“Your Call Now…”

Why are people not available anymore? You receive a letter. A point needs clarified so you call the sender.

In the good old days (about five years ago), the guy would have been at his desk, answered his phone civilly, resolved the point, and on you go. But now? No chance. “I’m sorry he’s unavailable. Can I get him to call back?”

Such a polite and reasonable response but it makes me want to chew the phone up. I am dealing with this now. By the time he calls back the file will be off my desk and I’ll have to duck him while I find it to remind myself why I called in the first place.

Getting even the most routine of house purchase transactions finalised is often now a nightmare, because your opposite number is simply never around to talk through the final points necessary to conclude the bargain, or else asserts that even the most trivial of points must be “run past the clients”.

A short time ago I got missives to the point of conclusion, but then got an e-mail from the other side asking for a change of entry date by a week. I got back to them within the day to say yes, but asked if they could adjust their request by just one more day.

More than a week later they had still not said yes or no, so now more time had gone by than the adjustment they asked for in the first place. But each time I called to sort it out I was told they are waiting to hear from the client.

Time management consultants have a lot to answer for. Lawyers especially seem to have swallowed their advice whole: you should plan your day, work to your own agenda and not be dictated to by the demands and interruptions of the phone and e-mail.

These sound sensible, but think about it: if everyone took this approach then nothing would ever get done, because there would always be someone in the loop whose personal timetable dictated non-availability at a crucial moment. So in fact such time-management advice is subtly pernicious: it only works if the other people don’t do it.

It also feeds the ego – it says, in effect: “My ordered, important, big-ticket life comes first, and your chaotic, trivial, gutter based existence will just have to take its chances of a crumb of time from my table”

Big firms and companies seem to have installed this lofty attitude as part of approved in-house practice – they use secretarial positioning as something akin to defensive machine gun emplacements. You have to have the nerves and stamina of the SAS, and the patience of Job, to take out first the switchboard, then the department, then the individual’s PA – each time laboriously repeating your details, before finally getting told you are being put through to the person you want.

But you’re not you know. There’s a sound of static followed by a stilted voice: “This is World VIP Number Four. I’m sorry I’m not at my desk because I am in Shanghai finalising the deal for the acquisition the Republic of China by the National Bank of Scotland.”

“I might be back later for a couple of minutes and if you are not too squalid a little supplicant I may return your call.

“Please now blab out a full, disjointed, breathless account of what you want to say to save me the trouble of thinking once I listen.”

So do you slam the phone down, flounce out of your office, resign your position, and tell the world to stuff itself? No you don’t. In craven obedience you gasp out your little story, and beg the Master of the Universe to give you a moment of his time.