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Date: 29/06/20

Exit Stage: Left (Part 2)

(Part 1 is here, if you like; even if you don't, it's still there anyway)

(I'm aware that parts of this piece reiterate, re-state or recycle elements of this item, but puts them into their context a bit more coherently).

Coasting as we thought we were towards the door marked 'out', and with our leaving date set for 30 June, the arrival of the coronavirus in our midst threw everything into a cocked hat. Instead of home-working (which had previously tended to be largely for the Depratment's convenience rather than for any preference of the individual skivvy) being the exception, it suddenly became the norm.

The initial position was that those who had - as the new jargon had it most prissily - 'underlying medical conditions' should if at all possible work from home, but that otherwise, people should go into the office if at all feasible. This was mostly because the telephony work undertaken by many of us wasn't technically possible to do over a VPN at that time.

So, as someone with a number of such 'conditions', I was advised by my manager (where the word 'advised' fulfils the same rôle as the word 'ordered' for all intents and purposes) to work from home henceforth. I did work in the office the next day, however, but at the end of it took my Surface Pro and iPhone home and set about configuring my 'workspace' there. This took the form of my kitchen table, which was the only flat surface of the required height which I could draw a chair up to. The chair, however, was of the hard, wooden kitchen variety, designed it seems to disincentivise anyone tempted to linger over their meals.

I don't have wi-fi - regarding it as inherently insecure, passwords notwithstanding - so had to use the iPhone as a tether point for the Surface Pro. This proved to be a practical problem in the first instance, as the SP was very reluctant at first logon to actually discover the iPhone, despite said slavery product being no more than two centimeters away. Some days it would take twenty minutes or more to pick the phone up (a bit like a contact centre), and even then opening and running all the apps needed to do my job was a very slow and frustrating game.

The way the Depratment's VPNs were configured at the time (even after the emergency beef-up which followed in short order after nearly all of us started working from home over the following couple of weeks), meant that, quite often, you could access your own personal fileshare on the network but not some key apps; or you could access the key apps but not your fileshare. There was a hell of a lot of hopping between VPNs needed as and when.

Some things just didn't work anyway, especially when trying to tether the SP to a phone; Microsoft Teams just wouldn't open, simply hanging there at the splash screen for ages before telling me - rather superfluously, I thought - that there was 'a problem'. This was more than inconvenient, as Teams had become our primary way of keeping in touch with our colleagues (the office had had to be closed completely for a few days around Easter due to two of our number contracting the virus), and given that I, in my (unpaid) rôle as a Digital Ambassador, was the primary go-to guy for other people's IT issues (which multiplied as my colleagues grappled with the unfamiliar circumstances), this presented more than a slight handicap. My only alternative channel was the iPhone itself, and this brought another bugbear; when it rang, the screen would tell me to swipe the icon to take the call, but seven times out of ten the bloody thing wouldn't swipe, which meant losing the call, which meant my calling the caller back (without knowing who it was, as they had inevitably called from their own mobiles).

It took a couple of weeks or more before our IT Helpdesk was able to diagnose the problem. You would think, wouldn't you, that being eight hundred feet above sea level would mean that I could get a decent enough phone signal? Well, no. I was getting no more than two bars over 4G, and as Teams seemed to need a greater bandwidth than everything else, it couldn't connect. Temporarily connecting the SP to my router confirmed the diagnosis.

So I had to rig up a wired connection for the long haul somehow. Luckily, my home setup is to have my current Windows 7 machine in one corner of the living room and my old XP rig (the one referred to here; and no, I haven't been able to get anywhere with dual-booting the bastard) in the opposite corner. They are usually networked via a CAT5e ethernet cable snaking around the skirting-board. It was a matter of a few minutes, accompanied by considerable language as the cable repeatedly obeyed Stapley's Law of Cussed Cabling (adumbrated in the twelfth paragraph of this piece), to gather it up and then connect it up to the dongle provided with the SP, run it along the hall wall, across the floor and under the living-room door, where I could connect it into the router.

This solved not only the Teams problem but the general slow connection issues, and meant that I could move from one screen of an app to another without it taking so long that I had forgotten why I wanted the new screen when I finally got to it.

And that is how, generally speaking, matters progressed satisfactorily from mid-April onwards. At least it meant that I could now join in team meetings and call one or two favoured work-friends on a regular basis so that I felt that I was keeping in touch with things.

By this time, however, something interesting had happened.

Having been keen to shove us out of the door, and then being even more keen to delay us doing so, the Depratment suddenly informed us at the beginning of April that they really really wanted us all to stay on until September (when, you will remember, the building will be handed back to the offshore tax-dodgers who bought it on the cheap years ago). That it took a major crisis to jolt them into the realisation that they didn't have enough experienced staff to, you know, actually run HMRC at the front- and second-line (especially with the extra work necessitated by the schemes introduced by Sunak to stop him ending up with his head on a spike) when we had been telling them this for a number of years, was something which we found both galling and, to be frank, hilarious; the e-mail was couched in much the same terms of barely-concealed hysteria as the letters I am still getting nearly a decade and a half on from TVLicensing plc.

Luckily, the response could be given just by using the voting buttons on the e-mail; had replies needed to be typed out in full, they would invariably have been caught by the profanity filter. But the uncertainty caused by all this backtracking and faffing about didn't help the general mood.

Some of my colleagues now found themselves in a bind, however. You see, a number of them had secured new positions at an 'answering service company' (oh, all right, Moneypenny) which has its UKanian base just a couple of hundred yards up the road. However, the problems caused by the pandemic meant that the job offers ended up being withdrawn at least temporarily, which left my colleagues stranded up Pant Y Cachu (*). So some of them were pushed into staying on, again raising the stress levels.

There was worse to come.

Having clearly not had the desired response, HR then came back to us in the second week of June to ask if anyone would consider staying on not just until the end of September, but until New Year's Eve.

But how, you might ask, could people stay on until then if the building they were working in was to close three months prior to that? Well, one important lesson that even the Depratment's upper levels were capable of learning was that it was possible for ninety per cent of its staff to work regularly from home; indeed, huge efforts had been made to maximise this potential. For those who - for whatever reason - couldn't, another solution had to be found.

The situation was made hugely more complex by the tra-la-la surrounding India Buildings in Liverpool, the proposed site for the 'regional centre'. Why, when it would have been far more appropriate to have a brand-new purpose-built office block in central Liverpool, did the Konclave of Kumquats () at HQ decide instead to refit a building over a hundred years old, and a Grade II listed one at that? Fair asking for trouble it was.

And so it has proven to be. First off was the discovery of a few hundred tons of asbestos within; the second was contractors having to be replaced due to failing to fulfil their agreed performance; the upshot of it all being that - far from opening in September 2020 - the place is now not likely to be ready until well into next year. As a result, many of the Depratment's current offices in Liverpool and Bootle will have to stay open until such time as most of the staff can be 'decanted' (lees and all) into the new-but-not-new location.

(A quick word about Bootle: 'dump'. HMRC has three blocks there: one is Litherland House on Litherland Road, of which I can say nothing having never been there; the second is St John's House on Merton Road, which is a nice building and pretty well laid out; the third is the Triad, a Y-shaped high-rise slum on Stanley Road a few hundred yards to the north-west of the other two, which stands as part of the Strand shopping centre, the only claim to lasting fame of which was the location of a child abduction and murder in 1993).

Anyhow, the response to the latest offer (including as it did the thoroughly charmless rider that the compulsory redundancy package which had originally been offered to those - mostly at the older end of the scale - to whom it would be more advantageous than the voluntary scheme had been withdrawn, and so anyone still wishing to leave in September would have to do so on the terms they had previously rejected) was greeted with the same derision as the earlier wheedling, and only those who were really desperate to keep on working have ended up taking it.

Once again, I wasn't remotely tempted, especially as the VPNs had now been beefed up to the point that telephony work - which I have always intensely disliked - was now 'do'able from home. They weren't going to do that to me.

So the scene was set for The Final Countdown (I know, I'm sorry; that bloody song is now stuck in your bonce, isn't it?). But that's for next time...

(*) Shit Creek

Like mandarins, only cheaper