The responsibilities of the office

1. Introduction

Everyone knows what is meant by an ‘office’ but very few are able to define it. To some it is where the management is and where the paperwork is done: to others it is where the clerks do their work, where the correspondence is done and where the filing is kept. In most minds it is firmly connected with form-filling, keeping accounts, dealing with orders, paying wages and carrying out all the hundred and one tasks that are necessary to keep the firm running.

Certainly all these things are done in the office, but many of them are also done elsewhere. In the factory much clerical activity goes on in planning production and in the control of production. The stores engage in clerical activity when requisitions for new supplies are raised. Drivers are doing clerical work when they fill in their log sheets.

In fact, it is well-nigh impossible to define an ‘office’ but it is not impossible to define the office function. This can be said to be the provision of the means of communication, the provision of the service of record and the security of the organisation’s assets.

Let us have a brief look at these three elements of the office function and so gain an insight into the extent of its services to the firm.

1.1. Communication

This is the means by which an organisation carries on its business, both with the outside world and internally. It includes the receiving and giving of information of all kinds and in all its forms. It may be in the form of letters, telephone calls, quotations, invoices, memoranda, time cards or any other medium appropriate for the purpose. Rarely does the office communicate entirely on its own behalf, however: its concern is overwhelmingly with communication for other functions such as account­ing, marketing, production and so on. So the office function provides the communications service needed for the firm to carry on its day-to-day business: but more than this, it also provides the information service necessary for management to function effectively in making the decisions required for the continued pursuance of its plans and policies.

1.2. Record

This aspect of the office function is concerned with keeping records of the information both given and received under the heading of communi­cation. In the case of some information, the simple act of recording is all that is required, but this is so in very few instances. For the most part information has to be arranged and rearranged for it to be of use to the organisation. Sometimes original information has to be recorded and then sorted and analysed several different ways so that it is useful for different purposes. For example, the information on purchase invoices received from suppliers will be posted in the purchase day book for subsequent posting to the purchase acount, which provides a money total of purchases for the month. It will also be posted to the accounts of the individual suppliers so that a record is kept of the firm’s indebtedness to each supplier. In addition, stores records will be taken from the same information so that effective stock-keeping and stores control can take place, and in many instances the same purchase invoice information will be required for costing purposes. The same information, again, rear­ranged and analysed in yet another way, may be required to acquaint management with knowledge about the performance of the firm’s various suppliers or the performance of the firm’s own buying depart­ment.

Not all the information flowing into or out of an organisation is recorded and rearranged for domestic purposes only: much of it is required to satisfy the requirements of statute. For instance, the records of income tax under the Pay As You Earn system, which apply to every employee, must be presented at the end of the fiscal year in one way for the Inland Revenue office (as a total deduction from all workers) and in another for each employee (as a total deducted from each employee’s earnings), this being a statutory requirement under the Finance Acts.

1.3. Security of assets

A firm’s assets are safeguarded in two ways, physically and by way of documentation. The office function has a responsibility in both of these areas. Many assets are in the direct care of the office, such as petty cash, contract documents, cheques in transit, stocks of stationery and the like, as well as items of office equipment of all kinds. It is the duty of the office to ensure that these assets are physically safe by the use of safes or strong-rooms, and by making illegal and unauthorised access to them as difficult as possible.

Other assets not under the direct care of members of the clerical staff are safeguarded by the use of office systems that account for their safety. Such methods include the keeping of registers of assets and documenta­tion to control the movement of goods. Stock control systems, for example, call for properly authorised requisitions for the issue of stock items and proper receipts from those members of staff who receive the goods. Internal check procedures and internal audit routines are other ways in which the office function safeguards the firm against loss of assets (including money) by way of defalcations and theft.

2. The Role of the Office

The office function is vital to the efficient running of an organisation, particularly in view of the complexity of the modern business world.

Without the services of communication and record that the office provides any organisation would come to a standstill. Yet it is not truly a primary function: in fact, it is secondary to the primary functions such as production, distribution and so on. What it does is to enable these primary functions to run smoothly and efficiently. Perhaps the office service could be likened to the lubrication of the industrial machine without which the machine would seize up. It is not the diesel that drives it, that is the role of the primary functions, but the lubrication provided by the office function is just as essential for efficient working.

There must be the fullest cooperation between the office and the other departments of production, sales, marketing and all the other primary functions. It follows from this that the systems and services offered by the office must be geared to the needs of the organisation and its various sectors and the needs of the office must be subordinate to these. Unfortunately, this fundamental requirement is not always in evidence. In many organisations it would appear that the office tries to impose its will on other departments, often to the detriment of the efficiency of those departments. This is a situation that should not be allowed to develop. Cases are not unknown where customers’ orders are held up at the documentation stage because it is desired to abstract statistics from them, and it is easier for the office to do this before processing the orders to the works instead of afterwards. The consequent delays do nothing to enhance the firm’s goodwill in the eyes of its customers. This is only one example of how the office, by not subordinating itself to the needs of the departments engaged in the primary functions, can hinder the organisa­tion.

3. The Office and General Management

The work of the office is now inextricably bound up with all levels of general management. In guiding the personnel of the organisation to the ultimate objective, selling goods or providing a service, management needs more and more information ever more quickly and ever more detailed, yet easily assimilated.

Management has a first responsibility for internal organisation; for making decisions as to manufacturing targets, sales coverage, fixing prices, deployment of resources and so on. It has a responsibility to and for staff at all levels to ensure their full economic employment, to maintain their morale by an adequate and appropriate salary structure and to provide welfare services of all kinds.

A company’s responsibilities also extend externally. It has an obliga­tion to customers to provide goods or services to an adequate and reliable level. It must establish satisfactory credit relationships with suppliers and supplied. It also has, as it grows, an increasing social responsibility to the community.

None of these obligations and responsibilities can be met without adequate and efficient information, records and prompt and lucid communication: it is the purpose of the office to provide these. The role of the office as coordinator must also be emphasised. Coordination is reckoned to be a management function, but it is through the office, particularly its communication function, that management operates.

4. Expansion in Office Manpower

Comment is often made that, despite widespread office mechanisation and the advent of the computer in office procedures, there is an ever-increasing proportion of the working population engaged in office work of one form or another. It has been estimated that at least one in six of all employed persons is now associated with clerical work, and that this proportion is growing. Four reasons are advanced for this trend:

  1. The larger and more complex organisations that have developed in the modern world need more information for more scientific planning, for better coordination of the activities of the organisa­tion; they require more and quicker communication facilities and more records and reports. Certainly the increase in size of an enterprise poses these problems more urgently than does the smaller organisation.
  2. There has been an increase in the servicing enterprises such as banking and insurance, and these have been joined by the establish­ment of new service organisations such as equipment hiring, factoring, employment bureaux for temporary staff and so on. These all rely heavily on the services of the office worker to function: in fact, the bulk of their labour force is clerical.
  3. Very largely because of the great amount of legislation, particularly social legislation, that has been passed in recent years there has been a large increase in governmental and municipal services which require clerical servicing. This legislation has also meant that more office work has been called for in industry and commerce to comply with new statutes.
  4. In addition to 1 above, the wider acceptance and application of what are known as scientific management principles call for more statistical information and scientific analysis, usually prepared by experts, which demands an enormous recording and communica­tions effort on the part of the office function.

5. The Office Manager

Management is concerned with the provision and effective utilisation of resources, and office management is therefore responsible for the resources needed to carry out the office function. It is therefore concerned with the personnel, the equipment, the methods and the environment of the office, and it is the duty of the office manager, or office administrator as he is increasingly being called, to ensure that these resources are used to the best advantage. Let us examine briefly these four aspects of office administration.

5.1. Personnel

Clerical workers provide the vital link bewtween the firm and the outside world, and between the different departments within a firm. To carry out this function efficiently they must be carefully selected on recruitment, properly trained in the organisation’s methods, and encouraged to take a pride in their work. It is the duty of the office manager to provide the necessary supervision over clerical tasks, to ensure that standards are set and met, and to give guidance to his staff in their work. Discipline must be enforced when necessary but, equally, appreciation must be displayed where appropriate. A proper career structure must be evolved and attention must be paid to staff development. The aim of the office manager must be a loyal and contented staff, each worker obtaining as much job satisfaction as is possible.

5.2. Equipment

Work can be done efficiently only if the right means are provided. Here the office manager has a prime duty to advise management on the appropriate machines, desks, filing equipment and other items necessary to accomplish effectively the duties required of the office function. The correct choice of equipment becomes increasingly difficult with the continuing development of more and more complicated machines and fitments: the office manager must, therefore, keep himself up to date with what the manufacturers are offering, and be able to discriminate between what new features are genuine improvements and what are merely superficial cosmetics. This can be done in a number of ways among which are reading the relevant professional journals and papers, visiting office equipment exhibitions, attending appropriate conferences and keeping in touch with the makers and suppliers of office equipment.

5.3. Methods

Office work is carried out by means of procedures and systems. It is important that the best methods are employed so that the most effective use is made of both the skills of the staff and the facilities offered by the office equipment.

5.4. Environment

The siting of the office building, the building itself, furniture, the layout, the decorations and the physical conditions generally have a great bearing on the efficiency of the clerical staff and of the systems and procedures they are required to operate. Normally the office manager has to operate in a building and on a site already existing, but he should be competent to proffer advice if and when management decide a change of location is necessary. However, he does have greater and more effective control over the other aspects of the physical environment, which he should exercise to the full.

Environment does not relate solely to physical matters. Every industry and area of commerce has its own way of doing business, which impinges on the office function and must be followed by the office manager and his staff. For example, the method of charging customers in the building industry is quite different from that in electrical wholesaling, and within this broad framework each firm or organisation has its own particular idiosyncrasies. This is the procedural environment and every bit as important as the physical one.

As we have seen, the purpose of the office is to provide a service of communication, record and security. Proper attention to personnel, equipment, methods and environment will enable the office adminis­trator to achieve his objectives with confidence.

6. The Office Supervisor

Unless the office staff are few in number it is not possible for the office manager to have direct control over all his personnel; it is therefore necessary for him to delegate some of his authority to a supervisor. This is necessary particularly when specialist functions such as secretarial services are set up apart from the general office.

Office supervisors are the link between the office manager and the working personnel. They are answerable to the office manager and must pursue established aims and policies which, of course, derive from general management. The precise bounds of the supervisors’ authority must, therefore, be laid down and known not only to the supervisors but also to the staff they control. This is particularly important in order that the supervisors’ official role in the organisation regarding the work of staff and the maintenance of discipline is clearly understood and ac­cepted by the staff.

Besides owing loyalty to management, however, office supervisors also have an allegiance to those working under them. Frequently they will be called upon to act as their spokesman and they will always be the first line of contact with higher management. Because of their close association with the staff for whom they are responsible, supervisors are in a good position to know individual workers, to learn of their capabilities and to appreciate their personalities and attitudes, and so they are able to make positive contributions to schemes for career development, proposals for training schemes and discussions on staff welfare generally.

Probably the supervisor’s most difficult but most important task is the maintenance of staff discipline. This can be done either positively or negatively. Positive discipline involves the setting of standards in work and personal behaviour that are easily and normally adhered to auto­matically. In some cases positive discipline can be enhanced by reward­ing adherence, one example being bonus payments for consistently good time-keeping. Negative discipline entails imposing sanctions for non­compliance with rules, such as fines for bad time-keeping. This type of discipline often engenders hostility even though the sanctions are comp­letely justified.

Being placed midway between the office manager and the office staff, the office supervisor has a particularly difficult job: from above he is likely to be seen as ‘staff’ and from below as ‘management’. He therefore needs tact and diplomacy to carry out his function effectively. Because of this it is essential that the office manager supports him with loyalty and guidance.

Source: Eyre E. C. (1989), Office Administration, Palgrave Macmillan.

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