When I was in high school and college, I waited tables. Being a server was lucrative, especially given the ratio of hours worked to tips earned. The downside to restaurant work is the cleanup — the menial, mind-numbing tasks that are necessary to keep the restaurant operational. I can’t begin to tally the number of nights I was ready to head home after making $100 but was stuck in the kitchen doing things such as “marrying” ketchup bottles, scrubbing iced tea urns, or sweeping crumbs from the cracks of booths. My colleagues would decry this “slave labor” when it was assigned on slow nights. (In the state of Texas, the hourly rate for servers is $2.13. So, if you have a slow night resulting in few tips, you end up doing disgusting side work for less than minimum wage.)
My first office job was in an SAT prep center, which was a zoo of students, summer faculty, and seasonal clerical workers. “There’s always something to be done” was the office manager’s motto. The student workers were responsible for cleaning the restrooms (I was lucky to escape this task), restocking supplies in the classrooms, running copies, and countless other grunt jobs. My sole responsibility was data entry of homework and test scores, but when I had free time, I looked for “side work.” I cleaned dry erase boards, I sharpened pencils, I filed, I replenished copy machines with paper. I did not enjoy idle periods.
As I moved up the office food chain and into more specialized roles, I found that side work doesn’t exist in certain environments. For instance, when I was a recruiting coordinator and had no interviews to schedule, I enjoyed cubicle chat with neighbors and researched recipes online. I’m sure I could have reorganized my files, audited reports in the applicant tracking system, or helped recruiters review resumes, but I chose not to do so. Perhaps I became complacent, or maybe I’m just plain lazy.
I started wondering if “side work” prevalent in certain jobs is an indication of their lower skill levels or lack of specialization. This prompts the question of how valuable specialization is if it confines the worker to strict parameters, or if it leads to a “that’s not in my job description” attitude.
Specialization in the work world is great, but I suspect it compartmentalizes people to the degree of reducing overlap in skills. In other words, it reduces the likelihood of working outside of comfort zones or pitching in to help with different projects. Does this lead to a lack of collaboration? Maybe I’m overthinking this.
I’m sitting behind my cubicle walls as I write this, sealed off from the engineers and IT specialists whose jobs I can’t do and don’t ever want to do. If someone came to me with an IT support question, I’d have no qualms about saying, “That’s not my area.” I have time to write this entry, though. I guess there’s no side work for me to do.