Thursday, 15 January 2009

Tackling Absurdity in the Workplace

No amount of natural intelligence or education will ever prepare you for the absurdity one will face in the world of work.

My theory is that on paper, a lot of things work incredibly well but they often fail in practice due to small over-looked details. If you magnify this way of thinking, that is what you get in the workplace.

Our own office is currently suffering from a constant bombardment of incompetence and small oversights that is reducing our ability to work efficiently. My fellow administration dragons and I recently moved from the Camden call centre office over to new premises in Kentish town. Although a few glitches are going to be unavoidable in a moving process, there were immediately issues with the way in which the office was set up. First of all, there was about half as much storage for twice as much letter headed paper. Secondly, the network and computers were so locked down that it wouldn’t recognize USB devices or CDs, which are occasionally required for the smooth running of transferring data. Thirdly, the internet was not set up as it was assumed we wouldn’t need it and finally, in the initial move, royal mail hadn’t been informed of our departure from Camden, and a large quantity of our post ended up sitting around in a sorting office. For all we know, it might still be there (wherever there might be).

In trying to analyze the reasons behind each of these small-by-themselves blunders, it’s clear to see the intentions were good or the excuses reasonable. The storage might not have been an issue had we not just started dealing with a very large group of new clients, the network was locked so as to prevent sensitive data such as bank details being taken off site, the internet wasn’t set up due to a gross underestimation of what we actually do in admin, and the post wasn’t set up because two people thought that the other had already done it.

The absurdity creeps in when for example you don’t have the storage, yet you’re told that the boxes of paper are in the way of walkways for health and safety reasons, and might fall on someone if they’re stacked too high. There’s also the absurdity of locking the computers down so tightly that you can’t move data off site, or access it completely, or actually perform basic tasks that you are so used to performing, especially considering that if I really wanted to steal bank details, I could jot them down on a piece of paper. Equally, taking our internet away from us and expecting us to still have that mysterious encyclopedic knowledge of medical conditions required for processing the applications has elements of inconsistency as does not setting up a delivery address and wondering why we don’t get any post.

The people I work with are not stupid. As it is a small company, almost everyone here ends up doing things they haven’t done before, aren’t suited to and don’t really want to do. For example, I wouldn’t chose to carry a trees worth of paper up and down several flights of stairs most days, but when the deliveries turn up, we all have to chip in. As a result of this, things can be rushed, done badly due to a lack of experience, or things can just be overlooked. Most often however, things just aren't thought throught properly. A recent conversation that our IT manager had with the builders with regards to how much to enlarge the server room by in our office means that the walls are now closing in, as our IT manager is apparently not good with dimensions and instead appears to have thought of a random number between 1 and 100, leaning towards a larger number just to be on the safe side.

The current issue is that our space is rapidly disappearing, and the rest of the staff from Camden are going to be moving to an office next door to the new premises we’ve moved to, and they want to use our office for storage. Short of suspending them from the ceiling, I can’t see where new filing cabinets will go and I can’t help feeling this is another example of someone in charge not really thinking things through. To put it in more literal terms, imagine your bedroom and whatever you have in it. Now imagine your partner, friend, parents or whoever you may live with comes up to you and says “guess what, I ordered two new wardrobes, a side table and a grand piano for your room! Isn’t that great?” I am sure that unless you are disgustingly lucky with the amount of space that you have in your bedroom that you would have a few choice words for your partner, friend, parents or whoever you may live with.

The more I work in this place, the less I find situational or even surreal comedy funny. A lot of the time, it’s just things that have happened to the writer retold slightly out of context. King Arthur being asked to cut down the mightiest oak in the forest with a herring by the knights who say “Nee!” whilst participating in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail is significantly less funny when you realize that you’ve been asked to do things of similar impossibility or absurdity (even if it is without the herring).

In any office, the right hand will never know what the left hand is doing and invariably they will both be telling you to do slightly different things like a miniature angel and devil sat on your shoulders debating about whether or not to burn the whole place down and be done with it, but the real terror comes when the two hands start working towards a common goal, with all the apptitude of an easily distracted cage of chimps.

Additional Notes:

“The people I work with are not stupid.” Let me clarify that: Most of the people I work with are not stupid. Another thing that university will never prepare you for is the diversity of intellect found in the workplace. Sometimes that diversity and wide range of intellect can be found in just one person.

In terms of things that I used to find well executed, creative and devastatingly funny, I’ve also come to realize that “Dilbert” is probably not in fact a comic strip, but a daily journal in picture form.

When I used to work on the river as an assistant lock keeper for the Environment Agency, I was amazed at how all the staff up and down the river could effectively mesh together and work as a well oiled and slick machine in their single minded purpose. The only problem was that there were still frequent absurdities and contradictions being thrown around, largely due to the fact that their single minded purpose was to annoy and frustrate head office.

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