I always saw myself working in an office. As a teenager, my vision of office life was glamourised by films and imported American television: stiletto heels, pencil skirts, an ultra-modern office in a skyscraper. It’s an image that will most likely not become a reality.
I do actually work in an office at the moment. Instead of a skyscraper in London, it’s a two storey 1960’s building in suburbia where not even the directors wear suits or ties. I had my stiletto heels and pencil skirt moments (not at the same time). The 2 inch heels were abandoned after four hours from the combined effect of feeling ridiculous wearing them and the four large blisters that had formed on the backs of my heels. I swapped the skirts for trousers as the time spent tugging the hemline closer to my knees became too much to tolerate. Office life does have its perks, the biggest being that it’s a five minute walk from my house meaning I’ve never had to eat lunch at my desk once.
I thought the factory would be a grim place to work. Even on a clear, sunny day, the view full of grey steel tanks, structures and columns is hardly a pleasing one. During our induction fortnight, we toured each of the factories: the noises of motors constantly whirring, the smell, and the general lack of cleanliness didn’t exactly improve the ambience.
It all changed in my fourth week of placement, when I was sent to a site on my own for the first time. I’m not sure if it was the newly acquired sense of purpose walking through the factory with my hard-hat of hi-vis on, or the fact it was common place for employees to take a break mid-morning to get a full-English breakfast from the canteen, but I found myself buzzing with extra energy and my three-day assignment whizzed past.
There’s a difference between office and factory environments that is starker than their aesthetics. The easiest way to explain this would be to describe head office as central London, and the factory as a country village. At head office, there is no shortage of people all going about their daily business, but without making an active effort to make new friends, your circle of people is limited to those who share your corner of the office. At factory, everyone knows everyone. When I walk around and someone passing in the opposite direction says “Morning” in a broad Norfolk accent, it always brings a smile to my face.
At lunchtimes as well, you notice the difference. At HQ you will see several people eating lunch at their desks; a handful will eat at the little 5-seat tables in the canteen, and some will even miss the meal altogether because their schedule doesn’t leave time. Not at the factory: meal times are treated with a little more respect. Whole teams will eat together. At one of the sites, someone had pushed a group of tables together to make one that seated 20 people. No matter who you are, you would get your lunch, sit at the big table, and talk with whoever else was sitting there. I made more friends at that site during one lunch-hour than I had during four weeks at HQ.
Despite the villagey atmosphere at factory, the pace of life is by no means slower. As I will come to explain in a future post: an Operations Engineer’s work is never done. Never.
The most labour-intensive job in the business is cleaning, and that gets contracted out. The simple, repetitive routine that our grandparents and great-grand-parents who worked in factories endured is a far cry from the modern plant. We have operators who monitor the process from the control room and shift teams who make sure everything runs smoothly. The engineers, managers and technicians who aren’t on shift liaise with the shift teams and operators to find ways to resolve problems and optimise the process while simultaneously co-ordinating the planning and delivery of the many improvement projects planned for the factory.
It’s a healthy way of working. The staff are often moving from one area of the factory to another several times a day, rarely spending more than an hour at a time at their desks. It suits better than my desk at HQ where I need only walk 20 steps to the toilets and 15 steps to the coffee machine.
Factory life can, however, be frustrating at times. Every single person in the business whether they are based at factory or at head office acts in the best interests of the business, but differences in opinion are common. And for the factories, some decisions are beyond their control. It could be a case where the business had made a decision to standardise on a particular type of equipment but one of the sites prefers another, or it could be a multi-million pound project that a team of engineers had spent months planning being cancelled.
There is no doubt that factories can be enjoyable places to work; even when you’re outside on a cold day with rain pounding onto your hardhat while you try and locate a non-existent instrument on an out-of-date Piping & Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID). When you put on your hard-hat and fluorescent orange overalls, you leave what was normal and enter a different way of life, where the pace of life is quick and the banter is free-flowing.
Most importantly, it is proof that glamour does not equal satisfaction. Unfortunately, convincing others of this fact is more easily said than done. Until industry and the media learn to collaborate to publicise/glamourise engineering, the perks of factory life will remain a well-kept secret.