A new way to keep house and hold a job
Having a career mother means new home drill for her family
Most of the ladies at Office Overload and similar companies across the country have discovered that combining a home and a career can be nearly painless. The secret: name your own hours and pick your own boss—who might even turn out to be Bob Hope
Mrs. Betty Downing, a Toronto housewife, stained and steamy in the throes of canning peaches, answered the telephone and said no. thanks, she really couldn't take a stenographic assignment just then. She listened again and quickly changed her mind. She called her mother to come over and cope with the peaches as well as mind her two children, while she hurried off to become Bob Hope's private secretary.
Hope, headlining the 1957 CNE grandstand show, had found his business affairs piling up alarmingly. He appealed for help to the CNE, which turned to an organization known as Office
Overload. Within an hour Hope was unburdening himself of accumulated correspondence to Betty Downing at his rented suburban mansion. (On subsequent days he repeatedly played hookey from dictation to golf on the Islington course which ran temptingly past the front door.)
The housewife who was Hope's emergency secretary is one of the twenty thousand Canadian women on the roster of Office Overload, a company started six years ago by two young Winnipeg office-equipment salesmen. William Pollock, 22, and James Shore, 25, noticed that offices they visited usually had too much or too little work for the staff at a given time. T hey decided that a registry of former office workers willing to return to part-time work would help harassed employers—and might even prove to
be a profitable business sideline for themselves.
In June 1951 Pollock and Shore, with the help of Shore's wife Jackie, launched Office Overload with one part-time stenographer, Mrs. Dorothy Green. Hers is still the top name on the company's Winnipeg list, but others have been added at the rate of hundreds a month as the firm expanded into Toronto, Montreal. Vancouver and Hamilton. The Toronto office, opened three years ago, contributes half the company's total business. It's run by Pollock while Shore looks after the head office in Winnipeg.
The fact that most of Office Overload’s twenty thousand women are former office workers now married and with children or expecting children seems to answer that often asked question, “Do women want to combine marriage and a career?" The answer that Office Overload's explosive growth suggests is an emphatic “Yes— provided we can decide when to work, where, and for how many hours, days or weeks at a time.”
Other companies have quickly caught on to the Office Overload idea and now offer the same services and have similar if smaller lists of office workers. Thus several thousand women in addition to Office Overload's twenty thousand have been added to Canada’s feminine working force for periods that vary as widely as a woman's moods—all the way from an occasional half day’s work to six months of steady employment. The success of a rather elementary idea—“It was so obvious it's a wonder someone hadn't thought of it long before,” the partners admit— suggests that what Pollock and Shore hit on was not merely an unusually profitable sideline but a whole new area of supply and demand.
Demand was, of course, necessary for the idea to succeed. Pollock and Shore found it ready—ten thousand businesses in five Canadian cities that needed part-time office help acutely enough once or several times a year to call Office Overload. This year clients will buy more than three million dollars’ worth of Office Overload help. Pollock and Shore are preparing to invade the United States after discovering that no operation of exactly the Office Overload pattern exists there. They are eyeing Europe as future territory, and feel that the supply-anddemand situation they discovered in Canadian cities exists equally in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Amsterdam, waiting to be turned into profits.
Pollock and Shore won’t say how much profit they make on their three-million-dollar gross, but they call their business “a supermarket type of operation—big turnover, small markup.” Their method of operation is simple: Office
Overload supplies office workers of various skills —stenographers, typists, file clerks, dictaphone operators, switchboard operator - receptionists, bookkeepers, comptometer operators. Office Overload pays the workers itself, at a rate that varies according to local average pay for various office skills with Toronto at the top and Winnipeg at the bottom. Toronto rates range from a dollar an hour for junior clerks to a dollar and forty cents an hour for experienced stenographers and bookkeepers. A small group of specialists, such as charteredaccountancy stenographers, are paid a dollar and sixty cents. Office Overload claims this rate is above the average for full-time jobs. The company’s clients are billed about twenty-five percent more to cover overhead and profit.
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“For free-lance career girls, some things are different. Bosses, for example, are considerate”
The ability to earn fifty dollars or more a week where and when she wants to is undoubtedly the reason why many a woman has come out of housewifely retirement at Office Overload’s urging. However, the firm has found that only about half the women on its lists work because their family budget needs help. Most of the rest put in profitable part time to provide their households with “extras.” Some applicants have entered “to keep young and active,” “to add variety to life” and “to keep up office skills” as reasons for returning to work. Some motives are multiple and complex.
How long this time?
One girl applied to Office Overload for two months of assignments, explaining she was financing a trousseau. Back from her honeymoon she went on call again for six months—helping raise the down payment on a house. Later she put in four months: objective, a debt-free baby. Recently she telephoned that she was once more available.
“How long this time?” asked the amused Office Overload supervisor.
“A month will do,” was the grave answer. “I’m giving my husband a paved driveway for his birthday.”
Mrs. Betty Downing is probably disqualified as an “average” Office Overload girl because of the Bob Hope incident. But apart from that one-in-20,000 event (which was only slightly deflated by her eight-year-old daughter Elaine’s reaction: “Bob Hope? Who’s that?”) Mrs. Downing is probably a typical example of women who turn to Office Overload, of why they do it, and of what effect a new part-time career has on their own and their families’ way of life.
She had worked as a stenographer before her marriage to Norbert Downing, a partner in a monument business, but never expected to again, especially after Elaine was born eight years ago and Peter was adopted four years later. Then, in the middle of 1955, a lot of things happened to the Downings at once. They bought a house, Norbert decided to change careers, and Peter was found to need an expensive operation. Betty decided that what the Downing family budget needed was an ex-stenographer’s salary.
She remembered an acquaintance who boasted she had a good job, yet worked when she wanted. Betty called on the company the girl worked for. Office Overload, which occupies most of a floor of a building at 20 Bloor Street West, in the heart of Toronto’s “Mink Mile.” She was given a routine test to make sure she reached Office Overload’s minimum
standards—one hundred words per minute taking shorthand, fifty words per minute typing, with ninety-percent accuracy.
Two days later Betty had her first assignment, a two-week vacation replacement with an engineering firm located ten minutes’ drive from the Downing home in suburban Islington. Next to being able to work when they want, O-O's sparetime workers like the company’s policy of assigning jobs near home.
In the last year and a half Betty Downing has worked a little more than half of full time, in stints ranging from one day to a two-month engagement. She finds that being home nearly every other week on the average gives her time for almost-normal housewifely activities, plus a substantial contribution to the budget. Her husband is now a process engineer at the A. V. Roe aircraft plant and Betty has graduated from the ranks of Office Overload girls who work because they need the money into the ranks of those who can spend on luxuries. A new diningroom suite is the first fruit of this circumstance. The big fall project is a landscape job at home, largely at the urging of four-year-old Peter who doesn’t see why he shouldn’t have as nice a garden as some others in the neighborhood.
In common with many 0-0 girls, Betty Downing finds two notable differences between the life of a part-time worker and a “jobholder.” For one thing, the bosses are unusually considerate. It seems that when a business needs clerical help urgently enough to call Office Overload, the worker assigned is important enough for a little red-carpet treatment. More than once the head man of a company has called for Mrs. Downing to take her to work. On one memorable occasion when her baby-sitting arrangements fell through her temporary boss picked up her mother. Mrs. Adam Szeler, brought her to the Downing home, and took Mrs. Downing to work. Usually Betty takes a bus or the subway if the route is convenient to where she is working, or drives the family car (her husband belongs to a car pool).
The second difference in the life of an Office Overload worker is that the dozen or more separate jobs a girl may do in a year provide so much change of scene and variation of the subject matter of her work that there’s little chance for the boredom that comes with doing the same job on the same subject for the same man month after month. In her eighteenmonth Office Overload career Betty has had jobs with a Simpsons-Sears warehouse, a tool importer, an oil-burner parts manufacturer, a construction company, engineering and chemical firms, and— second only to the Bob Hope secretaryship as a memorable experience—with a spice-processing plant.
“I’d go home redolent of whatever spice the factory was turning out that day,” she recalls. “The family loved cinnamon and nutmeg days, but they kept their distance on garlic days. Once they thought the house was on fire and sniffed suspiciously from room to room. That was the day the spice plant was turning out a batch of hickory-smoke flavoring.”
To become a free-lance secretary, Mrs. Downing has had to devise a new routine of family life that calls for collaboration and ingenuity. On working weeks everybody’s clothes are laid out the night before. Even so, all hands are up at 6.45 a.m. Norbert Downing makes and packs the lunches for his wife, himself and school-aged Elaine (and usually remembers to leave the mustard out of her sandwiches). Elaine and four-year-old Peter both dress themselves and Elaine makes her own bed.
Wait for dad’s day off
Mrs. Downing has somehow learned how to finish dressing and prepare breakfast at the same time. Breakfast must be over by eight because at that time Norbert’s pool car is at the door. Minutes later Elaine proudly conducts Peter across the street to the neighbor who will keep him for the day. Betty Downing has an unusually favorable baby-sitting situation, with two near neighbors willing to look after Peter as a rule, and a mother who lives twenty minutes’ ride away and is usually able and glad to come over for the day. Baby-sitting is one of the 0-0 workers’ biggest problems in many cases. Sometimes girls who live near each other solve it by taking turns at working and baby-sitting for each other, week about. Some, like Mrs. Sue Kai, a JapaneseCanadian who had the highest efficiency rating of any girl ever tested by Office Overload, can accept assignments only evenings or on her husband’s day off.
Betty Downing, having seen her children off (Elaine will play near the sitter’s house until it’s time for her to walk a couple of blocks to school), sometimes has a chance to catch her breath and drink a cup of coffee before she leaves for work, not later than 8.30. After work, Mr. Downing usually arrives home fifteen minutes earlier than his wife and gives dinner a running start. Food shopping is a problem that is solved by doing a huge marketing Friday night at the nearby shopping centre and planning the working week’s meals in advance.
With less time in which to do her housework, Betty Downing has devised methods of combining chores with recreation—like setting up her ironing board in the living room and watching television while she irons. The inconveniences of being both a housewife and a free-lance secretary are just enough to make her immune to the occasional permanent offers she gets from her part-time employers.
Office Overload seldom has a girl “stolen” by a customer. The very reasons why they work for Office Overload—because they want to work when, where and for as long as they decide — make them poor risks for permanent employment. This independent attitude is sometimes a headache for Office Overload, too. Toward the end of the year many girls calculate their earnings, figure out the income tax their husbands will have to pay if their own incomes put their husbands in the “single” category, and decide it’s not worth working any more that year. Another wave of desertions takes place during the first week of a new school term, when mothers want to stay at home to get their children settled away in their new and sometimes strange surroundings.
At such times Office Overload is grateful to the wide variety of non-mothers among its workers. These are actresses, singers and dancers working through the tough early years of show-business careers. One, Joan Osborne, a pixie-eyed young ballerina from Australia, landed a dancing part in the Denny Vaughan network TV show and invested in a National Ballet summer course. When the show closed Joan faced a room-and-board problem. She signed on with Office Overload and now divides her time between practicing ballet, tracking down dancing pans, and earning a “meanwhile” living as a file clerk. Carole Noble is a busy ballet dancer who also worked with Denny Vaughan and with the Jackie Rae Show, Showtime, Folio, and at the CNE grandstand. But ballet in Canada always provides spare time — and in her spare time Carole is one of Office Overload's star dictaphone operators. Others for whom Office Overload has smoothed out fluctuating fortunes include Ronwyn McLennan, a fledgling Toronto actress and runner-up in last year’s Miss Canada contest; Audrey Haigh, a Montreal TV ballerina; Rosemary Gordon, a professional skater; and Anita Elkin, a Montreal artist.
Very different members of the Office Overload family are the part-time invalids. The first time a woman applied for intermittent assignments with the explanation that a heart condition made it impossible for her to work steadily, the partners had misgivings about including such persons on their list. Then they decided that part-time illnesses fitted logically in Office Overload’s pattern of parttime work. Today the organization includes scores of diabetics and heart cases who have found new morale and take a fierce pride in their ability to work a day or a week at a time.
Totally unlike O-O’s “shut-ins” are girls who are constantly in motion, who travel when the spirit moves them, literally by swinging from branch to branch of Office Overload. Many girls from Commonwealth countries (plus some footloose Canadian girls) work for a week or a month in cities where Office Overload operates, then move on to another. Two English girls, Hazel Perryman and Mary Wilson, made their leisurely way across Canada en route to the Olympics at Melbourne by this work-and-travel plan.
Probably O-O’s most faithful “girls” are the over-fifties who find it nearly impossible to get full-time jobs but are accepted as efficient workers when they go out under Office Overload auspices. Some of these older workers need the money urgently, but a few seek assignments to keep active and busy. Mrs. Viola Grant, of Toronto, is sixty-five, is the wife of a rubber-company executive and has six children and eighteen grandchildren. As a girl in Nova Scotia Mrs. Grant took a business course but married without having worked in an office. A few months ago she called Office Overload and said, “It’s about time I put my business training to use.” She polished up her typing and has become a regular.
An undertaker, say?
One elderly woman carried out several stenographic assignments with quiet competence before the Office Overload staff learned her surprising secret. Asked to report to a large Toronto company for a week’s work, she told the supervisor timidly, “I’d rather not, if you don’t mind. You see, my son is the president of that company — and I’ve never told him I do this.”
A few weeks ago a traditional “little old lady” complete with semi-Victorian clothes walked into Office Overload’s Toronto branch and asked to be considered for part-time work. A receptionist asked if she could type or take shorthand.
“Oh, dear no,” she answered. “In any case I wouldn’t want to work in a big crowded noisy office. I thought you might know of an undertaker who wants someone to answer the telephone quietly.”
The Office Overload placement department, which never turns down a request because it is unusual, checked their files. There was, indeed, a request from a funeral home. But not for a quiet little old lady. The qualifications listed were: “fast, accurate typist who can play the Hammond organ when needed.”
Not all Office Overload girls go out to work in clients’ offices. In each branch a large department is dedicated to “inside production.” This started when, in the early days, a Winnipeg executive called for a stenographer to take some confidential letters. Told that a girl would be at his office immediately, he cried: “No, no. That’s the last thing I'd want. I want to come around to your place.”
“Give me half a dozen girls with husky, exciting telephone voices,” he said. Office Overload did
Space was hurriedly cleared at a desk, a stenographer summoned, and the tycoon delivered himself of five crucial letters. Three announced sizable bonuses to employees, the other two were notices of dismissal.
“1 can't type a line myself,” he explained, “and of course 1 couldn't dictate them to anybody in my own office. If I'd brought in one of your girls the curiosity would have become unbearable. So you see what a good idea you have here."
Pollock and Shore, who can take a hint, caught on. Today a large part of the office space in Office Overload branches is devoted to production departments turning out paper work for clients who prefer it done off their own premises. Secrecy is not always a factor in this operation, although Office Overload is finding more and more customers who turn over to it the preparation of payrolls, to avoid their own staffs being aware of that delicate matter: who makes how much. Office Overload also does a growing business in preparing T-4 slips for income-tax purposes.
The production departments of Office Overload’s branches have learned not to be surprised at customers' demands. Donna Lambert, the petite nonstop redhead who manages Toronto production, recently had to find half a dozen girls who had husky, exciting telephone voices. The client was a businessman who was running for president of his service club. The girls were provided with the names of all club members, including first names and nicknames, and on the day of the election meeting they called the client's colleagues and cooed into the phone:
“Hellooo, Steve—I'll be seeing you tonight . . . where? Why, at the club meeting. And don’t forget, vote for good old Bill.”
(Regrettably, Bill's stratagem won him the election.)
Another off-beat role of the production departments is to serve as clients’ office and staff complete. A Toronto mining man started this off when he got 0-0 to do some work for him in his discreet, expensive downtown office. When one of his secretaries left him to marry, he did not replace her but called in Office Overload when work piled up on the rest of his staff. Later he gave up his office altogether and now spends much of his time in Florida while the Office Overload production department runs his business via his telephoned or telegraphed instructions. The idea has spread, and now a score of businessmen have their “offices" in O-O’s production department—in the form of a file containing sheets of their letterhead and envelopes, ready to be
converted quickly into business letters.
“Businessmen get a kick out of being able to dictate letters over the telephone at odd hours, whenever they get the inspiration,” says the observant Donna Lambert, “and we're always open late here—all night if we’re doing rush jobs."
In spite of a high-pressure work schedule. Miss Lambert's department usually looks like an expectant mothers’ club.
with as many as half the busy workers being expectant mothers—and as many as a hundred and fifty girls may tackle a big job. The explanation of this unusual work force is simple: the department hires 0-0 girls in the same way as any outside customer—in fact. Office Overload is in the strange position of being its own best customer. But there's one difference. Office workers are not assigned to
outside clients after they are four months pregnant, but they are welcome to inside jobs for Office Overload departments as long as they wish. Several times workers who left as usual at quitting time have telephoned early next morning to explain they won't be in that day because they have had babies during the night. “Childbirth is our chief cause of absenteeism.” says Bill Pollock, a bachelor. “Apart from that, our ‘no show’ rate is one half of one percent, compared with between three and four percent for Canadian business as a whole.”
Much as Office Overload girls appreciate the policy that allows them to work as long as they wish before their babies are born, many prefer to work outside the company’s office because of the variety of jobs and new people they encounter. Often the jobs offered bear no resemblance to the typing-shorthand-filing that forms the bulk of the work done by Office Overload girls.
One board of directors, in the throes of reorganizing their company, faced the unprecedented prospect of working through the lunch hour for several days on end. They requisitioned from Office Overload a girl, preferably a young matron, who could make good coffee and prepare quick snacks. The idea of being served in the boardroom by a pretty hostess so intrigued the directors that the girl has been kept on indefinitely, and the executive lunch has become a company institution.
A blind student at Osgoode Hall I.aw School in Toronto received permission to have an assistant with him during the final bar examinations, and applied to Office Overload for a suitable collaborator. The 0-0 girl assigned was Gertrude Velu, an Indian university graduate and social-service worker. A somewhat distracting figure in her colorful Oriental costume, she helped the handicapped student write a successful examination. A few desks away was another Office Overload girl, writing down the answers for a student who had broken an arm two days before.
1,000 women — 1 man
When Hamp Pool, new coach of the Toronto Argos, started work with the 1957 squad he applied to Office Overload for a stenographer with very special qualifications: “She must understand football terms — and she must be a rabid Argo fan.” The reason was that she would be typing out confidential reports on Argo players. The girl assigned was one who vowed total loyalty to the Toronto team—even though she comes from Hamilton. Office Overload denies responsibility for the subsequent fate of the team.
Occasionally a seeker of part-time help will ask Office Overload, “Haven’t you any men?” and the answer is yes. Women merely outnumber men on the roster by a thousand or so to one. The twenty-odd male “field workers” are chiefly seasonal workers looking for off-season income— many are racetrack ticket sellers content to get by until the big-pay track jobs open again. A few are pensioners disinclined to be idle. One man who applied for Office Overload assignments a month after he retired admitted frankly, “My wife ordered me to. She finds me a nuisance, underfoot all day.”
Office Overload is likely to remain overwhelmingly feminine, too. If only because so many of the jobs it deals in can be done only by women. Even the most unusual ones. Like the legend of the wealthy Montreal woman who telephoned for “a neat, deserving young woman” to report to her one evening a week. Asked the nature of the work required, she replied haughtily: “Quite respectable, I assure you.” It turned out that the matron had broken a leg and would be laid up for several weeks. She held the theory that a fur coat to be maintained in good condition must be worn — so she needed a girl to wear her luxurious mink coat one evening a week. it