10 Key Workplace Mysteries Most Companies Still Haven’t Solved

We can video-chat with people on other continents, store things in the cloud, and automate processes that used to take a whole team of workers to get done, but we still haven’t found a way keep the damn office fridge clean. Or found a conference call technology that doesn’t result in chaos and disengagement. Or figured out how to put people in an environment where they can both collaborate and get needed privacy.

Here are 10 stories from readers of problems that technology still hasn’t solved in their offices.

1. Getting people to learn new software

“We can’t get everyone to use the same software. I don’t care what it is – Outlook, an instant messaging client, SharePoint – we waste so much money and time on various pieces of software that do the same thing, because there are always one or two people who refuse to change. Just do it. It’s part of your job. Life is not over when you have to use Outlook calendar instead of that one random Yahoo calendar no one looks at anymore.” 

2. Absent approvers

“We haven’t found a way to get people to respond to emails and phone calls that are about things that cannot go to the next step without their approval, and getting those same people to understand that requiring their approval for every step means that they also have to be okay with nothing happening until they do approve it.”

3. Password madness

“We require passwords to be changed so often, and have such obscure rules about how many characters, symbols, and numbers and how similar it can be to your last 10 passwords, that everyone just writes their password on a Post-It stuck to their monitor or keyboard. Even better when the system locks you out after three wrong tries, so you have to sit on hold for half an hour to get it reset.”

4. A GPS tracker for managers

“When my director started a few years ago, he made a policy that we all use a specific instant messaging client and keep our statuses updated – most of us telecommute on various days so it’s very helpful. Does my manager do this? No. He leaves his status to ‘online’ all the time, even when he is on vacation. Completely defeats the purpose. I’d love to put a GPS tracker on him.”

5. A warning before replying-all

“I think any attempt to ‘reply all’ to an email should result in a warning pop-up that reads, ‘Are you sure you want to reply to ALL of these people?’ with options for ‘Yes, I’m sure’ and ‘Heck no.’”

6. Scrambled communication

“I work in Marketing. I am supposed to be selling our goods to clients. Yet our department doesn’t find out about new products until someone calls saying, ‘Hi, I can’t find the flyer on this, I need to send it to a client,’ and we’re stuck scrambling because we literally had no clue it existed. It’s a shame. And yet at the same time, we’re told to create flyers for a product that doesn’t exist yet but will be here in Q2. So we create the flyers, and then when the product is finally sold to a prospect in Q3, we find out that the product was scrapped.”

7. Thermostat wars

“Thermostat control. People would huddle in their coats and gloves under blankets, and Maintenance wouldn’t let us adjust the heat (they put a locking cover over it). People blocked the vents with paper but Maintenance caught on to that quickly, so then we changed to clear packing tape. I know, I know….the system is ‘balanced’ and that throws it all off. But when people are freezing, what else is there to do?

One person got really smart and started putting a cup of ice on the locking thermostat cover and that would sometimes trick the AC into going off and the heat to come on.”

8. Shared calendar mayhem

“We have thousands of employees and everyone has Outlook. The first department I worked in had everyone track their out of office time on a Google calendar. So then we had two calendars to update to make sure we were showing as unavailable for meetings, etc. to those outside our department. Why? No one knew, it was just always that way, so it stayed. In my current department, I have people walk over to my desk to see if I am available for x time on x day. Hmmm, let me check my CALENDAR.

Finally, the busiest people – upper mangers and directors – never seem to bother filling in their calendars. I get the need for confidentiality on things, but there are ways to lock stuff down. So I invite those folks to meetings and client events and I get the response, ‘I am out that week – didn’t you know that?’ Ugh.”

9. Excel obstructionists

“Getting people to use Excel properly! I have a running list in my head of ‘Bob doesn’t understand multiple pages,’ ‘Steve will delete my formula accidentally and not tell me,’ ‘John doesn’t understand hidden columns,’ etc.
 And so when I send Excel files, I need to keep my original file, and then compare it to what I get back, like, ‘Okay, what were they trying to do before breaking everything?’
My inefficient work-around is to send PDFs of Excel documents to make people tell me in words what they want changed, and then I can do it.”

10. Under-valuing and under-staffing I.T.

“I’ve seen way, way too many organizations that say, ‘Oh, we just need an IT generalist’ and then expect to pay $50,000 for someone who can manage the office network, manage a dozen servers in a high-availability virtualization suite, code up database applications from scratch, and manage the company website. Hint: those are all separate career tracks and each require several years of experience to be any good at.

Of course, you can find someone who will tell you they can do all that who is willing to work for the same pay as your secretary. Then that person will go on to cost you an order of magnitude more, in terms of lost time and efficiency, 95% of which you’ll be blind to.

Or if you do end up with competent IT people, there’s a constant battle over funding. Most companies don’t need the latest and greatest, but they do need the basics to be solid and work, and that includes a lot of stuff that most people don’t even knows exists. It’s almost impossible for non-IT people to tell the difference between “IT always wants more and better stuff” and actual false economies. Really good IT departments can communicate this info adequately, if management has actually spent the money to hire them and will listen to them.

There’s also an axiom in IT that you can teach technical skills but not soft skills, which is (mostly) true. However people often fail to recognize the amount of deliberate time and effort that has to go into training. Simply throwing under qualified people into the job and expecting them to figure it out as they go is a recipe for frustration on everyone’s part.”

What process or problem has your office still not solved? Did you know Intuit QuickBase can help solve many of these?














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • http://kylemjones.com/ Kyle Jones

    In some fashion or another I’ve seen the likes of many of the items listed above. My favorite would be the shared calendar and adoption of software. When one or two decide to do differently, it defeats the purpose. Also, nice throw-back using the Unsolved Mysteries logo.

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  • http://www.janarzoomanwriting.com/ ArzoomanJ

    I’ve also seen most of these in offices I’ve worked in. My last temp job had a pretty healthy IT department, but several jobs in a row prior to that had no IT person—they used an outside contractor for emergencies. Whenever some software changed (I remember the headaches related to changes in MS Word), employees had to pretty much figure things out on their own. I guess it made me more self-sufficient in the long run, but there were a lot of hours wasted.

    People who are not electronically inclinded DO have to adapt to changing tools, but often a company will push a new system on employees with little or no training, and forget there is a learning curve. Worse, the management that purchased the new software never learns how to use it themselves.

    We had one of those “absent approval” managers at my last job. All of us should have gotten bonuses for managing to meet publication deadlines in spite of her not reviewing manuscripts on schedule, and then swooping in and making changes hours before we were supposed to go to press.

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  • Snoopy – Your Friendly Neighbo

    One of the places I worked at a while back was this small little boutique agency that pretty much hired me because they saw I had an inkling of IT skills. What I came to find out was that their IT department was severely understaffed (To like, one opening to the unfortunate soul who occupied it, like…me) and that they much had exhausted their last developer before that person ran out of there. That developer, like myself, was some inexperienced kid out of school. So in other words, they basically shoved a recent graduate into a department all by themselves and threw a lot of random crap at them, some of which had little to do with development. There was no documentation of which server was hosted on what site, what logins corresponded to whom and so on, so I had to use my savvy to figure it all out. The hardest part about adapting to that place was managing my stress. Working there was so chaotic that they made me go an entire day without eating.

    Don’t even get me started on the mice infestation… The problems in that place ran so deep, that walking into that office was like walking on a landmine…at any moment, the place would go off due to all the political intrigue. They seemed like such an insecure company. On my last days there, they ended up getting into blows with another developer at another company over something stupid like web tabs. That’s kind of when I knew I had to bow out.

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