Two Views of One Quaker Workplace

Department: 

Katie: I’ve worked for Linda Seger for six years, mainly doing her typing. Linda is not supposed to work at the computer because she has a neurological condition called dystonia, so she has hired me part time to do typing and office management. However, that is not my background. I have an M.A. degree in Early American Culture and a B.A. degree in Art History. Before working for Linda, I had a thirty-year museum career at various institutions, the most recent being the curator of the Colorado Springs History Museum. 

Linda: When I hired Katie, I recognized that she brought a vast background of knowledge, experience, and skills to this job – for which she is clearly overqualified. So I wanted to create as many opportunities as possible for her to use her skills beyond typing. If there’s anything artistic to do, I turn it over to Katie, letting her be the authority in that area.

At its core, the power relationship between boss and employee is unequal. There is an implied hierarchy in the relationship, where the person at the top makes the decisions, determines the direction the employee must follow, makes more money than the employee, and seemingly, has control over the employee.

As a Quaker, committed to our testimonies of Peace, Equality, Integrity, Simplicity, and Community, I see part of my responsibility as a boss is to equalize the playing field between my employee and myself, that I should not only strive to create a happy work arena for myself, but also for Katie. In equalizing this relationship, I also know that Katie has a reason to be willing to do this job, and I want to appreciate and support that. 

Katie: After leaving the museum world, I wanted to work only part time, so I could spend more time with my school-aged son. I also travel frequently with my family, especially when my husband is conducting research as a writer of historical non-fiction. Fortunately, Linda can be flexible about the timing of the work she asks me to do. While I try not to “take advantage,” she is willing for me to be gone from the office almost “whenever.” The flexibility of our working relationship is also helped by our being neighbors; my job is a convenient three houses away from home!

Linda: Equalizing the relationship, for me, includes me seeing Katie as an equal. This can include such simple rituals as sharing morning coffee and a jar full of chocolate. We have a tradition that I take Katie out to lunch when I finish a book.

I try to be aware of my dependence on Katie and of her dependence on me. For instance, Katie works on average four hours a day, five days a week, even during periods when there’s not much work to do. I owe her regular hours, twenty hours a week. So when I’m gone on vacation, I don’t take away any hours. She just has to figure out what to do! I’m very aware of how reliable Katie is. She doesn’t let me down when I face deadlines. We have a mutual accommodation in our relationship. 

Of course, as in any relationship, things happen that cause waves. I believe in apologizing, and I believe that it is my responsibility as “the boss” to make sure conflicts get smoothed over, that Katie is not left with a feeling of unease in the pit in her stomach. I do not believe that living with waves is “okay.” I want to keep a peaceful environment. 

Katie: Because Linda works from a home office, I am not just an employee when I’m at work; I’m also a guest in her home. That creates another layer of relationship that isn’t part of most jobs. Peter, Linda’s husband, is at home much of the time. We all had to get used to being around each other at first, and we still need to pay attention to boundaries in the physical space and in our interactions.  Sometimes, misunderstandings happen.

When I first started working for Linda, I unknowingly used one of Peter’s “special” coffee mugs instead of a “regular” mug.  He did get a little upset, but then he made it up to me by giving me my own mug for my birthday. We now all joke about “the mugs!”

Linda: It helps us in resolving conflicts that Katie is pretty self-aware and able to communicate her needs directly. One time when she was not feeling her best, she called in before work to say, “If this is going to be a stressful day, I’m not coming to work.” I said, “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll make sure you’re really happy at work today. In fact, I wish I had learned early in my working years to say the same thing to my boss!”

Katie: Of course, I need to pay attention to Linda’s needs, too. For example, I love listening to Celtic music while typing; it makes my time at work relaxing and enjoyable. But when Linda and I are working together at the same desk, I obviously turn it off because Linda and I need to concentrate at that point, and being a Quaker, she loves silence. I respect that. 

I do look forward to working by myself at times, listening to music, enjoying the scenic view of our lovely Cascade community from the picture window in the office. 

Linda: I recognize having her own space is a plus for Katie, so during the last few years I have gravitated to working in the kitchen and have set up a really sweet space up there. It works for both of us because we both recognize that private space is a plus.

I was a secretary myself in the 1980s, at Norman Lear’s company, and I learned then that being a secretary was the third most stressful job there is, right after being an astronaut or a coal miner! Now as an employer, I try to stay aware of any stresses I’m putting on Katie. I especially pay attention to changing priorities. When Katie arrives at work presuming that she’ll be doing reports as usual that day, and I let her know we have another kind of deadline instead, I try to stay sensitive to how that affects our day.

I have discovered that rituals help create simplicity. In my office, these include starting the day talking about the priorities. I write the “to do” list in a book so Katie can cross out tasks when she finishes them. When we can’t follow rituals because of deadlines, I try to warn her ahead of time. 

Katie: And I try to remember to communicate ahead of time that certain tasks will take time to do, before I can cross them out. One “side job” I do – but a critical one – is scanning all the bills to send to the bookkeeper. The bills pile up quickly, and I can get overwhelmed by them, so I remind Linda that I need time to deal with them.

Linda: Something else that helps us create good order in our office is the core principle of integrity. Sometimes we discuss what that means, particularly when it comes to clients. 

Early in my career, if I had a dissatisfied client I automatically refunded their money. As the years went on, I realized that work is a mutual exchange. It’s my job to do a good report and give good information. It’s their job to read the report, and to take it seriously. I discovered that sometimes clients had not even read my whole report before they immediately complained about it, because it critiqued their script, which they had hired me to do. This meant there was not mutual integrity and they had not fulfilled their side of the contract. I realized that I would be compromising my own integrity if I simply “colluded” with their lack of integrity. In situations like that, I would try to compensate them by answering further questions, writing extra pages or an email, talking to them on the phone, sending them a gift book, trying to clarify a problem and occasionally refunding money (eight times out of twenty-five-hundred clients).

Katie: Linda asks me if I see any deviation from her usual high standards in her reports to clients. I also let her know about any dissatisfaction I hear from clients, so she’s aware and can address it. I sometimes get complaints about my own timing – though luckily, those complaints are balanced with compliments. Clients don’t know me, but they feel like they do, because I am often the go-between with them and Linda.

Linda: We also follow this helpful rule in our office: “We treat everyone as a human being, even if they are not acting like one!” Sometimes, this is a strain! We also ask the questions, “Did anyone die? Did governments topple?” to keep our perspective. Sometimes stress does build, and we do what we can to handle it.

And then, besides having stresses, any job should also have side benefits. When I worked for my favorite boss, Fern Field, who was director of development for Norman Lear’s company, I was invited to the company parties and to the set. Fern would suggest I come right before the catered lunch. Similarly, I include Katie in some of the dinners with clients at our home, because I want her to feel part of our work community. 

Katie: I enjoy meeting Linda›s clients, who have included some interesting and semi-famous people! My husband, son, and I are often included in holiday parties and other fun gatherings.

I don’t read the scripts that Linda reviews, but I get an idea of what they are about by typing Linda’s reports. That gives my job a little variety every day. Also, I’m a life-long academic, and I need to apply that intellectual stimulation to my job. Linda is open to considering changes and additions to her reports, which I sometimes suggest when I work on typing them. 

And this article for Western Friend is an example of Linda’s respect for my experience. It was her idea to have me co-author this article. And she’s inviting me into the community of Quakers by doing so!  ~~~

Linda Seger is a script consultant, author, and seminar leader on screenwriting. She has three MA degrees and a ThD in drama and theology. She is a member of Colorado Springs Friends Meeting (IMYM). Katie Gardner works as an assistant to Linda. She has a background and advanced degrees in art history and American culture and had been the curator for the Colorado Springs History Museum.