Calm in the Storm

Practical Strategies for Effective Management

Tag: public management

Bossy Technology and Its Consequences: Part One

angry

I am getting really annoyed by the bossy world of tech. Example: You are cruising on your iPad, surfing the web for another color of those shoes you saw in the store, or reading an article about the drought in California, or a science blog on the relative sizes of the planets, and up pops a screen:

“Do you want to continue in your browser or sign in to our Facebook page” another asks more politely.

“Use our app! It’s better!” it screams.

Or: “Sign in through your Facebook page or Twitter account!” a third one nags.

Well, of course they want me to sign in, because it is better for data mining and product placement for their ads, but it comes as another distraction in the world of the internet. It interrupts me when I am on a roll. It distracts me from something else I need to be doing. It slows me down, so that something that was just a quick check becomes tediously slow, while I hunt for passwords, or download the app, or close the pop-up.

The intrusiveness of these commands is intentional, of course. Neither sustained thought nor comparison shopping is desirable in the world of marketing that dominates the commercialization of the internet. To capture my loyalties through an app or to add to Facebook’s advertising potential is the goal, not customer satisfaction, relationship building, or open access to research, for example. It is interesting how the evolution of the internet has progressed (or regressed!). Initially it facilitated low cost communications compared to old fashioned long distance phone rates and printed newsletters and books. It enhanced access to research tools and reference libraries that were unavailable to many people. Today, however, these early benefits have been commercialized, and despite many advantages of that evolution, increasingly we are ourselves commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.

So how does this connect to management?

First, I am not saying that we need to return to a non-digital age! That would be ridiculous, not to mention impossible, and that view overlooks the many benefits of technology. But I think it is important to keep in mind what research is beginning to tell us: In a world of constant noise and distraction, we need to find ways to provide mental and physical quiet spaces for ourselves and our colleagues. (And there are apps for that!) Not everyone needs to be part of a team for every aspect of work, even if it is a team project. Silence enhances creativity. Constant busyness is NOT necessarily a sign of productivity, and in fact may undermine it. So how do we do this?

Give each other encouragement not to respond to email nights and weekends. It is ok to read it if you must, but don’t respond. “But what about emergencies?” you cry! I have never heard of a workplace emergency that was communicated via email (warnings, yes, but not the emergency itself). Typically a real emergency is communicated by phone call, or text, or by a police officer at your door. Not by email.

Second, quiet space should be available, even if it is via noise cancelling headphones. Research shows that constant noise increases stress, even music (or especially music, since few of us have the same tastes). This is why, for example, well run MRI units provide earplugs to patients.  In addition, as Susan Cain writes in Quiet, one out of every two or three of us is an introvert, for whom the constant stimulation of chatter and noise undermines their normally high levels of creativity and productivity.

Third, constant internet access may be critical for some jobs, but there are others for which it is a distraction. Unless your work is cloud based, it may be possible to disconnect on a regular schedule of your choosing. The Freedom app, developed by Fred Stutzman, “locks you away” from the internet for a specific period, up to eight hours a day (macfreedom.com). And since the goal is removing temptation, there is also Anti-Social (anti-social.cc) to turn off social media while you try to write or think or compose. I am not personally recommending these two programs, since I’ve never tried them, but those of you who diet best by not bringing ice cream into the house might like them, since the same principle is at work. They have been reviewed by the NY Times, NPR, and other reputable sources.

The commodification of our lives and identities does raise concerns about privacy, but it also illustrates two principles important to managers: First, the increase in workplace distractions reduces worker productivity, and increases stress, as I have noted above. Secondly, the commercialization of the internet also illustrates another, and perhaps more significant, principle: the law of unintended consequences, which I will discuss in my next post.

How to start your new job: Checklist #4

Managing!

Ok, your space and your office is set up. You’ve got all the meetings on your calendar, you have access to data and email, and as new manager, you are ready to go, right? Not quite. There are two more areas that I think you need to check out.

As new manager, you have some homework to do. Who reports to you? Do you know their job titles and functions? Their backgrounds?

So here is the checklist:

______ Is there an organization chart on the company or organization website? What is the “chain of command?”

Yes, you know who your supervisor is, but who does she report to? If you need info from another department or office, who do you ask, and what is the protocol? These are important issues for getting off to a good start—and to avoid embarrassment!

______Are there written office policies for the staff about requesting vacations, calling in sick, etc.?

I once started as a new manager where there were no written office policies. There was also an atmosphere of bullying! One of the staff intimidated others and gave herself preferential vacations. Some staff deliberately took vacation time at the busiest season so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the stress. Needless to say, it took both time and strategic thinking to turn that workplace around, and an important early step was to develop written policies. So find out what they are and understand them completely. If there are none and you need to create them, don’t do it on your own. (I’d be happy to steer you a bit on the best steps for you to take)

______Are they consistent with organization/union/civil service policy?

Few managers are willing to go the extra mile and learn the policies of the larger environment in which they work. The contracts and policies are your friend! Knowing them could save you from a load of grief later. And as a manager, that is also part of your job.

______Do I want to establish drop-in office hours for my direct reports or staff?

Sometimes staff complain that they can’t talk to the boss when they need to. Sometimes it’s simply the quantity of meetings that fill his calendar. And that is a real problem for many in management positions—there are so many meetings that there is no time to do the actual job! (My assistant and I used to joke that a good day was when we could look at the “to-do” list before 4 pm!) Think about whether there is a time when you could allow people just to drop in. Or when you can go wandering around the office and visit with people. Be careful, you don’t want them to think you are spying on them, or don’t trust them to do the job! There is a fine line from being available to being a micromanager. Or you can follow the pattern of one of my best bosses (see below).

______Is it possible for me to eat lunch in the cafeteria (or other common space) on a regular basis?

I know, I know. Despite the advice of doctors, management gurus and our own inner selves, many of us eat lunch at our desks, because it seems like there is no time to do anything else. But if you can carve out a half hour three days a week, and tell your staff that they are welcome to sit down with you, you’ll be amazed and how many people will stop by and eat with you. It is great both for your reputation for accessibility, but also for keeping in touch with what is going on.

______Do I have a copy of emergency protocols? Have I reviewed them?

This is so important. Have you ever had a data breach? An intruder walk in? A staff member with a heart attack? A fire overnight? A power loss? Where are the back up files? (You do have backups, right?)  None of these things may ever happen, but if they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.

­______Have I reviewed recent staff evaluations?

Who are these folks anyway? Staff evaluations of your direct reports are your responsibility, so reading past evaluations will help you get to know them better. Good managers set goals with their staff, so you will be able to  see if your staff have specific goals that they are working on. Reviewing their files will also inform you whether or not evaluations have been done in the past! Too often, although individuals are supposed to be reviewed every year, the reviews get forgotten. They can be challenging and time consuming, especially if you have never written one before. But if, in the first few weeks, you discover that Ms X is a problem or Mr Y is absolooootly terrific, it is nice to know whether that has been reflected in their reviews. This is not the place to discuss how to review an employee or how to deal with a problem person, but you should know what is in the files and compare that with your own observations.

 

Next time, we’ll talk about the final points on the check list!

 

Public Service Education in Maine

A flurry of recent national news stories underlines the importance of public service education. Whether the subject is Ebola preparedness, IRS confiscation practices, or White House security, these stories point to the importance of sound policies, rational procedures, and program assessment in government. When they are lacking, the public is not well served. Yet here in Maine, public service education is being systematically dismantled in the state. There is only one graduate public policy/public administration program left —at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service— and that is on the U Maine System chopping block. Where will non-profit and public service professionals learn the public leadership expertise, values, and skills they need to administer programs, non-profits, and agencies in an increasingly complicated and underfunded world?

They can hope for mentoring from bosses and colleagues. They can contact professional associations or consultants like me for help. They can get a degree from out of state. But Maine nonprofits and local governments can no longer send their best and brightest to learn public administration and policy analysis at a public university in the state of Maine. Nor will they be able to hire employees trained within our state and familiar with laws, policies, and regulations here.

The Public Policy and Management program (PPM) will be discontinued and replaced by an interdisciplinary program in the environment/sustainability. However laudable the field of environmental studies, it is not the same as “Public Financial Management” or “Measuring Performance in the Public and Nonprofit Sectors”—to randomly pull two course titles out of the Muskie School catalog.

Public service is not trendy nor highly respected in a post-Tea Party world. But our state is a better place because of many highly skilled and conscientious people who graduated from the Muskie School with a passion for public service. This short sighted decision will harm Maine for a very long time.

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