I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of tips I’ve picked up to make working in the office easier or more feasible, and it’s been hard–it’s so easy to look back and see basically an endless string of failures, even though I logically know that if I’ve been working in an office continuously for the last year and a half (and more sporadically before that), I’ve got to have managed something correctly.
But it occurred to me today that there’s one thing that’s absolutely essential, on which everything else builds, and so it’s an absolutely perfect start to this whole series. It’s less of a tip and more of an underlying philosophy, but hey, you gotta start somewhere:
You are expected to function on a level with your coworkers, and it doesn’t do anyone a damn bit of good to pretend this isn’t the case.
Which would all be really good and straightforward if “perform” meant “fulfill the productive aspects of the job competently.” But it doesn’t. There’s this whole package, largely not only undefined but undefinable, that comes as a base expectation of almost any office job… and woe betide us unfortunates who can’t figure it out. Seriously: The person who completes their work accurately and ahead of schedule, but never manages to look anyone in the face or respond to a friendly “hello!” or chip in to the office charitable causes or food days… he’ll be viewed with suspicion and never quite accepted. And that feeling like they’re “not really part of the team” will be considered when it comes time to renew the contract.
But before you throw in the towel and give up on the concept of ever having office employment, I want to tell you that there’s good news. In fact, there’s kind of a lot of it.
First? It’s not just you that’s not living up to the unstated expectations. Let’s look at a few case studies for examples.
You know your gregarious coworker? She’s always got a kind word for everyone and can make you feel warm from your head to your toes with just a smile… but she’s consistently ten minutes late and can’t manage to sit down at her computer before she’s spent twenty minutes saying hello to everyone in the building. Is she fulfilling all of the base expectations?
How about that one, over there? He’s a great guy, always willing to go the extra mile, never takes a sick day. But… every day, he lets himself get buried under a pile of “just this one little thing” coming into him by phone and email and never gets around to his core work. Is he fulfilling base expectations?
Meanwhile, there’s that girl. She does everything she’s asked, promptly and without attitude–but a third of it needs to be done over again because it’s wrong. I don’t think we need to mention that she’s not quite fulfilling everything her bosses would want of her.
So, long story short, there’s a lot to this pile of expectations. And the more things you’re good at? The more forgiveness you can stash up for the things that are just beyond your capacity.
Second: The stuff you’re not good at? You can cheat. You may not know how to hold your end of the office cooler small talk, and not know what’s expected when someone comes to your desk wanting to chat about something entirely unrelated to work. But there are a couple of tips that you can use for those sorts of interactions that allow you to basically fake it until you make it. Hopefully, I can go more into depth with this sort of thing later, but… well. Let’s take one of my weaknesses. I tend to obliviously go on at length on subjects that nobody gives a damn about–or worse, are actually repulsed by. (Yeah… the dreaded Office TMI.) So, what are some interpersonal tricks I’ve picked up to “cheat” my way around this issue? One, don’t start any conversations. (You can branch out into “Only start conversations when you’re very sure the other person is interested” once you’re more confident–stopping by to ask someone how their daughter’s minor dental surgery went is likely acceptable.) Two, be reactive instead of active; express interest, nod, and ask questions like “And what happened then?”–but shy away from adding anything to a conversation unless specifically prompted. And finally, keep an internal list of topics to shy away from, even if someone else is discussing them already. Even if you have to leave the room in order to keep your mouth shut, don’t discuss politics, don’t discuss sexx, and don’t discuss anything negative about anybody.
There! I still don’t know anything about how to talk to a person, and in fact these rules aren’t going to make me seem more like a regular person to anybody. But I’ll avoid a black mark. And honestly, that’s frequently as good as any of us can ask for, and every bit as good as we need to be.
(Meanwhile… let’s take a coworker I had once. He never talked to anyone unless prompted, and when you did get him to talk, he only complained. I’m absolutely sure this was because he was deeply unhappy. But in his case, the advice might be: Smile when someone greets you, respond to questions with rehearsed non-specific answers, and under no circumstances use curse words. They wouldn’t have made him happier, but he might not have been fired before leaving training.)
Finally, and almost most importantly, Surpluses in one area can make up for deficiencies in another–though never at a 1:1 ratio. Say you’re interpersonally lacking and have trouble switching between tasks. You’ve done all you can to cheat competency at these things and you still don’t think you’re up to snuff.
That’s okay. Or it can be. Because these are only two of the aspects you’re being graded on. And let me tell them? Some of them are really easy to game in your favor.
For instance? Every day, show up fifteen minutes early to your shift. (Don’t charge your employer for this time. I don’t give a damn what the law says. (Obviously, if your boss insists, or doesn’t want you coming in early, that overrides this suggestion.)) Come back early from break’s and lunches.Volunteer for overtime whenever asked.
Or maybe something simpler, softer. You can make the coffee in the mornings, make sure that the general-use office supplies are stocked. Buy the office’s affection by bringing doughnuts every other Friday.
Even something as simple as accepting any task that’s handed to you without complaining (asking questions if you’re not sure how) can do wonders. A lot of office staff will get snippy about, for instance, emptying trash cans or sanding icy sidewalks. Or, frankly, anything that they don’t consider part of “their job.” You’re already miles ahead of these folks if you do it with a smile.
In summary… you’re going to have to live with the fact that there are a lot of things expected of you that you’re just not going to be able to fulfill, or at least not fulfill very well. But it’s okay, because a) nobody else is fulfilling all of the obligations, either, b) you can figure out ways to cheat at “being good enough” at some of your deficient areas, and c) you can make up for deficiencies with strengths, albeit at a discount.
(And if your response to all of this is “But it’s not fair that they’d judge me on something I can’t help, you’re in the wrong blog. I’m not here to make things fair, I’m here to help you succeed in spite of it.)
So! Get to work, my friends. And let me know if you have any questions or suggestions of your own.