She sits alone in a little recess, separated from the rest of the busy office by a tall screen. There’s a window behind her, but the blinds are always drawn. A tired plant stands on the windowsill; it’s been there about three times as long as she has.
She is supposed to be a PA, and indeed she does some PA duties, like arranging meetings and showing people into her boss’s office.
But mainly she does audiotyping. Lots and lots of it. Far more than most secretaries, because her rather charismatic and traditional boss has a penchant for old-fashioned correspondence, and likes to fire off all manner of letters to customers and suppliers, and memos to management and staff.
Tape after tape he leaves her, and she diligently and accurately types and types, periodically passing him huge folders of papers (which seldom need any correction) for approval and signature.
Letters fly out from the office in large stacks. The huge pile of filing beside her desk grows rapidly taller.
The boss, when he’s in, paces around the office, dictating and dictating and dictating. He looks over the shoulders of the accounts staff, oblivious to their resentment. The sales people have to delay their calls until he’s moved on – afraid to disturb him, but also afraid he might eavesdrop on their conversations and criticise them.
The PA types for so long every day that she is getting RSI in her hands and particularly her little fingers, something she has never experienced before. The smallest finger is obviously the weakest, and those who design keyboards don’t seem to account for this, giving the little finger of both hands more to do than most, with having to stretch in an awkward manner to reach the shift key on each side, every time a capital letter is required.
This she confides to me once over coffee, and I have to say that I see her point.
She has actually dared to broach this issue with Personnel and shows me a special keyboard the company has provided her with, where the hands type at an angle to each other, which is supposed to reduce the strain. Sadly, she reports, it has not as yet made any difference to her pain.
The other thing that troubles her, she explains, almost in tears, is the fact that she has to stop typing so often to answer the phone.
There is a switchboard operator and receptionist at the front of the office, but the PA position serves as backup switchboard, and the phones are so busy that calls often come through to her to answer.
She has started to keep a secret tally of how many calls she is answering every day, and tells me that it is averaging fifty. So fifty times a day, whilst audiotyping with headphones on, she has to stop and remove the headphones in order to take a call and either put it through to someone or take a message.
This is driving her ‘spare’, as she puts it.
Adding to her complaints is the fact that the job she is doing is way beneath her capabilities. She has a degree and several years’ administrative experience. The job has ended up being a disappointment – she certainly didn’t expect it to be ninety percent pressurised audiotyping and the rest answering the phone.
Clearly the situation is not going to last, but she is doubtless one of many people forced to take work that doesn’t really suit them, and essentially being exploited by an employer who doesn’t care about anyone’s job satisfaction, but just thinks they might as well take the most intelligent person presenting themselves for interview.
In fact she overhears her boss once, saying of her, ‘I needed someone good’.
Because of the typing load, other staff are discouraged from chatting to her. Several times colleagues are ushered away and told not to disturb her because she’s busy. This seems particularly unfair because in general, there is quite a lot of chat going on in this office!
The PA is clearly becoming more and more depressed – there is seldom a smile on her face. She is cruelly isolated by virtue of her headphones, the dividing screen she is compelled to sit behind, her enforced lack of interaction with fellow employees, and the importance of her output to the boss.
Not a happy working environment, you must agree.
It’s difficult for her even to go out at lunchtime with other staff, as there is a clique of girls who go out with the long-serving receptionist, with the PA left to cover the phones (and reception).
I try to redress this by offering the occasional friendly lunch invitation, but she begins to refuse me, as if she is embarrassed by the complaints and revelations she has uttered to me so far. I see her sometimes sitting alone on a bench in the little park nearby.
One day there is a big altercation between her boss and various other staff. Shouting and harsh words, all sorts of unpleasantness. She is not directly involved but is not the only person in tears by the end of that day. How can people behave in such a manner, I wonder of her bully of a boss? Why not be nice to people, instead of nasty? But maybe you have to be unpleasant, to be successful in the cut-throat world of business. Maybe that’s the way the world works.
So, one manager has stormed out, never to be seen again. (His industry expertise will be sorely missed, though no-one will admit it.) The personnel lady is in a complete state – her cheeks flushed, and complaining repeatedly (under her breath) that she has never been so insulted. Everyone else puts their heads down and carries on.
The poor lonely PA carries on typing in her corner – quietly, diligently, unhappily. The phone keeps ringing, heedless of office dramas.
“You need to finish these two tapes before you can go,” says the boss to his assistant – or rather, typist – late one evening.
“Please come in early tomorrow and clear this filing, it is unacceptable,” another time.
“Please drink your tea in the kitchen, I do not want it to be spilt here.” Can I believe my ears?
There is a limit, and the day comes that the PA has gone, her sad corner to be taken shortly by another hapless recruit who probably won’t last as long.
I do wonder what happened to her. I hope she’s happier now.