Thursday, 21 September 2017

Charlie // Research Administrator

I worked for three years in the research department of a university hospital. I’m not quite sure how I managed to do it for that long. It was such a silly, unimpressive and soul destroying job.

Perhaps I go too far, my colleagues were lovely, encouraging the stuff I was doing outside work, and I always had a couple of people there who I could have long chats with. Nor was it like I was working for the man.

I was in a team of three and I was basically an indulgence on the part of my two managers (yep, two). They had a large budget surplus which they had to plough it back into the department, and they probably did need to lighten their workload a little bit. Not a lot, mind you, on a normal week I reckon my full time job required no more than a day’s worth of meaningful work.

Since it was a pretty sweet deal and the money was going to have to go somewhere, I wasn’t about to pipe up and let them know how little work I had to do. At least not right away (I eventually went down to two and a half days and started studying during the other half of the week). But in that first year I began a slow yet very sure descent into killing time most of the time, culminating in a number of fairly elaborate schemes.

In terms of time wasting, the toilet was my basic go to... my meat and drink. I’d spend at least three 15 minute units in the toilet each day. And to avoid suspicion I would go to a toilet outside the office. I had a few choice excuses for why I’d be gone so long: something about the office toilet being occupied; or detecting a faint smell of shit; or needing to stretch my legs; or just going while I was running an errand elsewhere in the building.

While I was there I would read. I didn’t have a smart phone at first so I would usually just print out some articles, fold them up to fit in my pocket and slip out discretely. I think more than anything, people just didn’t notice I was gone, I kept a pretty low profile and my managers were often out.

Similar to this, I would also go on quite long walks around the building, timed to correspond with the mid-point of my managers lunch breaks, so neither of them knew how long I’d been away. The main trick was to manage my pace so I always looked like I was going somewhere with purpose.

Both these would also occasionally raise questions from my manager. So eventually I found it easier to look busy when returning to the room, walking fast through the door, right to my computer, sitting down and typing anything in whatever document I had up, that way it looked like I‘d been thinking about the work the whole time I’d been away and wanted to get back on, because I’d really cracked it. Then I would shortly get up again before he could ask.

I also became very good at stretching out trips to the kitchen, which was in the same room. I would just recline at the sink for a while after the kettle was boiled, maybe look in the fridge, see what people had brought in for the day, and then let myself get sidetracked going back to the computer for something. This would take up another solid 15 minutes, at least.

There were also the obvious tricks like cutting and pasting articles into word so it looked like I was working on a document, and likewise maybe catching up on my correspondence by e-mailing things between my work and personal e-mail.

Another good time killer was the CD burning I was sometimes asked to do. This involved going to another office to burn data on a disk after it was requested by someone in another department. Usually, I would also take the opportunity to catch a nap, especially (though not exclusively) when the office wasn’t being used by anyone else. No one would guess if they came in because I’d be sat facing away from the door. After a while I had exclusive contact with the people who were requesting the data and there was a lot of flexibility to over-emphasise how many requests had been made and how big the request was. Sometimes I’d be in the CD burning room for hours.

Considering things like the CD burning, it quickly became clear that the key to killing time was to remove as many tasks as possible from any kind of oversight. Eventually, the most effective way to do this was to initiate a few massive projects that had an indefinite timescale.

In pursuit of this, I would alway jump at the chance to do any big admin work for an overburdened researcher or doctor based elsewhere in the building, or off site. Going in to see them would eat up a nice solid half day chunk, often involving a nice stroll through various parts of West London and a long lunch somewhere. And of course, there was no contact between the researcher and my managers besides being the occasional expression of satisfaction at the work I was doing (as easy as it was).

Of all the massive projects, though, my greatest achievement was the database.

The database was, in my manager’s words, “a thing of beauty”. But not for the reasons he gave, which were that I had made it look fancy through Excel formatting and some basic formulas, the kind of thing most admin people over 40 find wildly impressive.

No, the database was truly a thing of beauty because my managers had no idea how long it took me to maintain (usually hardly any time at all, at least to include the actual information needed to make the database useful to them).

To be specific, the database was an excel spreadsheet containing various information of all the studies we had ongoing. It did take a bit of time to create in the beginning, but once I’d put all the current studies into the database, the basic structure of the spreadsheet made it very easy to input any new studies that came along.

The great thing was, my managers never looked at the database. They didn’t know how to use it. Instead, they would just ask me for information from it, and had no idea how empty it was. By the end of my three years I had such a precise handle on the information they actually required that I think it took me a couple of hours to maintain a month, and this was something that seemed to be taking up about half of my time.

The database was always there If I ran out of other made up tasks. I could always say “just working on the database today.” No more questions.

More than that, such a thing of beauty gave me the ideal excuse to actually make meaningful use of the time I was killing. At first there was no plausible reason I could give for why I would be typing away at something for so long. But with the database, I could justify typing to my heart’s content, since they didn’t know what information I could be inserting: maybe a transcription of a .pdf, or an explanatory document. So, I started editing for a magazine and writing my own stuff for them, and I really got into writing correspondence, and started to get reasonably good at it. In fact, I honestly think that the database deserves a good deal of credit for getting me out of the job and onto writing for a living.

Underlying all this goofing off is the fact that I was working with people who had very little concept of how long admin takes for a person who grew up with computers. Most of the authority figures were on average 45 years old, maybe more. Their skills were interpersonal, to do with time management, presentability and sociability, or, in the case of the academic staff, their skills didn’t really have much connection to the nitty gritty of administration at all. I was impressive because I knew Microsoft Office. Word and Excel were a piece of piss for me. I was the Office Wizard. People would seek me out for assistance. It was so dumb.

This disparity, which we should all always gladly exploit, is surely an aberration. I can only imagine such a sweet spot lasting another decade tops. Future generations are probably going to have to be much more elaborate than I ever was. But long may it last!