Nothing is easy when you are being paid to do nothing: Zoe Dare Hall was excited at her first job as an office temp. But two days of being told to 'put your feet up' left her frustrated and demoralised

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE trick to being an office temp is to treat each task with an air of utmost importance. This preserves your own sanity and reassures the managing director that he was not over-reacting when he rang the agency demanding a highly qualified secretary to assist with a deluge of work. Because, inevitably, when you walk into the office the next morning, the deluge has dried up and you can't quite work out what you are doing there.

The problem is a result of the agency's high demands and the employer's low expectations of a temp. Even shop assisants, we are told, are now recruited from graduate ranks, and the temp who goes to enrol at an employment agency faces tough selection procedures. In London, where I am reading French and Spanish at King's College, no matter what your skills - touch- typing faster than the speed of sound, a knowledge of computer packages that would shame a world- class hacker and a few foreign languages tucked under your belt - you are competing with secretaries programmed to meet an employer's every demand.

My break came in Bristol, my home town, where enrolment is equally testing but work more readily available. I was assigned to an office and left to my own devices. There was absolutely nothing to do, but I tried to do it most impressively.

Things looked bleak the moment I walked into the empty office. Desktops were devoid of any potential - there were no pens or paper, let alone an Apple Mac to play with. Temping without the props to pretend I was of some use was going to be a challenge.

After one hour, the Boss approached me purposefully with three scraps of paper and a little black book. My task: to copy the phone numbers from one to the other. I contemplated calligraphy. I worked so deftly that from the manager's office I could well have appeared to be seeking a solution to Fermat's last theorem.

The second day the entire staff were working at another site. I had no keyboard, but in any case there were no letters to type. I asked the manager what to do. She replied: 'I'd just put your feet up and have a cup of coffee, love - you're getting paid for it.' One day of this was a novelty - I'd taken my radio and ample reading matter - but after two I felt demoralised.

Even so, temping while still a student teaches you how to savour your privileged holiday freedom. You can tackle the tedium of a job for one week in the knowledge that more exciting prospects lie around the corner.

What's more, you realise that for the rest of the staff there is no way out. For temps, time management is irrelevant; the key is to kill time as quickly and painlessly as possible. My strategy was to employ private games. 'Guess the euphemism' was the first. This involved deciphering the lingo of designer offices in which courtyards are 'atriums', floors 'suites', and in a further attempt to evoke exoticism, palm trees usefully obscure empty office space.

In the lead-up to lunchtime, I played guessing game number two: 'What does this company actually do?' The hushed conversations and talk of airports pointed to drug- trafficking; past experience, however, suggested satellite dishes or window panes.

As this shows, a temp is the last person to know what is going on. This means you retain an element of detached ignorance while at the same time trying to convince clients that you are in control. Eventually, fetching orders for the vending machine becomes the most comfortingly unambiguous task.

Game number three: 'What did they have in mind for me to do?' As you calculate your hourly rate in milliseconds during another spell of boredom-induced mathematics, your low productivity may strike you as an example of false economy. But your presence is worthwhile simply for the few cups of coffee you are called on to make. Office temps, mostly women, are undemanding pawns to be hired and fired. They pose no problems of holiday pay or maternity leave for mainly male office managers.

Outside London, office temps' wages (after the agency has taken its slice) are only marginally higher than those of unskilled catering jobs in the capital. A friend who temps regularly in London for pounds 8 an hour observes the absurdity of her placement in companies with dwindling numbers of permanent staff and stress among the managers, a legacy of the recession. As she sits in a corner and types the umpteenth draft of a letter that has taken hours to filter through the office ranks, and which could have been knocked off in a matter of minutes by the initial author, she thinks: 'Well, you could save pounds 350 a week if you got rid of me for a start.'

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