nonisland (non_island) wrote,

[reference] Places and the People Who Make Them Work

Years ago, when I was a tiny baby new to fandom (and therefore to having to have answers right away instead of at some nebulous future point when I was revising a novel that I might at some point get around to completing maybe) and my entire work experience was a bit of part-time retail-minioning, I kept finding myself wondering, “but what do people do all day when they’re supposed to be responsible for magical science-y cities and everyone in them?”

Hell if I knew, really. It seemed to involve paperwork.

Fast-forward. It is now five years later, and in those five years I have tumbled into and out of stories—ones other people have already written and ones I’ve tried to write myself—about people in positions of responsibility for all kinds of places-and-the-people-in-them, from classical antiquity to the distant future, science fiction to fantasy. I also, now, have a full-time job during which I frequently pretend I am doing all these things on/in/at a spaceship/a fortress/at least a magical school, gosh dang it, and I do in fact manage to fill eight hours a day with…well, a lot of paperwork, for one thing; Past Me was right about that, at least.

This is a post about the kind of things that your [insert position of responsibility here] will be able to occupy their workday doing (and which, in many cases, someone actually needs to be doing). Mileage may vary on some things—I work in public education, so basically anything non-government (and some things that are; people will cut corners if they’re for whatever reason sheltered from oversight) will involve less paperwork and fewer delays. There’s also some kind of scaling balance here; there are probably places too big or too small to have this as an actual working model. Also, I would recommend not using this as an interview tool, if you are planning to follow in my footsteps and explore the world of office managing (don’t follow in my footsteps and explore the world of office managing).

I have split this up into the general categories of People, Places, and Things, plus Miscellaneous which was basically me making a list of everyday crises, although there’s a lot of overlap and I haven’t bothered trying to keep everything totally separate.


You have people (feel free to fill in whatever relevant word there is for the people who are working either for or with you). You also almost certainly have people who aren’t your people, unless your place is a military or scientific outpost/spaceship/whatever and maybe not even then; there are definitely going to be citizens in a city, students in a school, etc. etc.: people you’re all responsible for, layer on layer of protective responsibility.

Honestly some of it’s just—just knowing your people. There’s a thing called “management by wandering around”, which basically suggests that if you go everywhere and talk to everyone you will a) have a better grip on what’s actually going on b) be more likely to spot small problems before they turn into big ones and c) develop strong employee relations. All of these are important. People like it when you’re checking in on them, and it helps you stay in touch with why you do what you do.

But also: paperwork. (This will be a common refrain.)

If you realize you need someone for a job, some lucky lucky people can just spontaneously hire them. This is not me. We have to define vacancies, do paperwork to advertise for the position, narrow down our options, do interviews, check references, do paperwork to put that person into the position, and send them for training before they can start working. Someone else does the training, at least.

Once they start working, they will need to be paid. This is your job. This is your most important job, assuming that you and they do not exist in a place where all of their vital expenses (food, shelter, etc.) are already taken care of. If they have to log their hours or days worked and submit them to you, you’re going to have to sign, and if you sign you should probably fact-check before you do. If you have to do anything extra if they worked too much or took some leave, you will have to do that (I do). If you have to meet the courier at the postern to collect the money bags, you’d damn well better bring a guard. Do they sign for their pay? Does it come in actual money, or in checks/letters of credit/etc., or does your organization credit it directly to them without having it go through you? (We do that. It’s pretty cool.)

Sometimes people leave. They resign or retire, or they’re transferred (at your request, at theirs, as an arbitrary decision on the part of the Powers That Be), or they’re demoted, or they’re promoted. See above note re: hiring people, but also—

Do you do performance reviews, formal or otherwise? You observe your co-workers; you know who’s good at what and who isn’t. You know who responds better to written messages, and who you need to actually track down; if you’ve got modern or post-modern tech, you know who never checks their e-mail and needs a physical note taped to their mailbox/door, and who prefers phone calls. You have some kind of idea of what their responsibilities are, and you check in with them about whether they’re doing what they’re supposed to. If they are, that’s good; if they’re not, that’s…less good.

Sometimes people get sick and you have to scramble to find someone else who can fill in for them for a day or two until they’re back, because the things they have to do still have to be done.

And then there’s you: who do you delegate to? Who, if anyone, do you report to? Who do you ask for advice when you don’t know how something works? All of these are going to happen (except maybe the reporting). You can’t be everywhere. You need to know what you can give to whom, and how much time they need to have to get used to it. You’ll very possibly want to check in, regularly, with a regular designee/executive officer/second-in-command/assistant, just to keep them up to date on what you’re doing and what you’re trying to get done.


You will know your place, and love it. You will walk it when everyone else is still sleeping, putting it to sleep or waking it up, and if you—like me—love having the midnight world to yourself, part of you will wish that the whole day is like those first few moments.

The rest of you won’t, because you don’t just love the stones and the earth of your place, you love it occupied and purposeful.

Somewhere you have a place where you can hide when you need a few minutes to yourself. (Mine is a supply closet. There is a staff lounge, but if I go to the staff lounge people find me with questions, pretty much always. I’m serious: sometimes you are going to want and/or need to straight-up hide from everything. Where do you do it?)

But also:

Your place has edges. It might be metal walls and force fields keeping out hard vacuum; it might be ancient stone patrolled by guards; it might be nothing so severe as that, just a line on a map. (Do you walk along the edges, checking to make sure the gates are locked?) You might need to approve travel out, or travel in; you might need to do customs inspections. You might need to respond, quickly, to unauthorized entrances or exits, and if that is a thing you need to worry about you’re probably at the very least going to have to respond to false alarms.

You have to keep your place in good repair. Things have to be cleaned; someone does that. When things are broken, or worn-out, you need to be told and they need to be repaired or replaced. You might have to hire, or find, someone to do the repair work; you might have to go looking for a replacement, or ask someone else to do that.

You need to store supplies (more on those momentarily), and possibly records; you need places to put those. You may need to build or remodel various rooms or outbuildings or whatever as you go.


Supplies! Those have to be ordered—food, medical supplies (everyone needs medical supplies, I don’t care what your place is), any kind of equipment related to the work you’re doing (lab equipment, weapons, office supplies, maybe vehicles or pack animals). Clothing, if your place isn’t the kind of place that people go home from. Communications devices. Material for repairs, if that’s something you’re expected to provide. Fuel, if you have or are a vehicle; energy sources for heat and light, if those aren’t supplied by a utility company.

You are going to have to figure out what you need, based on a combination of common sense and being told by people that they require things. If you have particularly silly people, you may need to ask them if they require things.

If you don’t have, or can’t get, something, you will have to make do. You may go digging through old storage trying to find something, or frantically try to construct a substitute, or just find a nice wall somewhere to bang your head against.

Also, somehow, someone somewhere is paying for this, one way or another. Even if you’re going out and hunting or gathering your food, that’s an expense in time and effort. Who pays for it? Do you have to convince them that it’s a legitimate use of money? (I do.) You may have to fundraise, or try to get sponsors, or sell things, if you are not funded.

There may be paperwork when you buy things; there is likely a delay, and you may or may not be able to convince people to hurry up the process. When things finally arrive, you may have to sign for and/or inventory them; you may also have to distribute them.

Do you have special events? Holidays? Do you make the schedule based on your knowledge of local culture + when your people need a break, or do you follow someone else’s schedule? Someone, somewhere, makes one; it is your job, even if that person isn’t you, to make sure all the things you can control fit into that schedule okay.

Sometimes there will be travel, and you have to make sure your people have what they need and that you know where to find them if you need to.

You may be expected to prove that your place works, somehow.


A partial list of Shit My District Has Official Protocols For And/Or Which Happen Way More Often Than We’d Like:
  • Sudden illness/outbreak of disease (generally something mild and inconvenient, but there are Protocols for more serious illnesses)
  • we (I) messed up and we (I) don’t want to admit it
  • you messed up but we don’t want to tell you that because Tact
  • someone else messed up and now everyone is suffering (ask me about the time our bell system got messed up by a power outage and started ringing in the middle of the night, waking up everyone in the neighborhood!)
  • severe weather
  • power outages, or interruption in other utilities—water, heat, oxygen, whatever
  • mediation and/or discipline involving any combination of your people and the citizens/students/tourists/whatever
  • you misplaced someone important and/or vulnerable, either because you screwed up or they took off
  • irate neighbors/parents/whatever who want someone’s head on a platter for something or other and you have to talk them down
  • inspections and audits, prep for and occurrence of
  • safety drills (HAVE SAFETY DRILLS OMG)
  • there is an entire heading of the district emergency protocol manual that just says “BEES” (yes, in caps), so I am just gonna leave that here
  • record-keeping: who or what came from where, how they/it arrived, what they did/what it was used for, and where they/it went. possibly in triplicate.
  • advocacy and marketing—making people think well of you and want to give you money/their students/supplies/whatever

I have the feeling I’m forgetting like fifteen million things, so if you have any questions please do let me know in the comments, I’m always happy to babble. (Especially if you want to know anything about all my Intense Feelings About How Schools Work, I am so sad by how little resemblance like every fictional school ever bears to my experience working at same.)

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Tags: other: reference works

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