you’ll be right. The in-person impacts you might be underestimating are tone, degree, and happenstance.

When we are together, we learn from each other. We have peripheral vision that lets us see not just what Zoom or Teams puts on the video screen, but what catches our attention in the corner of our eye. We take in winning and losing arguments and approaches. We have the unique opportunity to establish and build company culture.

My advice: Don’t wait for the company directive, don’t even wait to be asked politely. If you have the opportunity, be in the room.

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Photo: Pexels

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David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

_______________

Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

From Nothing: Reflections from the Road

One of the rare joys of being a writer is getting to talk about your work. One of the even rarer joys is getting to talk about the same work more than once because it is being published in a new format.

From Nothing, my third novel published by The Story Plant, allows me that joy with the paperback release on October 7, 2019.

It’s two generous bites of the apple, separated by over a year of contemplation, during which I got to hear from readers on how this story impacted their lives.

It’s a privilege to reflect on how I intended the troubled journey of Victor Selo to stir emotion, and how that was played back to me by my cherished readers. Perhaps an appropriate context for this is leaning on some of the lyrics I borrowed for inspiration and attempting to tie them back to many of the comments shared with me at readings, in reviews, and in letters sent my way.

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream …

That’s The Beatles, and they are everywhere in this tale. Probably the first thing people discover about Victor is that he is anything but relaxed. Life events don’t afford him that luxury. Yet readers clearly made the connection between the invisible forks in the road chosen by Victor and the intense downstream consequences or results of their own unpredictable resolutions to unseeable moments of fate.

I found that I am not alone in boiling down my life to five or six key choices that I wasn’t necessarily aware were determinations of my ultimate twists and turns until decades after those quiet tests were unmasked. I have found great moments of connection in hearing readers see the fickle outcomes of their paths in the eyes of a character who is a stranger to their circumstances while a mirror for the task of connecting their own dots.

We are stardust, we are golden …

That’s Joni Mitchell, celebrated forever by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It has been hard to escape this refrain with all the milestone anniversary hoopla around Woodstock, but readers seemed to understand that nostalgia wasn’t a theme I wanted to explore. My devotion is to the miraculous artistry of the songs that stay with us, the melodies and harmonies that become attached to the events we navigate and reconstitute themselves during the many decades we interpret their significance.

Readers have joyfully acknowledged that context and relevance become inescapable in the songs that become their favorites. Think about your favorite song the first time you heard it and what was happening in your life then. Now think about the same song a decade later, and a decade after that. The song hasn’t changed, but you have. If it remains a favorite, there is a reason. Our favorite songs blossom as our lives expand. We may even have to abandon a song for a while when our history associates it with pain. Yet we can always return to a song, and it can return to us. That is the majesty of composition and the alchemy of our interactions with vibrant creative matter.

Guess it’s better to say goodbye to you …

That’s Scandal, one of the less famous bands covered in the Vegas clubs where Victor crawls his way back to self-confidence. Early in my thinking about the arc of this tour, I knew I wanted to include references to the biggest acts of our time alongside some of the voices that had equal impact on me even with fewer hits. I’ve enjoyed the engagement from readers asking me why I excerpted one song and not another, and whether I planned a sequel to fill out the playlist. I don’ think a sequel is possible, and the chorus sung here by Patty Smyth is a good reason why.

It is humbling to know that readers turned these pages to find out what Victor might learn from the corporate monsters pounding on him, and from the many misfortunes he believed he had overcome but never actually escaped. When I listen to people tell me about the past events that are holding them in place, I wonder if part of the glue that holds us together is the evasive hope that we can let go, that we can move on, that we can start again. Whether it’s business, invention, or love, the past is an obstacle we all understand. It is all too easy to suggest to another that letting go and moving on is usually our best bet, but how often do we courageously take our own advice?

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read From Nothing, I hope some of these thoughts may inspire you. If you do have occasion to pick it up in any of its releases and have your own interpretations to share, I would enjoy learning from you.

This is the soundtrack of our lives.

What’s a Good Day at the Office?


She said a good day ain’t got no rain
She said a bad day’s when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been

– Paul Simon, Slip Slidin’ Away

It’s the small things at work that can change everything, even if only for a moment.

A good day is when I am surrounded by good people.

A good day is when I participate in a conversation where I learn something.

A good day is when a friend reminds me I am a friend.

A good day is when we get to promote someone.

A good day is when someone who used to work for me is promoted by someone else whom I’ve never met.

A good day is when a customer writes or calls to tell us we’ve exceeded their expectations.

A good day is when customer service completes an interaction that began with an unhappy customer with someone who will again trust our company.

A good day is when we stop paying legal fees on a settlement that never should have been a legal matter.

A good day is when a great former employee stops by just to say hi, then casually asks if we happen to have any openings that might be a good fit for a familiar someone.

A good day is when one person stops by another’s desk, thanks them sincerely for almost anything, and acknowledges them for a job well done (bonus points for heartfelt gratitude expressed by managers and executives).

A good day is when one employee apologizes to another for being rude without the prompting of Human Resources.

A good day is when no one has any reason to complain about anything to Human Resources.

A good day is when no injuries have occurred in the workplace for many, many months.

A good day is when someone tells me they accomplished something they never thought they could do.

A good day is when someone tells me a colleague helped them accomplish something they never thought they could do.

A good day is when a collective brainstorm that seemed to be going nowhere for hours (or days, or weeks) ends with a big idea embraced by consensus.

A good day is when we achieve a milestone, whether customer #100 or #100,000,000, celebrate together, and maybe add a sticker or t-shirt to our collections.

A good day is when bonuses exceed budget because employee performance exceeds budget.

A good day is when children visit the office and ask lots of innocent questions like: “Do people like coming here?”

A good day is when someone brings a dog to the office, and right when you are about to lose your cool, the pup jumps into your lap and you keep your head on straight.

A good day is when pizza is served, good or bad pizza. Or ice cream. Or both.

A good day is when I hear someone articulate clearly what they like most about their job—it’s especially good if I overhear it from afar, ensuring the reflection is purely authentic.

A good day is when I get to share stories like this.

A good day is when someone chooses to share one of their favorite stories with me.

A good day is any day I remember for years to come for any and all the reasons mentioned here.

A long time ago—toward the beginning of my career—a wise boss told me I would be surprised over time how many of the complex projects I would forget, how few of the business struggles I would remember more than vaguely, but how many of the people I worked beside I would long remember with deeply embedded impressions. I have come to realize the truth of that prediction with extraordinary predictability.

Many of us in high-pressure environments tend to have more bad days than good days, but a rough day doesn’t have to be a bad day if there is a turnaround event that reminds us why we originally choose our current job.

What about you? Think about it. What in your experience makes a good day at the office?

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Image: Pixabay