What's up with floaters/internal temps in companies?
January 26, 2007 6:45 AM   Subscribe

What can you tell me about "internal temps" or "floaters" at large companies?

I once worked as a consultant for a Fortune 50 client that employed what they referred to (informally) as "internal temps." Instead of using a temp agency, they had some number of floating admin assistants who were employees of the company, and would be assigned to fill in for any admin who was out on a given day.

Has anyone encountered this type of job before, or better yet worked in it? If so, please tell me anything you can about it:

In what types of organizations would you find them?
What would the position called, officially?
How, when, and by whom would one be notified of an assignment?
Who would be one's actual long-term supervisor?
Is it more or less desirable (or for different reasons) than a normal admin job?
How, if at all, would one tend to fit into the social culture of the company?

posted by staggernation to Work & Money (13 answers total)
This probably isn't exactly what you're looking for, but at Northwestern University there's a "temp pool". It's a staffing area that has temps who can be shuttled out to anywhere on campus, basically. I don't have any more information than what's on the page, though...
posted by bibbit at 7:01 AM on January 26, 2007

I worked for the University of Michigan's temp pool at one point. They ran it like an ordinary temp agency -- you were given assignments and paid by the agency, and were expected to call them if you were sick, late or having any problems on the job, but on a day-to-day basis you were supervised by someone in the department you were sent to work for.

Then again, a university is less like a company and more like a feudal state. Within a more cohesive corporation, things might be different.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:10 AM on January 26, 2007

Best answer: I worked as a "floater" secretary at a law firm (70 attorneys) for about two years.

There were usually about 5 or 6 of us. We never had an official title - we spent many meetings trying to think of an official title for ourselves, but as I recall we never came up with one. Unofficially, we were called "floaters".

The HR department had a woman who was sort of "in charge" of all the secretaries and floaters, and she would give us our assignments. She had a book with all our names in it (in a grid) and as secretaries needed time off for whatever reason, she would figure out which one of us would be the best fit for the attorneys that secretary worked for, and that would be where we'd go. Our assignments could be as short as an hour ("cover for so and so while she's at a doctor's appointment") or four months ("so and so is on extended maternity leave, you'll be working there.") This woman, who did the assignments, was my long-term supervisor.

If there were no secretaries who were out of the office, we were expected to help out where needed - in records management, as an "overflow" secretary, whatever.

Like any job, it had its plusses and minuses. I got to know everyone in the firm pretty well, whereas when I worked at other firms in one specific spot there'd be multitudes of people I'd never see. The variety of work was a plus - one day I'd be drafting wills, the next I'd be doing corporate work. If I hated a particular attorney for whom I worked, I could take comfort in the fact that it wouldn't be permanent.

A big negative for me, though, is that I had no "home base" - no desk I could call my own, no place I could put my pictures and my coffee mug. I'd spend my days looking at pictures of other people's families and pets. I had a phone extension, but it was just a voice mailbox - the receptionist would know where I was each day and knew the extension for where I was sitting, but it wasn't the same. (I'm sure this varies from office to office.)

Socially, we were on the same level as the other secretaries.
posted by Lucinda at 7:20 AM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was a bank teller for two years during college. The bank had about 24 branches in the Chicago/Northwest Indiana area; sort of medium-sized for a bank. I was officially a customer service representative--like any other teller--but generally referred to as a "floater."

My first day was in Hinsdale, an affluent western Chicago suburb. I met my manager that day and over the course of the next three weeks learned the branch's security functions, regular customers, etc. Then I was told I was working in Harvey, a very poor southern suburb. I had to learn new office minutia, new customers, etc. It was sort of like getting a new job every few weeks in that you have to relearn which colleagues are nice and which are bitter; which form goes in which folder; door combinations; how to answer the phone; etc.

Every other teller reported to a branch manager while I reported to the vice president of retail banking. She was a bit scatterbrained and forgot about me sometimes, so some weeks I didn't know where I was going next. I was constantly bugging her.

Logistically, things could have been better. I was a rootless college student, so I didn't really mind driving all over Chicago's suburbs every week, but I wouldn't want to do it with two kids that need to be picked up from school. You can't settle into a routine. I knew just about every branch employee in the company, but all as an acquaintence, none as a friend. The corporate ladder has an extra high first rung to keep tellers away, but it was even higher for floaters. I was considered expendable.

So, as a college summer job, it wasn't terrible, but it's certainly not the sort of thing that generates a career.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:44 AM on January 26, 2007

We have several floating assistants who fill in for assistants who are out on vacation, out sick or whatever. It beats a temp agency assistant as these people already know all of our procedures etc. I wish we had more.
posted by caddis at 7:47 AM on January 26, 2007

Best answer: I've been a floater secretary for . . . a long damn time and I like it. The job itself is not exactly infamous for its exciting tasks, so adding a new face or personality every few days makes it a little more interesting. And, as noted above, if you're working for someone who's not a ball of fire in the personality department, you can simply grit your teeth and look forward to the next desk.

A lot of the women I work with seem to hate the idea, though, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. They seem to view it as a demotion. Or somethin' like that.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:16 AM on January 26, 2007

I was a floater receptionist at a law firm for a summer while I was in college. I filled in for an hour at a time for receptionists who were going to lunch, and sometimes I took over for whole days or even a glorious week for receptionists who were sick or on vacation. I've had good temping experiences, but I really and truly hated this job, mostly because white guys in business suits all look pretty much alike to me, and part of my job was keeping track of who was in and who wasn't. If I had a better eye for faces, I might have liked it better.
posted by craichead at 8:23 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is what you are looking for, but a lot of school systems have a substitute teacher pool along these lines. You get a call at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, and they tell you which school to show up at, and what grade/subject you will be teaching that day.

At the time, I liked it better than a "normal" teaching job because unlike real teachers, I was done working when the final bell rang and the students went home.
posted by mikepop at 8:50 AM on January 26, 2007

This might be somewhat tangential, but some hospitals employ "floater nurses", who work in whichever department needs them the most for that shift or that week. I was a hospital clerk, not a nurse, so my understanding of the process is as an outsider. The regular nurses generally looked a bit down on the floaters, because in general they hadn't done the specialized training required for, say, a nurse who just worked in oncology. Also, the nurses union didn't really like floaters because floaters could be paid less - in times of budget crunches, regular nurse hours would be shortened and replaced with floaters.
posted by muddgirl at 9:01 AM on January 26, 2007

We have a floater IT person in our IS system. He has the same title as other low level helpdesk staff and more senior staff see him as that. He covers short helpdesks (illness, vacation, training etc.) and provides an extra set of hands where needed.

It's kind of a crappy job IMO because they get all the boring or repetitive Joe Jobs (IE: I have 500 PCs to move from this room to a store room, I wonder if Floater is available). On the other hand there is a good chance to move up into a stable permanent position.
posted by Mitheral at 9:24 AM on January 26, 2007

The last large corporation I worked at had a pool of floaters, who reported to HR. It's essentially a "foot-in-the-door" job for people who seem like decent entry-level candidates for whom there is no open job. It's a good way for companies to "hold on" to good people.

Personally, I think it's a good way to experience corporate culture. Yes, you have to deal with the chaos, but you can explore different areas of the business and build relationships with people who you might want to work with. People typically advanced out of the position after a couple months.
posted by mkultra at 9:36 AM on January 26, 2007

My experience is also from a law firm perspective (in London) though I'm a lawyer rather than a secretary.

I would say that these are positions are common in all law firms that are not small. I think the potentially enormous document production requirements for lawyers means that productivity can drop very quickly if there isn't enough secretarial support. We have about 30 float secretaries for a 600 lawyer office.

The position is known as "Float" both officially and casually.

I'm not fully aware of the assignment of jobs, but most floats are assigned to a department so they are familiar with the lawyers and types of documents being produced. There are some floats who cover the whole firm - these tend to be more senior people. Floats do not cover long term absences (e.g. maternity).

From conversations with the floats I think the job is simply different, rather than more or less desireable. A secretary has to make a positive choice to become a float, and you have to have a certain level of experience before you can do it, so I don't think it's less desireable. Lucinda's experience seems pretty universal.
posted by patricio at 11:24 AM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I worked as a floating legal secretary at a 100+ attorney law office for approximately two years. Officially (and unofficially), I was called a "team secretary." There were approximately 10 of us. We would receive assignments on Friday afternoons for the next week; if those assignments changed, we would be notified via voicemail in the morning that the change was to take place. I would have assignments ranging in time from a half day to eight weeks, based on length of absence. Longer-term assignments usually covered medical leaves or personnel changes.

At this firm, I had two long-term supervisors and various short-term supervisors. The long-term supervisors were the secretarial coordinator and the floor coordinator for the floor where I had my "home desk" (the place I would be when I didn't have an assignment). If I was assigned to a different floor, my short-term supervisor would be the secretarial coordinator for that floor.

I am currently a law student. While I worked as a secretary at this law firm, I was trying to figure out if law school was what I really wanted to do. The benefit of being a floater in a large corporate firm for me was to see the kind of work done in many different practice areas, ranging from environmental to products liability to general corporate work. In addition, the work was varied, so it was rare that I was bored.

The only negative part of being a team secretary was the social situation - since I didn't always work in the same place, it was difficult to have relationships with people around me. This was probably compounded by the fact that I was just out of college and significantly younger than most of the other secretaries. I did, however, often eat lunch or take breaks alone. If you really want to learn the culture of a company, being a floater and working in many different departments really is the way to go.
posted by betty botter at 3:10 PM on January 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

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