Friday, October 24, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: My Glass Isn't Half Empty. It's Just Too Full of Other Things I'd Rather Be Drinking

Like I said last week, Mike didn't have a chance to vet the column prior to me posting it, but he did check it after the fact. He found it to be equal parts entertaining and poignant, but did take slight issue with being called “a glass half empty kinda guy.” Here's what he had to say (verbatim):

probably the most honest post yet.

And my glass isn't half empty. It's just too full of other things I'd rather be drinking ;)

I thought Mike's comment was not only insightful, but likely representative of most people. We are all (and I mean everyone, not just public servants) working to fill our glasses with more of what we want to be drinking. But allow me to elaborate in case you might be thinking that this column is going to be about talking down the work we do.

I think what we all want is to maximize the amount of space in our respective cups that is filled with our respective liquids of choice. I mentioned previously that I believe that the majority of new public servants are moving away from the concept of work-life balance. Furthermore, I think it is the very metaphor of 'balance' that people are shying away from. Rapid gains in technology permit us a more blended lifestyle re: work and life – what I previously called work-life integration.

If “Balance” Is Out, What Is In?

Keeping with the glass metaphor (my apologies to non-wine drinkers), what's in yours? Red, white, rosé? Is it dry, earthy, or herbaceous? Heady or neutral? How does it finish? Is it smoky, soft or spicy? Etc.

Whether or not you like wine, the underlying point is that each of us holds a uniquely shaped glass. We have our own preferences in terms of what actually fills that glass and just how full we think it should be (or would like it to be) at any given time.

This includes all aspects of our lives, but the prevalence of the “traditional work week” for public servants (at least in terms of hours) makes that particular portion of our glass increasingly important. Personally, one way in which I strive to achieve my optimum balance is by getting involved in extracurricular activity. By this I mean any creative work (i.e. work that aligns strategically with the organizations mandate and/or seeks to improve its work culture) that I undertake that falls outside my required and substantive work.

(NB: Mike had a much different conception of “extracurricular” when he referred to his glass being full of ‘other things he’d rather be drinking’. We all have outside interests, but I want to stick to how this applies within the confines of the traditional work week, and do so in a manner that we can all relate to).

In my brief time in the public service I have noticed that, generally speaking, junior public servants tend to be the ones more actively engaged in extracurricular activities, or at least they require less arm twisting before they are convinced to get involved. This is understandable given the difference in work loads between junior and senior public officials.

Differences in workloads are often combined with differences in time pressures. Generally speaking, time pressures are more keenly felt by senior public servants. I have heard repeatedly, from both junior and senior public servants that time pressures (i.e. short or unreasonable deadlines) tend to result in junior employees being left out of the loop while senior employees are forced (or choose) to keep the work to themselves simply to ensure that the reputation of their unit is kept intact and that they meet their deadlines. The result is that on-the-job learning opportunities for new employees are often lost to the need for expediency (real or otherwise).

If we bring it back to the metaphor of the wine glass, we see that junior public servants, lacking the opportunity to fill their glass with the substance of work, are likely to turn instead to extracurricular activities to fill it, while senior officials are forced to sacrifice their opportunity to engage themselves in extracurricular activities to the necessity of the day.

What we have here is a negative feedback loop: junior public servants are unable to build the requisite experience base because work is withheld, while senior public servants cannot delegate work because junior public servants lack the experience to complete the tasks. The cycle perpetuates itself as new recruits have time to engage in extracurricular activities while senior officials can't. This problem has some interesting implications for approval processes when junior public servants are trying to get approvals from senior ones to implement some of the creative thinking that they have been able to do in their free time (but that is a column for another time).

From what I can tell, this negative feedback loop has adverse effects on both junior and senior public servants. Among other things, time-pressured senior officials are more likely to be agitated easily, have insufficient time to actively manage their employees’ performance and of course to engage themselves in extracurricular creativity.

While less time-pressured junior officials fall victim to a shallow knowledge base (because they lack the depth of exposure to a varied workload), feel underutilized, or come to the false conclusion that light workloads are the de facto modus operandi of public servants.

Let’s All Raise a Glass

The seemingly obvious solution is to find ways to occupy more of the free time of junior public servants while occupying less of the more senior ones. This is something I have little experience with but feel strongly that it will be an increasingly important part of how the culture needs to shift within the public service. Freeing up some time so that bureaucrats of all groups and levels can engage more efficiently in substantive work and in creative thinking should help all of us move closer to a tastier combination in our respective glasses, now that’s something I can drink to.


(Again, my apologies to non-wine drinkers everywhere!)

Note that while we work as public servants this is entirely our own initiative and what we post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, our offices or our positions there in.

Notez bien que nous travaillons commes functionnaires, ceci est entièrement notre propre initiative et ce que nous publions sur ce site ne reflète pas nécessairement le point de vue du gouvernement, de nos organisations ou de nos postes.