Once clear of the academic (and/or alcoholic) restrictions of university, many new graduates are faced with some serious choices.
Option A. Take a gap year, or just a few months off to do something worthwhile (or selfish).
Option B. Spend time researching and applying for jobs; get one, stay in it, work your way up, put deposit on flat, etc., etc..
Option C. Work as a temp to gain cash for the Next Big Thing.
Option D. Go back to university.
First time round I plumped for option D. One year on, I had to admit that my ideas about the semi-permeable closet of the 1740s as site for homosocial production and consumption of pornography were never going to stretch to a PhD thesis and, moreover, I lacked the attention span to write that many… you know… words, in one go. In late 2007 I reconsidered my options, factoring in a replacement D:
Option D(i): Develop pleurisy and spend a month lying on the sofa feebly commenting ‘ow’ when asked to do anything.
(Andrew, with an air of disbelief, asked ‘but isn’t pleurisy an extinct disease of poverty?’ Apparently not. Though it is gratifyingly unusual and gained me an admiring fan base of medical students at A&E.)
When capable of normal breathing, I resolved to pursue option B and signed on while jobseeking. This was depressing. Suddenly, temping seemed ideal. Just to tide me over, obviously. Until the Next Big Thing.
Two years on, I am comfortably established in my first sustained period of unemployment, having continuously temped over several jobs and two cities since graduating. It’s ridiculously easy to get sucked in. Compared to the job pages, temp agencies (or Temporary Recruitment Consultants, as they like to be called) are swamped with work. This is due in part to their contracts with public sector organisations. People like the NHS, MoD, and DoE – all organisations I’ve worked for – often need temps and will continue to do so until the recession / flu pandemic / zombie apocalypse ends society.
Public sector workers arguably take more short and long-term sick leave than their private sector counterparts, particularly in the NHS and associated care services, where, as the papers so regularly inform us, the problem is acute. A combination of stressful, sometimes dangerous working conditions combined with excellent job security and frankly byzantine discliplinary procedures means that thousands of working hours are lost by a minority of public sector workers who are too ill, depressed, or lazy to come to work. The public sector is forced to take on ‘specialist’ agency workers; that is, trained HCPs, social workers, secretaries and administrators. Or, alternatively, hapless graduates with a rudimentary knowledge of IT.
Take advantage of this. I give you the D For Dalrymple Guide To Successful Office Hopping, or, The Happy Temp.
1. Coping with boredom.
First of all, accept that most temping positions will be either stressful or boring. A boring temp job is frustrating, but gives you a lot to work with in the long-term. If you have half a brain and stay away from sharp objects, you can get that data entry, filing or photocopying done in a couple of hours.
Now stop. Do not tell your manager or supervisor how well you’ve done, not even if you’re pleased with your work and want to impress them. A truthful kind of person, I struggle with deception, but in one placement lost over £400 through hard work and honesty.
You have been hired for a week – or a month, or however long the agency quoted you – and that is what your manager’s budget will pay. They don’t care how the work gets done. In fact, he or she is probably still internally rejoicing that they have managed to palm this work (often comprising their least favourite tasks) off on a temp in the first place. Assuming the company’s large enough, they certainly won’t care how much money HR eventually hand over to you.
Managers will notice someone who clearly has nothing to do. Assume your most studious yet affable face. Don’t worry about appearing lobotomized. If the work is done well you’re likely to get asked back; if you make the manager look brainy in relief, doubly so. Arrange your completed work in minimised windows and get on with private e-mails, job applications, your novel or Tetris until the week is up. Any guilt you feel will dissolve when you get your payslip. It may not seem much, but, worked out as an amount paid per hour of actual work, is more lucrative than selling a kidney (option E, by the way). Probably.
2. Handling stress.
Your payslip won’t be much consolation if you land a stressful assignment. These may be long-term and carry more responsibility, especially if your employers find out that you have skills they can use. This is when having half a brain can work against you. Unless you have an honest employer and a good relationship with your agency, you can easily find yourself slowly absorbing a managerial workload, with all the responsibilities it entails, on a filing clerk’s pay.
Proper toilet and shouting breaks are a must in stressful placements, and it’s sometimes nice to find a friend, be they an amenable co-worker, fellow temp, pot-plant or animal figurine. Try not to talk to the latter too much. While it’s good to be kept busy and to feel valued in your temporary position, equally important is the ability to leave at 5 p.m. and not think about work until 8.59 a.m. the next day. Part of the reason I left my last ‘temp’ job with the NHS was because work didn’t go away, even after hours of unpaid overtime: it came home with me, spat in my dinner and lay all night on the opposite pillow staring at me crossly like an accusing partner.
3. Combination Placements.
If you find yourself in a temp situation that is both boring AND stressful (a special place I like to think of as ‘grinding limbo’), do not give up. There are several activities you can take part in to enliven any workplace scenario. Most involve the internet, but if ethics or firewalls forbid, then by far the most rewarding is to subtly torment your colleagues. Discretion is all, for, while the primary purpose of the game is to amuse, the second and more challenging aim should be to retain your employment for as long as possible.
4. Suggested Temp Activities For Fun And Sabotage.
a) Pick a colleague. Any colleague. I generally pick the ones who don’t even try to conceal their contempt for temps, or those with poor personal hygiene, although you can decide on your own criteria.
Observe your quarry, noting any personal habits or workplace routines. Is there anything that might unsettle them, just a little? If they have a neat and tidy desk, try hiding an item of stationery per day. Have it re-emerge in an unexpected place – atop the computer, under the desk, in the fridge. Start small: paperclips, pens, stapler, working your way up to laptop.
If the chosen one has a conspicuously disorganised approach to their personal workspace, why not try hanging back after work and giving their desk a rigorous tidy? This is guaranteed to provoke suspicion of everyone in the office except you. Why would a temp give a crap about a desk? This could only be the work of someone who cared about cleanliness – that tidy desk guy. Bastard. Perhaps other people in the office know. Perhaps this is all an elaborate trap to make them look stupid. Maybe it’s the office manager, making a point about productivity. This could go all the way to the top…
Alter rate and intensity of play by fuelling your colleague’s insecurities as appropriate.
b) Pay attention to existing or emerging political situations in your office. It is unlikely that you will be around for long enough to engage in these struggles yourself, but probable that you may be drawn into one or more combatants’ confidence. It’s best to withhold your opinion as much as possible, especially in cases of industrial or criminal action (I have been witness to both scenarios), but enjoy the unfolding soap opera while you can. It’s amazing how fraught situations can become: the Cold War was as nothing in comparison to [Company] Support Services Stamp Embezzlement-Gate ’08.
c) Bonus points can be awarded for starting your own office drama. The skilful temp will time the dénouement to coincide with their departure, and really experienced players will be able to artfully conceal any sign of their involvement. Think outside the box. Tampering with the mental state of your favoured colleague can be fun, but it’s perverse to prey on the individual when the whole office could be involved.
Start with the radio. The station playing when you start your assignment will be the chosen result of weeks of acrimonious infighting. It will probably be Radio 2. As an ignorant temp, you have carte blanche to innocently change it to your station of choice. The more unique your taste, the better. If possible, try to alter the station while no-one is looking, then, when the Peruvian nose flute blasts out, make sure you are heard to criticise world music. In the ensuing bitter silence, blame will fall elsewhere. After all, what temp would have the temerity to challenge office power structures?
d) Be alert to colleagues who may be carrying out not-overly-clandestine affairs during office hours, especially if they are using office resources (telephone, e-mail, naughty photocopier photo shoots etc.) in pursuit of said affairs. While this might sound like something off the telly, it’s been pretty much endemic to every minor workplace I’ve been in. Offices are hotbeds of repulsive sexual activity. While most of it will merely serve to keep your gag reflex in tip-top condition, observe any abuse of the facilities and store it should you ever need to give your line manager a gentle prod.
If any of the above seems cruel, remember that, in the months after you leave the organisation, anything that goes wrong will be blamed on you or on the projects to which you were assigned. There is nothing you can do about it. The temp, like George W Bush, has an absolute right to a pre-emptive strike.
If you didn’t click this before, you’re a fool.