Monday, 28 February 2011

The office: a small-minded space

There are many things that frustrate me about the workplace. I won’t start listing them because, frankly, I need the material for future posts. But perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is the tendency - and I don’t know if it’s a recent tendency or if it’s been happening for years - for the processes that keep places running to be needlessly complicated and fiddly.

And you go through with them anyway, because if you point out to the boss that there’s a quicker way of doing it, they might agree with you and hence realise they don’t need you around any more. As an example, let me talk you through the process one was forced to go through in order to purchase stationery at one of my previous workplaces, which happened to be a library (one of several I have been, er, privileged enough to work in).

Let’s say I needed a new roll of Sellotape. First, I would need to check with the departmental manager that the purchase was justified and necessary. My job required a lot of sticking things to other things, and therefore Sellotape was a useful item to have around. Nonetheless, I would usually need to have one of those annoyingly specific and finickity and long-winded informal chats with her in which I explained exactly what I planned to use it for.

Once I had satisfied her that I really, really did need to stick stuff together, and that the Sellotape would not be used in any way that was dangerous or wasteful or likely to cause serious injury or death in the workplace environment, I would be allowed to look the item up in a paper catalogue. I would then look up the item on an electronic version of the same catalogue, which would automatically calculate the cost of the item, less discounts, and including VAT. You would be forgiven at this point for thinking the process was close to finished. I would laugh in your face; there was no way to actually submit the form electronically, so the next step was to print the form twice, and then close it without saving it.

Next, I would fill in a requisition form in triplicate, copying out all the information I had just printed, and hand it to the departmental manager, who would generally spend three or four days poring over it to ensure that I had not, since we last conversed on the subject, changed my mind about the intended use of the tape. Once she was, again, satisfied, the triplicate form would be put somewhere random for me to collect - perhaps under a stack of books, in someone else’s in-tray, or on the dark side of a small asteroid. This was, I presume, a way for her to increase morale by allowing me a fun game of Hunt The Purchase Order Requisition every few weeks.

Once the form was located, I would tear off the top two copies, paperclip (NOT STAPLE) one of those printouts from the electronic catalogue to them, and send the resultant document to the finance office. They, too, were keen players of the “hide it in a pile of rubbish and forget about it” game, so I would then enjoy a leisurely month or so of wondering where it was. In the interim I was able to entertain myself in two ways: firstly, by filing the bottom copy in a ring binder. Copies were filed according to the number printed in the top-right corner; these numbers were seemingly randomly generated by a madman, since there was little order to them. Secondly, I could enter the item on the library catalogue. This was a way of keeping track of money spent, with the unfortunate side-effect that the Sellotape, or blue biro or whatever else it was, would appear on the catalogue as a borrowable item. (There was a way of entering things without this happening, but it had been deemed “too complicated” before my time, and who was I to argue?) This would generate another order number, entirely unrelated to the first one. Interestingly, it was impossible to look up the order on the catalogue by any number other than this.

Eventually, the finance office would send back one of the copies of the form I had sent them, along with a printout from their own database, complete with a third, again completely unrelated, order number. Something I should point out at this stage: the finance office generally refused to respond to any queries or problems without this number, but refused to provide the number except on this printout. On those occasions when they lost the original order, this would provide me a wonderful opportunity for a game of Smash Everything In Burning Frustration And Rage (sadly, I don’t have the space here to explain the rules of this enjoyable pastime).

Later - say three months later - an invoice would arrive. Any delay in the arrival of the invoice was generally due to the finance office’s aforementioned unique filing system, which doesn’t deserve any more attention. So, a red invoice printed with “PAY THIS OR WE’LL SEND THE BOYS ROUND” would arrive on my desk. I’d photocopy the thing, write the three different order numbers on it for my own records, mark the sticky tape as “arrived and paid for” on the catalogue and then instantly delete it (really), and finally put the photocopied invoice in a box file, where it would never be looked at again.

Then, finally, the invoice would be sent for payment. An invoice slip would be filled in with information including two of the three previously mentioned order numbers and three separate signatures (including that of the manager, who by this stage would generally have forgotten that she had agreed to the original purchase and would spend several more days studying the invoice and attached slip - perhaps dusting it for fingerprints, checking I hadn’t used the slip as a straw for snorting cocaine in the children’s section, that sort of thing.

At this point, I would go to staple the invoice slip to the invoice and realise I had run out of staples... and reach for the stationery catalogue again.

This, incidentally, as well as being a useful illustration of the meaningless of much of the employment on offer to intelligent young people in our culture - young people who have invested huge amounts of time and money in a university education, who have spent years learning to argue and debate and construct and create and use their brains only to find themselves thrust out into a workforce that patronises them, treats them like imbeciles, piles them high with menial tasks and awards them no responsibility - also explains, your honour, exactly what possessed me in the first place to jumpstart the JCB and drive it through a branch of Burger King while cackling incessantly and waving a hammer. Read more by Martha.