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Sitting Here, Looking There

Today, we are discussing current trends in the workplace, workforce, or whatever. You may wonder how in the world I know anything about trends since I have been out of work for, oh, eighteen years or so. Hey, you know, sometimes facts can just muddy the water, and I have been sitting here at my desk in the laundry room figuring out a few things. When I worked in the 80s, it seemed that generalists, who do a bunch of different things, ruled the office. Let me tell you why. Companies here were shrinking and laying off people, that meant the few, the proud, the wide-eyed ones left standing at the water cooler, did more. You had to be pretty darn flexible, and never admit you couldn’t figure something out. (Which was easy for me since that would be too much like admitting I was wrong, which would be too much like admitting I wasn’t perfect, which would be too much like admitting I needed help, which would be terrible.) For instance, in my company, after the people who handled corporate insurance got permanently lost on the way to work, I was cornered in the ladies room and told, “You, random employee, will be in charge of our corporate insurance program starting today.” Me? I wasn’t even sure if I had car insurance. No problem. I ran to the bookstore and sped-read a book on corporate insurance, which is the literary equivalent of scooping out the litter box. But I learned five insurance-y terms, tossed them around like fashion tips, and that’s all I needed.

Now, and I mean this day and time, you have to really know stuff. Shit. That’s where the trouble starts. For me at least. Jobs are much more intricate, more detailed, and more dilbert-esque. Companies aren’t looking for people who can figure it out on the fly. (Although I have to say that, based on the current economic situation, knowing more hasn’t really worked out for the best.) Continuing please … people need to be highly trained in something, apparently the more technical the better. And I learned this just from looking for a job, and hanging out on the Internet. (And talking to one or two employed people.) In fact, if I had to give anybody advice about education and jobs—ha, ha, ha—I would tell them—wait a minute—ha, ha, ha—wait a minute, my mascara is running—okay. I would tell them something like this: get the very best liberal arts education, learn Classic Greek, study Shakespeare, and then get a certificate in Web design from your community college. Or … something like go to divinity school, practice your preaching, then hone your tent-making skills. Or even like, “Be good at everything, be great at something,” but make sure that whatever you are great at is engineering, or maybe something that starts with a little “i.”

The other thing I have figured out—or heard, or guessed—is that people are still multi-tasking at work, maybe even more so—texting (that words bugs me), emailing, cell phone, conference calls, online conferences, social networking like Twitter … on and on and on. People are texting while talking to you now, and they are checking their email while pretending to listen. Don’t ask me to prove it, but I know multi-tasking is bad, because let me see, it diminishes problem-solving abilities. Multi-taskers solve small, immediate problems, but fail miserably at quantum physics. Not that you need to know quantum physics. Anyway, I have tried for years to break myself of the habit, to really focus on the moment, the person in front of me, the task at hand, the smells, sights, and sounds of “now,” only to realize that the workplace may value hyperactivity more.

And maybe this isn’t a real trend, but in the back of my mind I have held a thought that, if things got really tough, I could always go to work at Williams-Sonoma, my favorite store. Retail certainly isn’t near the top of my list, because it involves customer service which means being nice to people no matter what mood you are in, or how dumb they are. Anyway, I love Williams-Sonoma, and would like to be their CEO, but not now. Their profits were down 90 percent last quarter. 90 percent. How is that possible? That must mean that the four teapots I bought there as wedding gifts were the only things they sold all quarter. I am heartbroken. The article said they are closing stores and laying off employees. Wow. Maybe they will have a sale.