How life has changed in my 32 years at the Palais
Cathy celebrating 30 years at the UN
Posted on 8 Oct 2020
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

In the first article of this series, UN Today asks Cathy Peck Arif to look back over her 32 years at the Palais (although she’s not near retirement yet) and tell us how things have changed, for the better or for the worse.

I joined the UN at the end of 1988. It was a very different place than the one I work in today. For a start, we all shared Wang machines, one for two staff so we would each take turns in typing up our notes and saving them on big floppy disks that looked like small vinyls (for those who remember the 45 RPMs).

Most of us had electric type writers, but some still used manual ones. And we had to take typing tests. Fifty words a minute (maximum 5 mistakes) were the norm for anyone applying for a job as an assistant. Most assistants took short-hand as well.

Managers didn’t write their own messages, they dictated them, and they were then typed up by the assistants. Emails didn’t exist, it was memos or letters for everything. If you wanted to send something to the field, you typed a fax on a carbon impregnated form (no room for typing mistakes- you simply XXX’d out the word, then rewrote it) and sent it off to the telegram unit where it would be retyped as a telex and sent.

“Emails didn’t exist, it was memos or letters for everything.”

We had to plan everything in advance, nothing could be done at the last minute. Travel was done on a carbonated form called a PT8 – which was prepared by a travel assistant, hand signed by a certifying officer and then sent over to the travel unit in the Palais who would add the approved itinerary. The staff member then went to the travel agency, picked up their ticket and their travelers’ cheques. Delegates received a cheque upon arrival and would cash it at the bank (Lloyds, then the SBS and finally the UBS).

When we all received our first ‘PC’ with a strange programme called EXCEL, I was in tears! They wanted me to give up my trusty calculating machine where I used to double check all my figures and print out the roll of numbers from my calculator and staple it behind. Once a month we received boxes of printed accounts (GAS) that we would go through line by line, identifying mistakes that needed to be changed or corrected. Then came along IMIS which was simply wow… so automated, so much technology (or at least we thought so), and now we have Umoja.

Cathy at the beginning of her career

“We all received our first ‘PC’ with a strange programme called EXCEL…”

Who remembers the summer of 1999, where the Palais was stormed by the Kurds? The gates were opened early in the morning to let the newspaper delivery in, a security agent was taken hostage. Police, fire brigade and ambulance surrounded the e-building for days. All staff in that part of the Palais had several days off (the concept of teleworking hadn’t even been dreamt of, at this point) while the situation was dealt with.

We also had another incident but in Annex Bocage, where we couldn’t leave our office one Friday evening, as Greenpeace had chained themselves to the fence and gates, (there was no road at that point up to the Annex).

Talking of security, in those days, badges weren’t checked, half the time people didn’t even have one on them. Everyone knew everyone and just walked through the gate. For those of us working in the annexes, when it was time to close up for the evening, security wished us good night and reminded us simply to lock up on the way out.

Cathy supporting Equal Pay for UN Staff

Office parties went on in the building until late, with each section or department having their own. The month of December was one non-stop office party. Everyone smoked, and smoked everywhere: conference rooms, offices, bars… alcohol was served all day, every day in all the bars and coffee shops.

Trousers were frowned on for us ladies, skirts were although not obligatory, certainly encouraged. Jeans? Simply forget it! And for you gentlemen, it was a suit, shirt and tie, regardless of the weather outside, all day every day.

Cahty at a UN staff children's Christmas party

UNCTAD had its own share of drama, when the then Chief of Finance was caught stealing from the UN. He ended up spending some time courtesy of the Swiss Government in the local Champs-Dollon prison. We all, always did wonder how he had managed to maintain his seemingly luxurious lifestyle.

“Do I miss it? yes some of it but definitely not all of it.”

But I honestly never realized all the changes that I had lived through until I sat down and wrote this. This year has seen COVID-19, lock-down, borders closed and enforced teleworking for weeks. Even now, there is only just over half the staff in the Palais at any given moment, the cafeteria is only half open, delegates, serpent etc. closed, no payment by cash and masks are being worn all over the place. And I still have several years to go. I wonder what other changes I am going to experience.

* Catherine Louise Peck Arif is President of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council.