How To Control Your Life

Part 79

Have you ever started a new job and been shown, inexpertly, round your new berth by an existing employee? Or gone as temporary staff somewhere and had the same experience?

Disorientating, isn’t it?

They greet you with a friendly smile (or not…) and then take you swiftly up in lifts, along corridors and through doors with some rapidity, waving vaguely at various places and objects the while (“That’s the processing room”; “That’s the archives but you have to get a card from Facilities to access them”; “That’s the fire exit and you can get up to the roof that way if you go along to the other end of the building before you go up”; “That’s Mr Henchard’s office but he’s in Singapore this week”). The only thing going through your mind is a frantic series of question marks (Processing what? Why do I need the archives and what’s ‘Facilities’? Card? How do I get to the other side of the building from the fire escape, and how the heck long does that take? Who’s Mr Henchard and do I need to know? Singapore?…).

Then, finally, you land in your office and are randomly introduced to anyone who comes within a six foot range of you and your guide. “This is Jim, he’s always hogging the first floor meeting room so you’ll have to be firm with him when you need it”. “That’s Helen - Helen? Oh, she’s on the phone.” “Hi Jason - this is Jason, he’s a black belt in karate and he’ll be telling you all about the new account which you’ll be taking over in due course”.

Then, according to their particular nature, they’ll either leave you in the middle of everything because they get distracted by their own work (or their need for coffee or other sustenance), or they’ll introduce you finally to someone who has been given the direct responsibility for inculcating you into the mysteries of this particular workplace. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a formal induction course - in which case the mêlée into which you are to be thrown is just postponed, not avoided.

The problem arises because all the people you meet when you first enter a new workplace are completely familiar with their environment (that’s why they’ve been chosen to show you around). They could go about their day’s work in their sleep (some of them frequently do) and, obviously, they don’t have to think twice about basic things like where the loos are or what the protocol is for making coffee or getting lunch. They all know each other and what everyone does (or at least what is their designated function, even if they don’t actually do much about it). The routines of that particular workplace are second nature to them - isn’t every workplace the same?

No, of course it’s not. Even workplaces which are in the same field (legal firms, canning plants, logistics, civil engineering) have wildly variant work practices. And it’s definitely no longer a given that there are standard ‘types’ who work in each trade or profession. There are, it’s true, a lot of nerds in the IT world - but there are also a lot of well-dressed people who might easily be mistaken for City types, or even lower forms of marketing people. Bankers no longer wear either bowler hats or red braces, and (at least in London) there are a lot of people in the fashion and film world who are actually pretty scruffy.

But what hasn’t changed is people’s perception that if you’ve worked in one office, you’ve worked in them all. How can you possibly not know how to put a legal document together (either physically or by drafting)? Did you lie on your CV about having worked in marketing for the last six years if you don’t even know how to mock up an ad with this software? What do you mean, you’ve never used a headset while walking round the building?

So you struggle through the first couple of weeks, desperately trying to make sense of all the discrete information thrown at you whilst attempting to find your way in, out of and around the building. You scramble to make sense of the relationships and loyalty lines and not to drop any clangers or put your foot into things too much. It’s exhausting, you feel like a fish out of water, and you end each day with a headache.

Eventually you settle down. You too forget that you once didn’t have a clue where the kitchen was, the post room, the binding machine. You learn people’s name and characters (or at least their place in the pecking order), and you settle down to do the job for which you were employed.

The trouble is that what you’ve learned is a subset. The people who’ve told you about things in that workplace - particularly your predecessor perhaps, whose job you’ve taken over - are telling you what they managed to grasp when they were new. The people who inducted them, in turn, had a subset of information from their predecessors. And so on.

It’s like Chinese whispers.

If you had an induction course, it was probably run by someone who never actually works in that workplace (or, if they did, it was some time back). Or maybe it’s a formal presentation developed by people in head office (who sometimes make a flying visit to the workplace, but never stay long and don’t involve themselves on the ground floor - good heavens no…). So new supermarket employees are given presentations on health and safety by someone whose only relationship with a till is when they do their own shopping. And a new CEO is treated to a formal welcome lunch in a restaurant well away from the office, perhaps by people who’ve come over specially from another country for the purpose.

This is why most offices don’t work particularly well. This is one of the reasons why, in this country, we work very long hours and achieve very low productivity.

Armed with this information you can try and change your workplace. (Good luck with that.)

However - and this is where it does come down to you and how you take control of your life - this same sort of thing can happen in the home.

I was once talking to a man whose wife had recently died. He was handling it fairly well now, he said, and he was managing to get through the day without too much sadness. The trouble was, he was having problems around the house. He didn’t know where anything was. He didn’t know how to cook and he was living on “things on toast”. He didn’t know how to keep the house clean because there were all these sprays and bottles and tins and he didn’t know what they were for. He said he’d already made a mess of the kitchen window because the spray he’d used to clean it had turned out to be some sort of oil. And he’d broken the washing machine and it was full of clothes and water and he could see through the porthole that everything had gone pink.

You see those items in the picture - do you know what they are? Do the other members of your family know what they are?

OK, you probably won’t need to be using the Victorian versions - but the modern ones might be useful. And do you know what’s in the toolbox in your home and what each item is used to do? What about the sewing basket? And the medicine chest or cabinet? Do you know how to change a fuse, which lightbulb goes where, and how to turn off the stopcock? Where are the user manuals for each working item in your home? Where are the drain inspection points? Can you put up shelves, and hooks, and curtain rails (and do you know which tool to use for each task?) Which drill bits are for masonry and which for wood? Can you sharpen a knife (always supposing you know what the knife sharpener looks like and where it’s kept)?

Maybe you should take yourself, your partner, your family members, the people with whom you live, around the house. Give them an induction course (a proper one). Acquaint yourself with your home and what’s in it. With how to use what’s in it. Find out if everything still works, is still useful. (Are you hanging onto keys for long-gone locks, drill bits for long defunct drills, attachments for food processors which went to the tip ages ago, consumables for a printer you gave to the jumble last year?)

If you want to control your life you need to feel in control in your home. You should be able to function in it comfortably and, if you have to get someone in to help, you need to be able to give them the information they require (if you don’t have it to hand and can’t provide it straight away, you’ll be paying them to sit around expensively and wait while you locate it…).

The golden rule: if you don’t know what it is - find out or throw it out!

Twitter: Maryon Jeane

Part 1 — http://tinyurl.com/k8e4jv6
Part 2 — http://tinyurl.com/k2qtplb
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