A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “When Mao Flu Hit the Office,” 13 February 1970

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13 February 1970


Guidepost cover
13 February 1970


Every year those little germs that travel across the Asian and European continents from the east seem to take a stronger hold. During this last epidemic homes and businesses were very severely affected and in one office 40% of the bilingual secretaries were sick, including the telex and switchboard operators. We contacted many businessmen and discovered how harassed they all were, stranded for days on end while their secretary coped with the virus. The IN tray resembled Kilimanjaro, the three phones must have been short-circuited because if one rang they all rang, the junior typist developed a mental block in spelling and that infernal telex machine became more temperamental than a computer.

How did some businessmen cope with this problem of secretarial absences? Some tried to use a colleague´s or subordinate´s secretary (“one entrusted with secrets”, according to Webster), only to find she could not handle the requirements of a top executive. Others had language problems. In many cases the confidential nature of the correspondence complicated matters. The only perfect answer seemed to be the temporary secretarial agency. To find out what was available and how the system worked, we visited the bright, modern offices of Steno-Services and here talked to Yvonne Monroe (formerly Yvonne Johnson).

Yvonne told us that many businessmen were very fixed in their ways and needed to be shown the advantages to themselves of this kind of service. An Agency has a supply of readily available bilingual secretaries, specially selected for their discretion and efficiency. The businessman is spared all problems of personnel selection, putting the girl on payroll, insurance payments, adaptability periods—and he has all this at his fingertips, just by telephoning in a request. All shorthand typist, receptionist, switchboard and telex operator absences can also be covered in this way. Another aspect is that all over the world it costs increasingly more to employ staff, and over-manning can be expensive luxury. How many offices in London, for example, employ girls to do ‘The Times’ crossword? The temporary girl is the solution.

After several years’ experience in Madrid as a top executive secretary, Yvonne Monroe decided to fill one of Madrid´s gaps—the temporary secretarial agency, and three years ago StenoServices was born. London, New York and Paris have been served by these bureaux for a long time now, but in the Spanish capital this was a new venture. Don´t think that meant the girls had to know how to play the guitar or dance flamenco, but it did mean they had to speak Spanish.

StenoServices offices, run by Yvonne and her new Office Manager, Anne Baggott, are extremely busy because they try to keep everybody happy—both the clients and the girls. And, as we discovered, the girls have to be quite “special”—many are brought over from England. They say that paragon of virtue, the perfect secretary, doesn´t exist but it seems the “temp” has to have a good try to attain this ideal. Intelligent, with a high standard of education, qualified in languages, patient, polite, attractive and most important, adaptable.

One could wax lyrical on the “adaptability” theme. Putting on her best smile, the poor “temp” is confronted by a tank of a typewriter, assigned to a draughty passageway, where company economy only allocates 40-watt bulbs, and seated upon three Madrid telephone directories, hoping against hope that somebody will ask for them and so realize her discomfort. In this way she valiantly copes with a Balance Sheet, a report on the geophysical aspects of the Spanish Sahara or a consumer survey on Mum’s favorite washing powder, while pondering in the back of her mind the most tactful way to sidestep the menace of the occasional pass and convey the old adage “Sorry, we are not allowed to accept extra-curricular assignments”. And why, oh why is it that the Cheltenham Ladies’ College graduate always gets the Texan oil magnate (who tries to prove it as he drawls his dictation by jingling his silver dollars) and the Katie Gibbs girl is landed with the plum-in-the-mouth British aristocrat?

At Yvonne´s suggestion we visited the offices of one of her clients, and there saw Miss StenoServices in action; a calm, efficient young lady helping to keep things moving and get important work out when the top secretary was ill. Some of the vital qualifications for a temporary secretary are to have a camel´s stomach when faced with “Just type out these twenty-odd letters, Miss, while I slip out for a sandwich”, to have instant-drying, permanently curly hair, to have an aversion to long-weekends by the sea or in fact any holidays at all, and the ability to please all of the people all of the time!! Of course the most important qualification is to be absolutely immune to any germs (especially Mao ’flu). It has even been suggested that the important of several flasks of viruses would be an excellent way of getting extra business.

So, next time Sally Ann is away from the office on holiday or sick, it might be worth remembering this solution.


Images (generic)

Bilingual company/Chris Lawrence, CC BY-sa2.0 via Flickr
Featured image/Nenad Stojkovic, CC BY2.0 via Flickr