I will never temp again. I will never temp again. I will never temp again. That’s been my mantra after every temp assignment, dating back 12 years. And that’s what would run through my head during yoga class, were I to take yoga, or even own one of those mats everyone carries around with a smug look on their face. It’s not that every temp experience has been negative, though many have. It’s that a temp assignment feels like treading water, whereas a freelance project or full-time job feels like swimming. Both are better than unemployment, which feels like drowning.
I have another short-term temp assignment this holiday season, again courtesy of wifey’s employer. The full-time receptionist is on vacation, and I am filling in. This isn’t where I imagined myself after college, when I first manned a front desk, after grad school or even after my last layoff. But this is where I am. So I’m going with it, tail tucked firmly between my legs. If my dad can sell stereos with a PhD, I can answer phones with an MBA. Maybe my hypothetical future kid will repair Slurpee machines with an MD. Someone has to carry on the proud family tradition.
Getting up and getting out of the apartment made me feel like a normal person. Oh, how I missed the morning routine… waking to the talk radio voices on my 20-year-old clock radio, stumbling to the shower that doesn’t drain, racing for the subway in the frigid cold. Believe it or not, I couldn’t decide what to wear my first morning. All my work clothes were still in dry cleaner plastic from a year ago. Putting them on felt odd, like they didn’t fit right anymore.
I was actually a little nervous that morning too, and even the night before. What if I missed a call? What if I broke the phone system? What if I tripped over my own two feet (as I often do), spilling coffee on a computer, causing it to explode and burn down the entire building? This is my wife’s company, our household’s main source of income. Besides, what would failure say about job prospects in my field? How could I expect to find the right job if I couldn’t do this job? The question is ridiculous, of course. I’m not actively looking for receptionist work, so one has little bearing on the other. But that’s how the unemployed mind works sometimes.
Answering phones has changed a little in 15 years, but mostly in the details. People still call; I still answer. Some are friendly and chatty. Some don’t have time for anything, least of all pleasantries with a peon. Most fall in between, but closer to the friendly side. Here’s a typical exchange (receptionist humor)…
Me: Good morning, Company X
Caller: May I please speak to So and So?
Me: May I ask who’s calling?
Caller: Such and Such with Company Y
Me: One second please…
And then I transfer the call.
One difference is that people now call from cell phones, often while walking though a wind tunnel, conducting three meetings and ordering lunch. I sometimes have to wait for the caller to get around to talking to me. The calls come in waves. And when the waves of calls come, so do the messengers and visitors, ringing at the front entrance to be buzzed in. Each appears on a three-inch black-and-white security monitor next to me, looking like a perp in a police TV show. The security camera makes even old ladies and babies look like criminals, which serves them right. The busy times are late morning and mid-afternoon, usually on the hour or half hour.
The front desk is often quiet for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. This is likely because of the holidays. When not answering phones, signing for packages and pressing the door buzzer, I surf the Internet or mess around with my blog. I avoid job sites, because my monitor is out in the open and visible to passersby. We wouldn’t want visitors to get the wrong idea. When the internet gets boring, as it does when my go-to sites aren’t updating, I just stare out at the lobby. All the austere-looking marble reminds me of the lobby at a previous employer. That one is intimidating by design. This one is smaller and not at all intimidating. Sometimes wifey drops by to say hello.
Offices seem to be interconnected and interdependent. This office has its own internal patterns as well. People go to the bathroom, or at least pick up the key from the front desk, in waves. Busy times are generally around 11:00 and 3:00. (Bathroom key etiquette is complicated enough to deserve it’s own post.) I’ve settled into my own patterns. Video footage airs near the elevator banks, and I respond to the voices with random goofy comments every time I walk by. I’m strapped to a desk by a phone cord all day, so I take full advantage of my free time.
Admitting to thinking about bathroom patterns and answering random voices won’t help me find another full-time job. But it’s nice to know I’m still capable of an honest day’s work; all the unanswered job inquiries eat away at my confidence sometimes. If full-time work continues to elude me, temp work can put a little money in my pocket. It’s not ideal. It’s not a stepping stone to greatness. But it doesn’t have to be painful either, as proven these last few weeks. Treading water is much better than drowning, even if I’d rather be swimming.