Thursday, October 16, 2014

25 Stories About Work - Office Hoteling and the Elusive Consultant Desk

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)...

Chicago, the 90's...

When I first started out as an auditor I had a tiny cube that consisted of just a desk and a chair with a big phone in a giant warren full of other cubes. There was a big bay window that let in the sun and lights far overhead. I didn't know anything and was happy just to have a place to call my own.

How accounting worked at the time was that you were assigned to clients and were "on the road". If you were in the office you charged a code for down-time and struggled for something to do. You could take a training class, do research in the library, or more often than not you'd be assigned some sort of drudgery administrative work. Most of the time I ended up photocopying our audit files when clients transitioned to new auditors, which is much more work than it sounds because you had to dis-assemble the work papers, copy them, and then re-assemble the files again. The copier tended to regularly jam and you soon learned how to take that copy machine apart, as well. Not a good use of a masters' degree...

After a while the managers learned who was good and who wasn't and I was constantly busy as a result. We worked and traveled all the time and often I had overlapping clients, meaning that tasks I couldn't complete onsite piled up for me at the little cube while I was at a different client. This was before any concept of telecommuting and we didn't even have our own laptops. The only way to get work done was to show up at the office (on Saturday or Sunday, since I traveled all week) and do the remaining tasks.

One time our office engaged in some sort of ISO process and they decided that having a "clean desk" was mandatory. So the (usually worst) staff that were in the office packed up everyone's desk and sent it off site so that when the office tour occurred, my little rat cube was completely clear. Thus when I showed up on a Sunday a couple of weeks later to follow up on some annoying task from a parallel client, all of my papers were gone and that was an entirely wasted day. The fact that I still remember this over 20 years later shows how angry I was at this bureaucratic stupidity.

In the late 90's I was a manager when a different firm I worked with went to "office hoteling". This plan is designed to save on real estate costs and you reserved a cube or office depending on your needs and level if you were in the office. The logic is clear - since most of the staff are out traveling with a client and are rarely in the office, why spend all that money on idle real estate - just give them a space when they are passing through and be more efficient as a result.

At the time, however, my experience with office hoteling was miserable. I was on the road all the time but had a couple weeks down time so I reserved an office in Chicago. It turns out that I made some sort of clerical error in the ordering and a woman (who presumably was in the office a lot, because she seemed to be a dolt) kicked me out of that office and made me sit in a cube outside. At the time I was relatively new and trying not to make waves so I let it happen. Then she picked up the phone and I could hear her multi-hour conversation about the annoying "Behind the Music" TV show on VH1 and all of her personal errands as she prattled on all day long. Glad she kicked me out of the office for that.

One element of a consulting firm is "group cohesion". Although you were part of a much larger firm, you tended to only know the few people that you worked with on an individual engagement. Thus while there may be thousands of people at the firm, you might only know a handful and since communications were abysmal you survived on scraps of gossip and myth. This situation was far worse for someone like me that entered as a higher level manager - many others crawled through the ranks and made connections and understood how everything worked "behind the scenes".

Given the hoteling culture, however, it was impossible to make any NEW connections. I went around and tried to talk to my adjacent office mates or go to lunch and they were all heads down and trying to get out of that office as quickly as possible. At least when I had my tiny cube in the rat warren I knew adjacent people and we could commiserate or figure out what was going on. The very act of attempting to reach out was viewed with suspicion - we were just random souls waiting for the next job and what was the point of even trying to talk to someone. In my head I think that office hoteling contributed to the downfall of that firm, but likely it is just my old-school need for order, cohesion, and some sort of overall plan for everyone, which that firm clearly lacked. Office hoteling certainly didn't help, however.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz


Gerry from Valpo said...

Who do consulting firms go to when they need consulting? Is there a consulting company that specializes in consulting the consulting companies? Consult with me on this.

Carl from Chicago said...

There are some guys that work with consulting companies. One guy is David Maister and he is great.

But in general consulting companies think they know everything and don't listen to anyone. This is probably going to be a theme of mine somewhere else along these posts.

A million consulting companies have come and gone and then they just start back up again.