Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Back Office

I refer often to the Back Office without having elaborated on the physical layout of the building. Building layout is an under-recognised and esoteric science, which perhaps explains why the person who designed the layout of our building got no further than the layout of the shop floor.

On the ground floor (and there are no subterranean floors) perhaps 85% of the available floor space is given over to shop floor laid out in a good approximation of the familiar tried and tested supermarket lay out.

Customers enter via the kiosk where we sell cigarettes, news and magazines and lottery. This kiosk area also has snacks, sandwiches, drinks and ice-cream so that people wanting a Sun, sandwich, chocolate bar and fizzy drink don't actually have to enter the main store. Beyond the kiosk, separated from it by one way operating doors, lies the greengrocery department. From there the shopper is guided past our deli, dairy, bakery and butchery before entering the part of the store where we stock the tins, jars and packets of the stuff with which people feel compelled to fill their trolleys.

In the most remote corner (relative to the entrance) we have a pharmacy concession and a travel concession by the exit. At the far end of the odyssey lie our checkouts: nine of them in total, two of them wide aisles, one of them a designated "express" check-out. For the convenience of our customers we provide a photo booth, a pay-phone, a business card kiosk and a child's ride. We have a large board by the exit on which people can post (free of charge, for a fortnight at a time) notices such as offers of items for sale or wanted.

Behind the shop floor, through swing doors, we have a lower warehouse on this ground floor. Tucked away behind the kiosk are two doors; one opens onto the foyer with the clocking-in machine and the stair case leading to the upper floor, the other is the door to the Cashiers Office.

Upstairs we have a second, smaller warehouse as well as vast staff room, toilet facilities, offices for the General Manager (long, narrow and soul-less) and the Assistant General Managers (long, narrow, and shared) plus a security suite.

Nobody much likes upstairs, particularly at this time of the year. If there ever was any ventilation it long since got clogged up and what we're left with is rather like a sauna without the moisture content.

That doesn't go any way to explaining why absolutely everything seems to happen in the one, small office downstairs.

The office downstairs contains the two networked computers, only one of which in installed with both the stock software and the financial software. Both computers have Windows (hiss) and Lotus Suite (yes, really) installed.

The second computer is used for email and sundry administrative processes, such as recording price and date checking, preparing end-of-week documents and so forth. It is probably the most under-used asset in the building, while the computer along side it is the most fought over. Go figure.

Often I've thought the obvious solution would be to install the stock and financial systems on the second computer, and install a second fully loaded computer in one or other of the offices upstairs.

This would improve accessibility to business critical systems. It would also alleviate strain on the office space in the lower office. At times we've got, working should by shoulder, the Cash Supervisor, the Checkout Supervisor, the General Manager, one of his deputies and perhaps one or more members of staff all jockeying for position in what is barely space for three people to work comfortably.

For reasons of convenience pretty much all but the most sensitive conversations take place in the lower office. In the midst of bellowed conversations between the GM and one of his deputies on the one hand and the Checkout Supervisor and one of her troops on the other the Cash Supervisor is supposed not to make mistakes in managing our cash to the nearest penny.

Sometimes the place looks like organised chaos, rest of the time the place is organised chaos: Staff back and forth asking for a program form or a label request or order sheet of gap check schedule or a holiday request form or .... Replacement pens, box cutters, name badges which mysteriously vanish. I swear there's a corner of this building into which such items, having lost the will to live, crawl and die. One day during the demolition their sad desiccated remains will be disinterred to be mourned over.

In the mean time the checkout boxes require supplementary floats during the course of the day, the lottery facility needs new boards, ticket rolls, or other paraphernalia. Reduced stickers are requested periodically. Customers request higher value face cream or razors or higher DVD/CDs (all items particularly vulnerable to pilfering and kept in the lower office rather than on the shelves).

Staff want to come in and argue over mistakes in their pay, plead special circumstances over short notice holiday, complain about work assigned, colleagues, the temperature, the scheduling of tea breaks, the colour of the walls (pretty much anything and everything).

Following an attempted ram-raid we also keep the tobacco products and the lottery instant win tickets in this office overnight.

This is not an environment in which anyone could accomplish successfully and accurately anything demanding any great degree of concentration, yet that's what we attempt to do every day of the week.

Fortunate really, because over the years all sorts of things have happened or been discussed within its four walls; that's a lot of anecdotal material to accumulate.


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