Image: How many office workers does it take to clear a paper jam?
Panic! Savy administrative assistants give quick tutorials on office equipment basics to prevent mobs of confused employees working on paper jams.
updated 7/17/2008 6:27:58 PM ET 2008-07-17T22:27:58

Linda Bates, an administrative assistant at a Vancouver, Canada, engineering firm, was en route to her ski vacation when she received the frantic call: "The copy machine is jammed. What should I do?"

Instead of reminding her co-worker that she's off-duty, Bates attempted to figure out the problem from 500 miles away. "I [walked the person through it] on the phone, asking, 'Did you try this and that?' I was picturing in my mind where the light was flashing."

Finally she said, "I can't do anything from here. Call the service people."

Modern employees are often highly skilled, intelligent individuals who solve the world's most challenging problems. But put a jammed copy machine in front of them and panic ensues. We surveyed more than 30 administrative assistants to find out what they get pestered about the most by employees who either don't know what to do or are too lazy to figure it out.

The list is long. At the top: changing the toner in the fax machine; contending with a jam in the printer; asking for a colleague's phone number instead of looking it up in the office directory; dealing with a frozen computer; finding supplies; mailing packages and letters; and booking a conference room.

In an attempt to empower office workers — and let office administrators actually get their own work done — we spoke to the experts and compiled an insider's guide to being handy around the office.

But experts can offer only so much advice; some of these problems demand plain common sense. Shirley Hepner , executive assistant to the CEO at a visiting nurse service in Ridgefield, Conn., was in the fourth day of recovery after total knee replacement surgery. She was on her way to physical therapy when her cellphone rang — it was a distressed co-worker explaining that the toilet was clogged. She asked, "What do we do?"

"I don't remember what I said because I was on pain killers," Hepner says. "But I know there is a list of plumbers by the phone in the copy room." Perhaps it goes without saying that any employee who didn't know about that list could have used the Yellow Pages to find a local plumber.

Hepner hasn't figured out exactly how to make her co-workers totally self-sufficient, but she's trying. She holds lessons for new employees on how to use the copy machine and its most complicated functions. Collating and stapling are particularly tough for the staff.

She finally figured out a solution for one of the most vexing problems: the pile of dirty dishes in the office kitchen's sink. On bad days, Hepner counted 40 dirty mugs and 30 food-crusted pieces of silverware in the pile. She installed a toy video camera next to the sink; she is relatively sure employees know it's not real, but its mere presence seems to be enough of a reminder that people should wash their own dishes. Because now they do.

Bates, the administrator from Vancouver and president of the Canadian Association of Administrative Assistants, says the trick to having a self-sufficient staff is teaching them how to use equipment as it comes into the office. She holds sessions for new employees too.

Granted, there are some problems employees can't solve on their own. The way staffers ask for help goes a long way toward getting that necessary assistance. First, don't stand by the administrator's desk and wait around while he or she is talking to another person. Instead, send an e-mail including the nature of the problem and its level of importance. If there's smoke coming out of the copy machine, that's obviously urgent. But if you need to know which floor the mailroom is on, that isn't.

A final piece of advice: If you use up the last sheet of printer paper, don't put the wrapping back in the drawer. Be sure to tell the administrator to order supplies, preferably in an e-mail.

© 2012


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