When Royal Mail modernisation means a worse service

A walk-sequencing machine

New sorting machines have taken the last skill from our job and pushed back delivery times. More change, not for the better

From the Guardian, Comment is free. Read more here.

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Dead Letters and Daily Responsibilities

A miserable looking postal worker with a cleared frame ready to go out

Clear Frame

When we got back from our rounds the other day there was a brand new notice attached to our frames. It was a bright yellow embossed A4 sheet with the following words written upon it:

CLEAR FRAME

 

  • Your frame must be clear of all mail.
  • Redirections must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • Local redirections should be sorted directly to the appropriate walk or handed to your section/line manager.
  • Dead letters must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • All items on the frame that require further investigation to be clearly marked up.
  • These are your daily responsibilities.

Now this is odd as we already do most of these things. The only real change is in the way we handle the so-called “dead letters”. These are letters for people who no longer live at an address and which have been returned, often with a scrawled note on the front, such as “return to sender” or “deceased” or “this person hasn’t lived at this address for at least five years”. Sometimes the notes can be very angry.

What we do with these letters is to “kill them off”: that is we paste a little red and white sticker across the address with the reason for its return. There are various options, with tick boxes beside them. These include “Incomplete Address”, “No Such Address”, “Addressee gone away”, “Refused”, “Address inaccessible” etc. We tick the appropriate box, sign and date the sticker, and then highlight the return address on the envelope with a blue crayon. It is then returned to the sender in the hope that they will correct their mailing list.

I suspect some mailing companies never do this as the same letters from the same senders go to the same non-existent people week after week after week.

We sometimes get as many as 20-40 “deads” a day, which we normally process after our rounds are finished. It seems odd to prioritise dead mail over live mail, to delay our deliveries for the sake of a bunch of letters that no one wants. There’s no deadline for when these letters get to their destination as no one is expecting them; unlike the live letters, some of which may be of the utmost importance.

The other odd thing about this notice is the fact that the management feel compelled to put it there in the first place. It hangs over the frame, black lettering on a yellow background, like some sort of a warning.

It’s disconcerting and inappropriate as we already do these things anyway. We already know what our daily responsibilities are. We already clear the mail from our frames. We already redirect mail before we go out on delivery. We already pass local redirections to the colleagues who are responsible for them.

“Items on the frame that require further investigation” refers to letters with incomplete addresses which we might leave on the frame till we’ve worked out where they are supposed to go. They hardly need marking up as it’s obvious what they’re doing there.

The whole thing seems like a grand exercise in stating the obvious. They might as well add: “In order to post a letter you should push it through the letter box” and: “In order to walk up a garden path one foot should be placed in front of the other”.

If I was of a paranoid disposition I might think they were put there in order to deliberately upset us.

As it is, my guess is that they just represent another one of those management whims, the sort of thing that passes for work by people who sit in offices all day.

The notices dangle from the tops of the frames blocking access to some of the addresses. What this means is that, in order to sort the mail, the notices have to be folded back out of the way.

Which is where, I suspect, they will stay in the end.

Read more by Roy Mayall

  • Roy Mayall LRB blog
  • Roy Mayall | guardian.co.uk
    Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com

Not the Deal of the Century

Reading some of the news reports about the national agreement signed between the CWU and the Royal Mail last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d secured the deal of the century.

From the LRB.

Read more here.

Who regulates the regulators?

I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed…

Read more here.

Listen to Dear Granny Smith on BBC iPlayer

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00pcdpk/Book_of_the_Week_Dear_Granny_Smith_Episode_1/

Dear Granny Smith: A letter from your postman written by Roy Mayall and delivered by Philip Jackson; a heartfelt musing on the past, present and future role of one of the oldest British institutions, the Postie.

Episode 1

Why postmen used to have the best job in the world, and why it’s heading towards becoming the worst.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00pcdpk/Book_of_the_Week_Dear_Granny_Smith_Episode_1/

Christmas at the Royal Mail

Dunkirk spirit

Christmas is the most important time of the year for the Royal Mail. It is when the company comes into its own.

It’s not only about the volume of traffic, though this is phenomenal. People are receiving ten, fifteen, or twenty times their usual mail. And it’s not just Christmas cards either. Everyone is trying to sell you something. So there are endless catalogues, brochures, special offers, two-for-the-price-of-one deals.

And then, after this, there are the presents. People may not send as many letters as they used to, but they can sit up all night browsing the internet for gift ideas, paying for them by credit card, and getting them sent by post the next day. Most of this comes through the Royal Mail.

There’s something of the Dunkirk spirit in delivery offices at this time of year. It’s a veritable assault of mail, and postal workers are braced for the force of the attack. There are times when we feel like the last troops defending the beaches as a never ending barrage of letters and cards and magazines and parcels is thrown at us. And then, after that, we are like the little ships evacuating the mail through the channel, on our bikes and in our trolleys, safely delivering the post to your homes.

It’s a great feeling. There’s great camaraderie in the office, great spirit, and a huge sense of achievement when it’s all over; after which we get two days off work – Christmas Day and Boxing Day – before we resume our rounds again.

But – as I say – that’s not all there is to it.

There’s something else, something more subtle, but no less substantial.

Because we are not only delivering the mail. We are delivering goodwill. We are delivering keepsakes and remembrances. We are delivering thoughts of our friends. We are delivering Christmas wishes and New Year greetings from across the country and around the globe. We are more than just posties then. We are the thread that weaves through the fabric of society, binding it together.

“Modernisation”

You see, us posties are being grossly underestimated. You think that all we do is read an address and then stick the letter through the door, but there’s much more to it than that.

These days there’s immense pressure on us. We are carrying more mail than ever, and working at a faster pace. There has been a 30% reduction in staff levels in the last two years and increasing volumes, particularly of parcels. There are more part-time posties and casuals. There are more rounds being done on an ad-hoc basis with no full-time postie being assigned. There’s an ever increasing volume of junk mail being generated by data bases in computers sent to people who moved out years ago, to addresses that no longer exist.

All of this gets lumped under the general name of “modernisation” and when we argue with it we are told that we are like dinosaurs resisting the changes that will save the Royal Mail for the future.

Royal Mail management consultant David Stubbs says that there are three strands to the modernisation programme:

  1. The introduction of walk-sequencing machines and the measurement of rounds.
  2. The reduction and the concentration of mail centres, into larger and fewer centres.
  3. The introduction of more part-time workers and of new shift patterns.

He adds that the model for these changes are the mail companies on the continent. But here’s the problem. The measurement of the rounds is being done by a computer programme called Pegasus which quite often doesn’t get the measurement right. Pegasus actually added about 45 minutes to my round, which already takes more than the allotted 3.5 hours. Walk-sequencing machines will pre-sort the mail into the order of delivery so that the postman will have less preparation to do, but, on average, these multi-million pound machines save about seven minutes on each round, and still don’t always get it right. And if you look to the continent for your model you’ll see that posties over there are losing their jobs, while their rounds are being franchised out to casual workers, thus breaking the bond of trust between a postie and his customers.

Local knowledge

The reason that postal workers are questioning modernisation that it is being driven by the requirement of the corporations to make profits, and not for the benefit of the ordinary customer or postal workers. It is for the people who send out the bills, not the people who receive them or deliver them.

If you want to know how long a round will take, don’t get a computer programme to tell you, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know how best to do the round, whether by bike or on foot or with a trolley or a van, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know who has moved in to number 22, and whether Mr Jones still lives at number 27, ask the postie. The postie will know. A walk-sequencing machine can sort the mail fast and efficiently, but could it find a person’s address without a house number or a postcode? The postie can.

This is what “modernisation” in its current form fails to take into account. There is a wealth of local knowledge in every office, residing in every postman’s head. Why send double-gazing catalogues out to council-owned blocks of flats? If the company had asked the postie he would have told them not to bother. Why keep sending letters to Mr Jones when the postie knows full well he moved out years ago. Some of these mass mail-out companies could save a lot of money (and a lot of trees) if they bothered to consult with the postie first.

Some of this detailed local knowledge could be utilised to make the post more efficient, if only the Royal Mail would learn to trust its own employees.

There’s a joke down at our office. “This job is all about give and take,” we say. “We give, they take.”

We are referring to the fact that the Royal Mail utterly fails to appreciate us.

Christmas is the time of year when the commitment and dedication of postal workers can be seen most clearly. Forget about temporary workers: when it comes to the Christmas post the job wouldn’t get done without the good will of the postal workers who run the system for the rest of the year too. Without overtime the Royal Mail would simply crash. But the Royal Mail can’t impose overtime nor can it restrict it. We work until the job is done, however long that takes. The overtime is given as a good will gesture by the postal worker. It is not a requirement, it is an act of service to our customers.

In the same way the Royal Mail cannot impose modernisation. It has to work with its staff. It has to consult about the best way to go about it. It has to be done in the interests of all the customers, not just the corporations. It has to be done in such a way that it will not damage postal worker’s health or well-being.

Only then will the Royal Mail become a truly modern service..

More from Roy Mayall

Team Talk

Posties have to be given instructions on how to ride a bike.

Tuesday is a good day.

This is because Sunday is everybody’s day off. On Sunday the sorting machines in the metropolitan sorting offices are silent. No one is working. Nothing passes through the Royal Mail on a Sunday, not in Birmingham, not in Glasgow, not in Liverpool. Everything is quiet. Everything comes to a stop.

This takes two days to filter through to the delivery office. Monday is a normal day. Wednesday is a heavy day. On Wednesday we are catching up on all the mail that didn’t get delivered on Tuesday. But Tuesday is a good day. Hardly anything gets delivered on a Tuesday.

This is just in the nature of the mail business, the way it’s always been. One day maybe, when the Royal Mail is finally sold off to the Lithuanian National Postal service and all of the old rules no longer apply, then they will run the sorting machines on a Sunday too, and Tuesday will be just like any other day. But, meanwhile, Tuesday is a good day.

You usually finish early on a Tuesday.

On the other hand Tuesday is also the day when we have our Team Talk meetings.

“Team Talk” is a euphemism.

There is no team, and no one talks, except management, that is, and then it is less in the nature of a talk, more in the nature of a lecture. We get told what to do.

We all go in the recreation room – what used to be the recreation room when there was still time for recreation (it’s only ever used for Team Talks these days) – and the Manager reads out from a prepared paper sent down from head office, the latest directives about safety or security or whatever. We get news about what’s happening in other offices. We get the latest figures: how many hours we went over last week, how many hours we are expected to manage with this week. Profit and loss. The weight of mail passing through (it’s always down). Any new initiatives that are being considered; new technology and the like.

It’s boring. People sit round polishing their nails waiting for it to be over. It’s just so much wasted time since nothing we say at these meetings will be heard in any case. We’re not important enough in the scheme of things to be heard. No one listens, no one cares what we think, so no one talks.

It feels like we’re back at school again, at school assembly, the headmaster delivering some pompous lecture on the nature of duty. That’s all it is. Propaganda.

Really it’s just to fill up the time because the management hate to see us getting away with anything.

Tuesday is a good day. Team Talk is their way of spoiling it for us.

There are one or two subjects which come up again and again.

Is he wearing a helmet?

Bicycle helmets is one of them.

It’s a stock subject. Whenever they can’t think of anything else to say, they talk about helmets.

You see, no one wants to wear them. The Royal Mail insists that we do.

To wear or not to wear, that is the question.

Mostly we choose not to.

Generally management are too busy to notice or even to care.

This may sound petty. Indeed it is petty. But how else are we to show that we are still human beings and not just cogs in a wheel? How else are we to show that we are quite capable of making our own decisions?

Actually there are very good reasons why most of us choose not to wear bicycle helmets. It’s not only a symbolic matter. We are only required to wear them when we are riding a bike. Most of the time we are not riding a bike. We are scooting the bike or pushing the bike. The helmet is uncomfortable, too hot in summer, too cold in winter, it’s better to take it off. But then, where to you put it? Where is it supposed to go? We are already full up with mail. We have mail in our tray and mail in our panniers and mail in a bag over our shoulder, so where, now, is the helmet supposed to go? So mostly we leave the helmet in the office.

Management know this of course and occasionally we get lectured about it in Team Talks.

Someone in some office in Birmingham went out without his helmet once, and he came off his bike, over the handlebars and – you know what? – he cracked his head on the pavement and he died.

Therefore bicycle helmets are a requirement.

Even the union agree. Health and safety is one of the issues that the union can hold management to account over. Let’s face it, they have very little power otherwise. But no one can argue with health and safety. So the union have debated with the management about the need for a safe environment at work and both of them have agreed, everyone should wear a bicycle helmet for safety reasons. It’s mandatory.

So every so often we get the lecture, and every so often there is a crack down and every so often we have to go out wearing our helmets so we are forced to bump about on our round with this spare bit of kit getting in the way, rattling about in our bag or in the panniers or being left at a drop-off point so we have to go back and recover it later. And, then, after a while, management forget about it again and we all go back to normal.

But, you think, if this is really to do with health and safety, why can’t I choose?

Surely I am responsible for my own health and safety?

And if they say, “well no, not at work you are not, since management are liable for any accidents that might occur during your hours of employment,” then why don’t they just make us sign a waiver instead?

“I agree that if I fall off my bike and crack my head when not wearing a helmet, it’s my fault not yours.”

That would do it.

The other thing we’re often lectured about is how to ride our bikes.

We are not supposed to ride our bikes on pavements, to scoot, or to hold mail in one hand while guiding the bike with the other. We are not supposed to look at mail while riding our bikes. We are not supposed to bump on or off pavements. We are not supposed to carry too much weight. We are not supposed to lose sight of our bike at any point. If we park the bike to do a “loop” (up one side of the road and down the other) we must keep an eye on the bike at all times.

Often, as they’re giving us this lecture on how to ride a bike, I think, “They’ll be issuing instructions on how to walk next.”

The joke here is that if we actually did the job as we are supposed to, following all of these guidelines, then it would probably take about twice as long, and then we’d be in trouble for “deliberate withholding of mail”, a sack-able offence.

In other words, they issue instructions knowing that – in order to do the job – you are going to have to ignore them.

Such is the logic of work in the 21st century.

Guidance notes:

Walking while delivering.

1) When walking please use “feet”. Other parts of the body are not suitable for this activity.

2) Place feet firmly on the ground, preferably both pointing in the same direction.

3) Raise one foot, using leg, and with a forward motion, place it on the ground ahead of you.

4) Repeat procedure using other foot.

5) Once feet have been raised and lowered successively in a forward-moving motion a number of times, this is known as “walking”, and is the official Royal Mail recommended means of propulsion when not cycling.

6). DO NOT hop, skip, run or jump.DO NOT do backwards somersaults or scissor-kicks. DO NOT do John Cleese inspired “silly-walks”. Use only official Royal Mail forward-moving one-foot-before-the-other walking-motion. All employees using “unorthodox” walking-methods will be severely reprimanded.

7) DO NOT walk, fart and read letters at the same time as this may cause permanent, irreparable confusion. Farting is permissible only when reading has stopped.

8) It is recommended that you keep all “thinking” to a minimum as this has been known to tire the body and depress the spirits. If you cannot refrain from “thinking” please think official Royal Mail recommended “happy thoughts” available from the “happy thoughts” dispenser next to the coffee machine.

9) DO NOT step off cliffs, walls or high buildings, as this will cause a “falling” sensation, quickly followed by a “crunching” sensation as legs and other bodily extremities are concertinaed into easily removable parts. Falling off cliffs and high buildings is not to be mistaken for “flying”, a wholly different concept altogether.

10) “Feet” are usually found on the end of legs, just below ankles. If foot is found in or around other parts of body (ie, in mouth) please see a manager immediately for corrective therapy.

11) Please keep “feet” in good repair at all times, well-oiled, and free from toe-clag. They must be appropriately encased in “shoes” or “boots”. Accidents caused by inappropriately encased or ill-maintained feet are not Royal Mail’s responsibility.

A. Manager

 

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