Secretarial: When it's not so good to talk

Has your boss made you a martyr to the mobile phone? Perhaps it's time to sort out some ground rules.
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The Independent Culture
Time was when being "on call" was reserved for emergency services, doctors and superheroes. But these days even pre-teens boast 24-hour, seven-days-a-week accessibility via their mobile telephones. "How did we survive without them?" cry those for whom the mobile has become an essential part of working life.

Eileen Shenbri, PA to the DJ and singer Boy George, is a case in point: "I couldn't do my job without my mobile, not only because I work from home, but because George works such unconventional hours."

She readily admits that her willingness to be available around the clock may appear insane. However, she argues that in the long run it in fact reduces her workload.

"My mobile saves me time because I can deal with issues on the spot rather than letting them build up into problems," she explains.

Shenbri is not alone. Mobile phones are increasingly seen as an invaluable troubleshooting tool for a PA in the Nineties.

"Our top PAs don't want to come back on Monday morning to a disaster that could have been prevented, and [a mobile phone] is often the alternative," explains Avril Carr, senior consultant at Centre Point recruitment agency. "Nor do they want to twiddle their thumbs on a long journey when they could be working, which includes contacting and communicating."

Such dedication may be understandable when suitably rewarded, but there's growing discontent from those PAs who find being manacled to their mobiles a thankless task.

Trudi Smith, a London PA, laughs when she recalls her naive excitement on receiving a mobile from her boss. "When the phone started to ring every time I was in a pub or at a party, the thrill soon turned to resentment," she recalls. "Particularly since it wasn't just the boss calling, but all his clients, too - often with really trivial queries."

When Smith protested at the invasion into her private time, her boss retorted: "No phone, no job." Smith promptly resigned.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, sympathises: "Mobiles can seem like a benefit, but really they can be a nightmare," he concedes.

Cooper argues that increasing the demands on secretaries should lead to an increase in their status and salary, because giving a PA a mobile phone is often like requesting free overtime - the equivalent of a gift- wrapped bomb.

Other mobile-related problems that can arise between boss and mobile- carrying employee tend to revolve around the quality of the equipment, and whether or not the phone includes automatic voicemail. As any mobile user knows, instant contact on mobile phones isn't guaranteed, particularly when the phone fails to pick up a signal, a common occurrence. Alun Jones, MD of Highfield International, watched his daughter, who is PA to a film producer, go through the grief of having her honesty questioned after her phone failed to ring while she was in a restaurant with her dad: "[The boss] became very angry, accusing her of switching it off."

Having seen how such a misunderstanding can occur, Jones agreed with his own PA that they would forgo mobiles and rely on other forms of communication.

But when it comes to mobile etiquette, the golden rule is to remember that it's the caller and not the equipment that is the intruder. Karen Bishop believes that the answer is to choose the right boss - in her case, Anita Roddick, co-chairman of The Body Shop and champion of abused minorities.

"Her philosophy means that having the phone is never a burden," says Bishop. "Just as she never expects me to work past 6pm unless there's a crisis, Anita calls only in a true emergency. She respects the fact that my free time is my own."

Like many of the more astute employers of the pre-millennial office, Roddick believes that allowing her staff quality free time means that they are happier at work, and that a happy worker is a good worker. Some companies, such as certain departments of British Airways, even pay their secretarial staff a set call-out charge if they need to telephone them out of hours - a recognition that they are, in effect, demanding overtime.

If you own a personal mobile phone, you are under no obligation to reveal its number to your boss. Succumb, and you may regret it.

Beaky Evetts, a former PA to Julian Metcalf, of Pret a Manger, should have known she was asking for trouble when she passed her number on to Metcalf.

"He would call me from places like a yacht in Bermuda at 8.30pm when I was at a dinner party, and say: `Quick, write this idea down, it's great!' And I'd have to write with lipstick on a napkin. That happened quite a lot."

Evetts remains quite cheerful about her overtime duties, but Metcalf's current PA, Stephanie Webb, forewarned and forearmed, drew her boundaries at an early stage, and she relishes the free time it allows her.

"I don't feel any need to have a mobile for work, and Julian respects that," Webb explains.

Such pre-emptive action simply illustrates the fact, agreed by all experts, that overdoing it on the loyalty front is detrimental in the long run, particularly when it comes to mobile telephones.

Lines of Communication

ESTABLISH WITH your boss exactly why you need a mobile telephone and suggest drawing up together a written set of guidelines on how it will be used. These should determine regularity and hours of use of the equipment, and reasons for its use. This will stop the boundaries becoming blurred later on.

Establish which - if any - colleagues and clients really do need to have access to the telephone number.

Discuss alternative ways of communication, such as a pager or good old- fashioned memos.

If it's your own phone, remember that you have the same rights to it as to your home telephone line.

Try not to be put off if you have a bad experience of mobile phones in the workplace. It's the user who should determine how the phone is used, and not all bosses have the same attitude towards them.

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