We are not all daydreamers

Bookish - Image by Strawbleu on Flickr

Bookish – Image by Strawbleu

Inside the workplace, you’re quite often in your own little world.

It’s a familiar story. For me, it presents itself most vividly when I say something particularly baffling and lose everyone completely. My colleagues seem quite humoured by it, and it’s a harmless enough flaw. It’s the result of living too much in one’s own head.

As this blog has attested over the years, my own little world is what gets me by on a daily basis. And with a role that combines course administration, web, communications, events, and plenty in-between, it’s sometimes the only way to bring order to a maelstrom.

Unfortunately, it’s quite a fashionable trend at the moment to make over-simplified judgements about how little it’s supposed we do when we’re left to our own devices.

When I saw the BBC pose the question recently, ‘Why do people waste so much time at the office?’, I found myself affronted by the assumption (bordering on accusation) that we’re all complete time-wasters.

So I set myself the challenge of recording a rough highlights package of a single day – Tuesday 26th May – following the most recent Bank Holiday. It runs as follows… (And feel free to skip to the bottom of this lot.)

  • 8:30 – Before I leave for work, I put out an emergency reminder to RSVP for Wednesday’s lunchtime research seminar. This is normally done on Mondays and I meant to do it over the Bank Holiday. Mea culpa. An 8:30 start it is.
  • 9:30 – Four replies have arrived from the above. The extended weekend’s emails include a bundle of essay marksheets I’ve been waiting patiently for. Only, Outlook has blocked the attachment. IT unconvincingly suggests that zip files are blocked. I send and receive them every day, but there’s no point contesting. I also have to enquire about contracts for the second marker.
  • 10:00 – I begin trying to arrange an important meeting for some time this week with the Policy and Politics team in Government. There’s a research proposal that could be worth millions at stake, and it looks like I’m starting the ball rolling from our end. No pressure then! The best our department can come up with for essential personnel is Friday at 3pm. Somehow, that doesn’t sound good. Word this carefully, I think to myself. Do not apologise. This is what we can do. If it’s important, they will come.
  • 10:30 – I push round a last-minute invitation for the aforementioned research seminar (CF. 8:30am) to the Grantham Institute.
  • 10:45 – Attempting to reach an otherwise uncontactable member of the department about a meeting we hoped to have tomorrow about a writing project. Unfortunately, there’s a full team meeting with the new Department Manager at the very time he recommended. I suggest alternatives, but I’m not holding up too much hope yet.
  • 11:15 – I distribute a communiqué about the university’s Dissertation Week at the end of June. I also thank a PhD student for alerting the cohort to a similar event happening this week that nobody was made aware of. Students quickly enquire if any of the sessions will be recorded because they’re not able to go. I chase that up with the TLC enquiries board.
  • 11:45 – Attempting to make progress with lunchtime orders for the research seminar, though a few keep coming in. I send round replies thanking everyone for their RSVP.
  • 12:15 – I disseminate a CFP for a conference. Several more begin to appear. Upon further investigation, I decide against doing the same for several others – they don’t seem to have the same relevance for our department.
  • 13:00 – Silvia, one of my favourite peeps, introduces me to a Development Management alum, Mario, proposing a workshop on careers for next Tuesday. Time is tight, so I start scouting for options. By popular coincidence, the teaching room viewer system is down just when we need it. It’s a manual hunt, then.
  • 14:00 – I keep trying to push the lunch order through for tomorrow. Last-minute requests are still slipping in. Finally, I get the order through c. 14:15. I update the events budget spreadsheet for the four Wednesday seminars that have taken place.
  • 14:15 – First reply regarding THE important meeting (CF. 10:00am). It looks like Friday afternoon might be good after all. The next question is: where should we meet? We need a smallish room, with tech available. That’s a really tricky one, actually, especially with the room-viewing system still unavailable.
  • 14:30 – The Head of Department, TA, comes in, pushing for an internal meeting of similar ilk with our ‘hands-on’ digital personnel. Both the main protagonists, I’ve never met before (which says it all really). This week would be ideal, so I can carry a better idea of our combined strategy into Friday pm. But to further complicate matters, TA is away for the week from tomorrow. Should I force everyone through duplicate sessions if he wants to be involved? Thankfully, he’s on-par with a pitch I co-wrote last week. He immediately tells me he’s ‘overruling’ all the stupid rules about comms I dubiously adopted at takeover. It makes life a lot easier, but it’s not necessarily clever running ramshod over other people’s approaches, however outdated I happen to think they are. Some care required here, I think.
  • 15:00 – Silvia’s contact gets in touch about the workshop (CF. 13:15). Time and date have been established. Now for a room. It’s tricky to determine during exam season. I loosely figure that ambition is better than caution. I’ve done quite well at filling venues. Let’s assume more than 25 might be interested. We’re still running blind with no room-viewer, however. Will wait to see if it revives.
  • 15:15 – Further response from downstairs. The other Government personnel are happy with Friday pm, which awakens me to the need for a suitable room. This is interrupted by a phone call about an admissions enquiry, which I struggle to handle smoothly because accessing anything easily on the LSE website is next to impossible.
  • 15:30 – I consult our Deputy Manager about room availability on our floor during Friday afternoon, as that seems a good place to start. We go hunting to locate a staff office that might fit the bill at that time. Upon a hunch, I check the shared calendar. I’m in on my own on Friday, so the central admin office will do just fine.
  • 15:45 – I give up on the room-viewer and press ahead with criteria bookings for Mario’s proposed careers workshop. Less than a week to go, it may be a thin hope to get a decent number of students in. But we can at least start promotion straight away.
  • 16:15 – Conversation with Henry from the Justice and Security Research Programme (one of the aforementioned two @ 14:30). As I suspected, we are limited to Wednesdays for an internal get-together. I decide against pushing for internal meeting tomorrow. But I do mention Friday, and he says he’ll find time to come talk with me tomorrow about the bid procurement nexus. He doesn’t say when, which always leaves me slightly nervous. I’ll end up tied to my desk all day.
  • 16:45 – I discover that one of our PhD students (the same as @ 11:15) has won a university award from our latest Research Festival. I send a note of congratulations and ask for more details. It’s a good news story.
  • 17:00 – I start investigating options on WordPress for a new teaching category on our blog so I can find a good place for our new introductory videos. A category tag is the best I am likely to get. I want to spread these out over a week, so I begin by transcribing the first for accessibility / SEO benefits.
  • 17:15 – The conversation with Silvia’s contact continues, who is very happy with the plans. I ask him for a bio, any materials or details that I can use to promote this to students.
  • 17:30 – The room-booking system continues to frustrate as the request for Tuesday afternoon’s careers event gets returned as unfulfilled. *sigh* That means more form-filling tomorrow. We really need this confirmed soon as well so I can begin spreading the word tomorrow.
  • 18:00 – I finish transcribing the first of the new videos (CF. 17:00), publish it on the blog, and disseminate on Twitter and Facebook.
  • 18:05 – Silvia’s contact, Mario, sends a bio and pic for marketing material. I decide to leave that until tomorrow.
  • 18:10 – Home time!
  • 19:30 – On a hunch, I decide to test the faulty email attachment (CF. 9:30) with Thunderbird at home. It downloads just fine. It turns out the file was blocked because it’s incomplete and has appeared as a Temp file. A little renaming, and the archive is fine. Just – we’re short by around 14 scripts. The upload must have been limited or cut short. I can’t wait to explain that one to the sender…
  • 21:00 – I establish some final arrangements for the Friday afternoon meet, including Department personnel.

Anyone who reads the BBC article will realise that the title is actually a slight misnomer. It’s not accusing us outright of being lazy, but rather of being impractical and inefficient. It suggests that a good deal of what we do is unnecessary.

Well, I’d wager that’s down to the person in question.

I sent 38 work-related emails on Tuesday 26 May. Were all of them strictly necessary? No. But then, I do believe that acknowledgement has value. If someone calls you up or speaks to you in person, you don’t just sit dumb. You have a conversation.

We can choose not to acknowledge email, but it’s still not particularly courteous. Good communication skills require good time-effectiveness. We can’t let ourselves drown in digital chit-chat, but there is an art to doing it politely and efficiently.

The reason I’ve elaborated the above is because it draws attention to how much careful thought and judgement can be required for the job at hand.

It’s the deceptively tricky (and thus tiring) part of working at a university. Communications become about clarity, concision, tone, effectiveness, and persuasion. The diary of the day identifies the specific concerns relating to the various circumstances that kept arising. You need to think fast, write fast, and write well.

Keeping on top of this on a daily basis means that my job is more of a lifestyle. I look after social media accounts out-of-hours. I fix things that go wrong out-of-hours. I do this because it’s part of a big set of responsibilities; not because I enjoy wasting time needlessly.

Columnists may like to muse that we’re lost in a haze, daydreaming and surfing away until we find our escape. But therein lies the perfect challenge. That perpendicular private zone, behind our desks and between our ears, is where the real test lies about who, and how good, we really are.

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