Next Memory
Relief Working


by Norman Worwood


Most trading and service organisations need people who will be available to fill staffing gaps cause by holidays, sickness, reorganisation or numerous unforeseeable circumstances and, with ultimately 72 branches, the Bank was no exception. Some staff absences such as those caused by holidays could be catered for well in advance, others - possibly as dire as an armed raid on a branch - needed staff who could be moved at a moment's notice.


It follows that there has to be a cadre of suitable men and women who could fulfil this role, a role which required an ability to adapt quickly to different duties, at different branches, under different managers, or even in place of the manager. There were no specially recruited relief workers. Instead, permanent staff were used in this way, some occasionally and some frequently. On the other hand, many were for various reasons unsuitable as 'quick change artists' and remained long-term residents, unless moved perhaps after several years to another, equally permanent Bank branch.


All ranks - clerks, cashiers, and managers - were likely to be needed and I for one worked at each of these stages, though for only a fortnight purely as a clerk just post-War, immediately after joining the Bank from a previous employer. One natural temptation for the Bank as an organisation was to choose those with extra mobility. In the earliest days I had a bicycle and I estimated one year that I cycled nearly 4,000 miles, which did however include mileage spent cycling to and from a base branch where I would remain for the day unless instructed to go elsewhere, plus much weekend, recreational cycling.


The Bank's clerical routines were uniform throughout branches, despite there being for many years no formal training, all experience being gained by the 'sitting next to Nellie' method. Towards the end of the 1970s, a cashier training class, complete with counter and tills, was set up in Head Office and senior staff, posing as 'depositors', awkward and otherwise, simulated typical branch conditions. Tests were set at the end of the course. Whichever training method had been available, experience in performing all the necessary tasks was usually quickly absorbed and some of these new, formally trained cashiers would certainly be used for relief work. As in all walks of life some cashiers were better than others. Unfortunately, a tiny minority were 'square pegs in round holes', yet were technically suitable and it was noticeable that such people were on relief duties almost permanently. Unlucky might be the branch sent such a person, but it could be better than no relief at all. If on the other hand a relief practised a superior method of doing some particular task, it might be adopted by the permanent staff. When sent purely for cashiering, however, there was little room for originality and the main objective was to work as efficiently and accurately as possible in order not to upset the regular staff by failing to balance the cash at the end of the day, so causing everyone to be late going home!


A promotion to the position of Relief Branch Manager was something entirely different. It was a promotion that carried with it not only an increase in salary, but an indication that one was thought fit to look after a branch. Perhaps it was not true for everyone, but I felt slightly awed by the sudden reversal of status from one who was told what to do and was not ultimately responsible for the consequences, to that of the person who was expected to know all the answers and was responsible for all the decisions made that day - or that week/fortnight - or longer if the manager was ill. Fortunately, I had long been compiling a 'crib' of procedures for dealing with the many problems that might arise, mainly those concerning 'deceased accounts', society accounts, mortgages, and the like, plus a host of notes on the various Bank Regulations. Some years before, I had completed my banking qualifying examinations, so felt comfortable on most matters arising from the law concerning the acceptance of cheques into accounts. There was another small matter, however - the branch staffs themselves. In fact it was no small matter at all, rather the opposite, for during a short period of relief, there was rarely time to get to know anyone well, especially regarding their strengths and weaknesses, unless it happened to be a branch visited frequently. In any case, the permanent manager was the one who had welded them into a team. At any one branch, did one detect an air of faint antipathy? At another branch might there be a sense of relaxation, because the staff happened to be averse to their permanent manager? It was necessary to be sensitive to such things. There were also good managers, where everything was in apple-pie order (in which case it was absolutely vital to maintain the status quo) and just one or two not-so-good managers where the work was days, even weeks, behind schedule (which meant desperately working to clear the backlog in case the blame was shifted on to the relief manager - and unfortunately that could happen).


By this stage of relieving, my transport was motorised, though still on two wheels, so getting around was much easier and it was not too long before I was given a long-term spell at a part-time branch that opened from Monday to Wednesday, where I could try out some of my pet schemes without annoying anyone else. Just to keep any unwarranted ambitions in check, though, the remaining two and a half days of the week were spent on the Head Office counter as a cashier, with the occasional forays on relief work.


Prior to attending at a branch as a managerial relief, it was of course necessary to obtain the branch keys, since these were invariably the responsibility of the manager him/herself and this handover necessitated liaison with the permanent manager, often at the close of business on the day before. Usually, the relief manager was known to the permanent manager, although on one occasion I had to prove my identity to a doubter! If a branch had a large staff, there was sometimes a senior member of staff who perhaps normally held other important keys, which he/she would relinquish in favour of a more junior member, then would hold the manager's keys overnight, handing them to the relief manager the following morning.


Even though a relief manager may have felt completely confident about an ability to run the branch, it was unwise to attempt any alterations. The returning permanent manager was not going to be well-pleased if he found upon his return from a relaxing holiday in sunny Spain, that the relief had colour-coded his filing system, moved the messroom furniture around or, worst of all, reallocated the operation of the various branch routines to different people.


Depositors too often seemed deliberately perverse and it was somewhat ignominious to have to pore over the Regulations or Branch Instructions to find a solution to an unfamiliar problem. Telephoning a friendly manager at another branch might be a quick answer, but as a last resort, it might be necessary to telephone Head Office for advice …. and too much use of the latter facility might lead someone 'in high places' to consider that they had on their hands a not very competent relief manager. The outcome was that the relief system was not only part of the Bank Management's role in keeping the organisation running smoothly, but for the relief manager and even to a lesser extent the relief cashier or junior clerk, it was an invaluable source of personal experience in preparation for the time when hopefully he or she might have a branch of their own ….


The entire relief command structure was centralised at Head Office and a small group of senior management with a wide knowledge of the geography of Birmingham and environs, combined with awareness of the capabilities of individual staff, came together at the start of each day to receive telephone calls concerning non-arrivals of staff due to sickness, etc. As quickly as possible, with due recognition of the distances involved, relief cashiers or managers were contacted at their normal bases and instructed to go immediately to ABC and XYZ Branches. There were miscalculations, naturally, and grumbles from staff who thought they were hard done by if they had been unnecessarily sent a long distance, when they deemed someone else was closer. Some branches had to accept that they would get no relief at all, especially if the missing member of staff happened to be relatively junior, and at unusually busy periods even Bank inspectors might take a step downwards and become a manager once more - yet on the whole it was an efficient and troublefree system. After the first glut of emergency telephone calls, work could continue on the more straightforward non-emergency moves such as holiday reliefs, for which the relief staff member would probably have several days notice.


Life is never simple: change was afoot. Eventually, during the final few years of the Bank's existence it was decided that there was to be less centralisation of several functions. The organisation and allocation of relief staff became an important part of the duties of newly-appointed Area Managers. The demands on relief staff would be much the same, but the chain of command was now altered to a more local control system which not surprisingly had benefits and disadvantages of its own. It was certainly the end of an era.