80%, maybe 100%, of life is showing up…for lunch.

Telework debates don't solve the lunch problem.

If 80% of success comes from showing up, the government needs a new definition of “showing up.” In the great telework debate, we now know more than the commute, more than annoying colleagues, and more than work-life balance power the drive to keep telework. It’s also where you go for lunch.

According to Federal News Network’s recent survey, conducted by reporter Drew Friedman, a substantial number of respondents cited a lack of local lunch options as a reason they prefer maximum telework. They said lunch availability coupled with poor office design combine for a less-than-optimal office situation.

In the world of work, lunch looms as a big deal. In my own career, I’ve been lucky, having worked in small town and urban locations surrounded by great options. The Peterborough Diner, Nonie’s, Hunan Pagoda, Flash’s Cafeteria and Italia Deli live on in my fond memories. Although the days of a juicy hamburger and cup of coffee for $1.50 are likely over.

The presence of food options varies hugely by location, though. From published reports, major urban centers like Washington, D.C., San Francisco or St. Louis have lost many establishments. Even in these places, restaurant population varies by neighborhood, even by block. Worse are suburban office parks and isolated places like the Department of Homeland Security headquarters, where people deal with the one or two on-site delis or convenience stores, shlep in their cars or brown bag it.

Yet in the D.C. area, for instance, check out places like Hyattsville, Maryland or the DelRay section of Alexandria, Virginia that are out-of-the-way in a corporate office sense. They’re brimming with restaurants and sidewalk traffic.

One time many years ago, I visited Hewlett-Packard headquarters in Palo Alto, California. They showed me Bill Hewlett’s open-style cubicle/office. My eyes bugged out, though, at the cafeteria, a vast, multi-option food court essentially, where you could eat something different every day of the week. I’m guessing that’s long gone, as the legacy company has undergone round after round of breakups and mergers during the intervening years.

I suspect the lunch issue is proxy for the more generalized resistance to return-to-the-office among the cubicle class. No one has cracked the hard stone at the very center of the debate  — namely, how people conduct the interaction necessary for a well-functioning organization.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the Oversight and Accountability Committee, said in a recent hearing that some agencies’ customer service has suffered. He said congressional staff can’t get people on the phone at IRS or the Department of Veterans Affairs because they’re teleworking. If that’s the case, agencies can solve that easily. Desk phones can ring through to cells. They can —and many have — provision public-facing staff with the screens they need to work effectively. This is common in industry. In-person meetings with citizens must, of course, take place in federal offices.

Relationships and collaboration among people in your own agency presents the tougher challenge. A few points:

  • People collaborate when they have to regardless of location. Forty-five years ago I worked on a magazine in Boston with editors in New York, Washington, Chicago and Anaheim, California. The sales staff lived in their territories, and would come in for sales meetings from about eight distant locations. Need I say this was before PCs, email and cell phones? We collaborated, and so did the rest of the world. The main staff, though, came to a downtown office five days a week. Chatter among staff members on a million daily details never ceased. I once got youthfully wrathful about something a corporate flack did or said, and slammed down the five-button, dial telephone receiver. Someone in the next office yelled, “Temin’s bangin’ the Bakelite!” Unfortunately, you can’t terminate a call on an iPhone with extreme prejudice.
  • Forcing so-called core work days or collaboration days would be just that — forced. People collaborate on the spot for a specific reason, or they come together formally when the organization has a need to get people together. It must set a specific agenda and expected outcomes for gatherings to do anything worthwhile.
  • Government is at a disadvantage relative to industry when it comes to meetings. On the private side, bosses can expense sandwich and brownie platters with Dr. Brown’s diet soda. That brings the added bonus of hefty leftovers, which attract a streaming inflow of scavengers. No waste. Government meetings seem more spartan, bring-your-own affairs.
  • An old saw among speech givers is that, at a given moment, a third of the audience listens, a third sleeps, and a third thinks of sexual fantasies. Then came BlackBerries and smart phones. On Zoom or Teams, everybody is doing Lord-knows-what. Online or in person, establish a darn good reason for any meeting, keep it short, end it ruthlessly.

And leave time for a long lunch break.

Nearly Useless Factoid 

By: Michele Sandiford 

The state where workers earn the highest median annual wage is Massachusetts, where the median income as of 2023 is about $60,690.

Source: CNBC.com

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