Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Offsight Onslaught

I spent all of yesterday and the first half of today away from the office.  That may sound like cause for celebration, but in this case nothing couldn't be further from the truth.  Outside the office doesn't mean that I wasn't working--instead, I was subjected to that cruel form of work commonly known as the offsite meeting.  Every year we have an annual conference where we meet with the other finance people who work at the manufacturing plants.  Back in the heady days of 2011, the conference was held at a fancy hotel in downtown Chicago.  This year's rendition of the conference, on the other hand, was held in a suburban Minneapolis Sheraton hotel.  Clearly we were already starting in a hole...

To be fair, not everything about offsite meetings are bad.  It can be nice to actually meet the people that you only talk to over the phone and through email all year long.  And offsite meetings normally involve free lunch, which can be an added bonus.  In a best case scenario, the meetings involve minimal interaction, allowing my mind to wander blissfully, interrupted only by the occasional iPhone check.

While a free lunch can be nice, food can also be a major problem at offsite meetings.  I haven't been bold enough to pack in my own cooler with chicken and vegetables, so my normal strategy of eating every few hours gets shot to pieces.  After I go about three hours without eating, my stomach is growling like an angry predator and my mind immoderately and fully shuts off.  By the time lunch rolls around, I'm ready to kill someone.  And when 3PM rolls around, I'm ready to kill someone else.  Meeting organizers sometime anticipate the need for a snack, but a mountain of gummy bears just can't do the work of a little  quality chicken.

This week's offsite meeting presented me with some unique logistical challenges.  The organizers somehow missed me on the pre-meeting email that instructed everyone to dress casually, so I walked in yesterday dressed business casually while the rest of the crowd was in shorts.  I intended to take full advantage of the shorts policy in today's half-day meeting, but there was one problem...and once again, it was food-related.

Knowing that I'd be returning to the office in the afternoon, I needed two servings of chicken stocked in the refrigerator.  I didn't feel like asking to borrow the Sheraton's facilities (would they allow guests to store chicken in their kitchen?), and 90 degree weather and a hot car to bad things to meat in a hurry.  I had to drive past work for an early dentist appointment first thing this morning anyway, so I figured I'd swing by and drop my food off in the refrigerator on my way.  But what would I wear?

I didn't want to walk into the office in shorts and tennis shoes.  That's too casual even for casual Friday, and I my plans for casual Wednesday have caught on about as well as my attempts to institute shirtless Tuesdays.  Even if I only planned to walk to the refrigerator and right back out to the car, I just knew today would be the day that my boss's boss's boss happened to walk by and see making a complete mockery of the dress policy. What if they got rid of casual Friday all together and I was to blame?

So I dressed business casual to drop my chicken off at work, then drove to the dentist and changed into shorts in the car before my appointment.  After, I drove to the Sheraton for the half-day offsite meeting, knowing that I'd have to change in the car once again at work to return to the office wearing business casual attire in the afternoon.  Of course, at the end of the day, I'd have to change again into gym clothes before heading to Lifetime.  The sheer logistical effort was staggering.  The food, meeting, and gym plans required more outfit changes than a Lady Gaga concert.

Even ignoring these other nuisances, I could best describe the events of the past day and half as dreadful.  I knew I was for a rough journey when I saw these scattered around the room:

Sure enough, the flipcharts spelled trouble.  Long, boring, all-day meetings are barely tolerable when I don't have to pay attention.  But flipcharts can only mean one thing: awkward, forced small-group discussions.  Since we just went through a major restructuring, the meetings were painfully repetitive--I've seen the same set of org charts flashed on a PowerPoint slide enough times that they're burned into my retinas.  And with all this change, we spent all of these small group sessions brainstorming obvious, common sense ideas about ways to deal with change, how we can get work done more efficiently, and what kind of training might be helpful.

These discussions always go the same--one overly enthusiastic person dominates the conversation (undoubtedly a former annoying child who always had his hand raised in class), while someone else volunteers to be the "recorder" and write ideas on the giant sheet of paper in hopes that she won't be asked to present the group's ideas to the larger group at the end of the brainstorm session.

Meanwhile, I stand there scowling, waging an internal battle in my mind.  On the one hand, I feel obligated to at least say something so as to not come off like a bitter, uncooperative employee.  But at the same time, the only thing I can think to add to the conversation would be to point out that he fastest way increase our efficiency would be to drop the pointless breakout sessions from the agenda.  And my focus is clearly lacking in these situations--I find myself constantly wondering if there's a single person in the room who truly finds these things valuable...

After twelve hours of this crap over the past two days, I have learned a few things.  First, it's not true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I'm still alive, but my body is weak from hunger and my mind is softer than a bowl of pudding.  Second, I've learned some invaluable lessons about how to take an hour and a half worth of content and make it fill twelve hours.  I'm impressed at the way some of my coworkers have perfected the art of the financial filibuster.  In case you ever need to pull off something like this, just bring some markers and flipcharts and throw out an obvious topic...the rest will magically fall into place.

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