How can I thrive in a small office?
March 28, 2006 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Any words of wisdom for someone about to start a job in a small office setting? I'm mildly nervous.

I'm about to start my first "big-boy job" next week. My family has always worked for large corporations or institutions. However, my new job is in a very small office setting of only six people. (The company itself is global, but national offices are semi-autonomous. Canada's is very small.) The job is in my field, and I feel confident that I can do it. My new position has never existed in the company before, so I'll get to more-or-less set the expectations for it.

Coming right out of grad school, this free-form sort of structure is a bit intimidating. Especially since it's a really small office.

Can anybody offer general advice on how to thrive in a small office/loose structure work environment? Or, for that matter, thriving in my first big-boy job?
posted by generichuman to Work & Money (20 answers total)
Small workplaces can bring out lots of family-type dynamics that can drive you crazy if you're not mindful of the hazards (e.g., in-groups, gossiping, etc.). As a newcomer, you're entering into an ongoing story, and people may be eager to enlist you in their favorite cause/group. Also, people can have all kinds of projections about the new guy which you'll be subjected to.

Get to know your co-workers, be friendly by all means, but I'd suggest you start out by being professional and oriented around working with teams to get tasks done, as opposed to using them as a social outlet. Be cautious about forming social friendships with anyone too quickly, before you know all the stories and how people fit together. Once you get a good feel for the lay of the land, you can adjust your social distance as you see fit.
posted by jasper411 at 3:38 PM on March 28, 2006

1) Office politics can be unbelievably complicated and nasty. So try to be perceptive as to what is going on between the lines. Be very careful about not forming alliances. For the first few days, try to stay very neutral about even the innocuous things. If it's not your job to have an opinion of course. Don't let people suck you into their cluster-fuck project.

2) Every office has it's unspoken rules. Try to find someone who will honestly clue you in to those. Honestly being the key there.

3) Always keep the double edged blade in mind - Everyone loves a person who will take charge in a helpful way and get things done right. But everyone hates a person who takes charge and makes others feel like crap without doing anything worthwhile. Or worse yet, takes ownership and then never finishes. That is, don't be afraid to take the bull by the horns, but be sure you can wrestle it to the ground and make the animal your bitch. Said another way - You can't just sit back and watch. You have to get things done. But done right. I'm not saying this well.

4) Don't be afraid to tell people you can't do it. People respect honesty and courage.

5) Be ambitious. You can be a drone all your life, or you can slowly move up. How to do that successfully is something no one can teach you. Start learning your style now.

6) Build a good relationship with personal assistants and receptionists. It's very bad to have these folks not like you.

7) You have no idea how to fix printers, email, network connections, keyboards, laptops, etc. Seriously. You have no clue about these things. Write that on a post-it and put it on your bathroom mirror. Especially if you do actually know a lot about such things.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:44 PM on March 28, 2006

Oh..... I forgot a biggie - Don't let people know about your blog. And never mention anything about work on your blog. People *will* take things the wrong away. Sooner or later it will bite you in the ass. Sure, people will find it on their own, but just try not to talk about it.

Blogs and work are a worlds colliding thing. You have too much to lose by blogging about your cool new job and the hot girl in HR.

YMMV, but that's my advice.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:56 PM on March 28, 2006

Relax, dude (or dudette). Just do your work as well as you can. And be nice -- to everyone. You'll be fine.

Some of these responses are pretty scary, and I logged 25 years in the corporate world (large and small companies alike). Hey -- it ain't that bad! And if it is, walk away and get yourself a better gig.

I had to giggle at #7 of y6y6y6's list. It's probably true, but I didn't follow that advice at a job I had about 10 years ago. But by embracing all that stuff, I ended up with a promotion, new title, a 25% raise. About three years later, those skills landed me an exciting new gig at a different company, doing work I enjoyed much more.

So I guess I'd also suggest you follow your interests. Be authentic.
posted by wordwhiz at 4:00 PM on March 28, 2006

Did he mention he had a blog? Or am I getting senile?
posted by wordwhiz at 4:02 PM on March 28, 2006

Well, you know, it's MetaFilter. I think you can safely assume that most people here have blogs. Especially the ones who link to their blogs in their profiles.
posted by kindall at 4:06 PM on March 28, 2006

Build a good relationship with personal assistants and receptionists. It's very bad to have these folks not like you.

This cannot be emphasized enough! :)
posted by clarahamster at 4:17 PM on March 28, 2006

I'll say this: I hate my office-based working life and I always have, but the best - or least bad - times I ever had were working in a small set-up such as you describe.

You're part of a little group trying to make a little project (the company) work. You know you have to make it work and somehow because of that the atmosphere tends to be cosier, friendlier and more open. You have more of a say in things because your contribution is necessarily bigger. You get to mix it up, share responsibilities, back people up when they're away. You learn fast.

Working life in big companies is faceless and sterile by comparison. You get stymied and tied down by ingrained hierarchies and inflexible rules and demarcation zones and turf protection and ossified working conditions. Small companies have to be light on their feet and open to rapid change, and the working environment inevitably tends to reflect that. The whole "work hard and play hard" ethic actually makes sense in a small company. Let's make this little thing work and let's blow off stress by hitting the pub at 10pm and drinking and laughing like loons.

Don't worry, you'll be fine. Unless they turn out to be an appalling bunch of stiffs, of course, but that can happen anywhere.
posted by Decani at 4:18 PM on March 28, 2006

It's probably good you are nervous.

I have worked in several small office settings, and in my experience, it's best to come in quiet, get to know the lay of the land and the office politics and such before getting too comfy and chummy with people.

It's their "turf" and they'll be watching you.

Like others have said - working in a small office has a lot of good points and I actually prefer it. You just have to take it slow.
posted by clh at 4:43 PM on March 28, 2006

Welcome to your new family away from home. Best of luck to you.
posted by parallax7d at 5:34 PM on March 28, 2006

This may not apply to you if your autonomous office is fully owned by the big corp. I think many small companies tend to hover on the brink of financial existence. They live and die by individual contracts and customers in a way that big companies don't. Find out where the money is coming from, find out what you can do to help attract customers/retain customers/raise revenue. This is the best shot at job security you have. In small companies it is easier to determine who is contributing to the bottom line and who isn't. Produce. Ask questions early/raise flags early if there are problems. You can't just sit there and vegetate like you can in a big company!

Other things - you will (most likely) have to look outside your office for training and mentoring. Professional organizations are your friend when you are just starting out on a career path. You should at least make a passing effort it look like you are trying to adhere to industry standards.

Think about building skills that can be applied at other companies. Because if your boss or your workplace is toxic, you're leaving the company, not transferring out.

Oh, and be discreet about what you share about your private life.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:39 PM on March 28, 2006

One other thing I forgot. They'll read your email and log all your web traffic. This is legal, and it's pointless to even worry about whether it's an invasion of your privacy. But if you didn't know it could get you in trouble.

But the only thing they'll really get upset about is porn and things which could put the company at risk.
posted by y6y6y6 at 5:45 PM on March 28, 2006

Avoid the office gossip and petty games.

These people are your coworkers, not your friends or family. Be friendly but emotionally distance yourself from fellow employees.

Keep your personal life to yourself. Our department wanted to compile a list of everyones birthdays, address and phone numbers. When asked, I told them that HR has that info if needed.

And most of all, don't ever forget that your day BEGINS when you walk out the door to go home.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 6:39 PM on March 28, 2006

1. Do not take sides in ongoing disputes or controversies until you're deeply familiar with the landscape - say, six months. The magic words: "Gosh, I don't know, I'm new."

People can hold grudges for way longer than you might suspect.

2. Bring something for the office every once in a while. Figure out a small common need and fill it. Bottled water for the fridge? Krispy Kreme on the last Friday of the month? Kleenex?

Actions speak louder than words in a small office setting, and you're going to need a bit of slack from your co-workers from time to time. Make it easy for them to give it to you.

3. Limit personal conversations on the phone to brief exchanges. In a small room, everyone can hear every word, unless you whisper. They'll probably pretend not to, but what choice do they have?

Email and cellphones are your friends for personal stuff.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:45 PM on March 28, 2006

1) Show up. No really, I mean it. In a small office, you may represent a double-digit percentage of the workforce! If you are not there it will be noticed!

2) Take responsibility for the things you are responsible for, learn the things you need to learn, admit to not knowing what you don't know.

3) Somebody mentioned not to mention your blog? Better yet don't blog about work!

4) If a co-worker or boss asks you to lunch, you would do well to go. If you have an important reason why you can't, explain and say you'd love to go another day.

5) There is a really really fine line between being friendly enough, and being too friendly. When in doubt, remember that your coworkers are there to do a job, not be a social circle or a dating club.
posted by ilsa at 8:25 PM on March 28, 2006

Food. Every so often, say, once a month, bring food for your co-workers to eat. Bagels, brownies, cake and cookies. Instant friendliness.
posted by frogan at 9:56 PM on March 28, 2006

Don't join in on any office gossip. And don't play music too loud. Have fun!
posted by Alpenglow at 7:28 AM on March 29, 2006

Start by listening. People like listeners.
Everyone else has given really good advice regarding avoiding alliances, gossip, and petty office disputes. The best way to not take sides and still have people like you is to listen without offering any opinions or advice. If people start bitching about a coworker in your office, try to change the subject, and don't get sucked in.

Wait at least a month before telling your stories.
You may find that people are chatty about their weekends, etc. Don't jump right in with your stories; take a few weeks to get to know the boundaries and time limit on anecdotes.

Learn everyone's moods.
Watch for changes in how coworkers interact with one another and with you, so you can learn what moods your coworkers have and how to tell when they're in those moods. This will greatly help you develop your timing on when to approach people.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:43 AM on March 29, 2006

I'd like to offer up a different situation: you may actually become friends with these people, and that's okay! Some people suggest that a small office is just a scale model of a big nasty corporate office, and in some companies that may be true. But in my experience, small offices can provide a venue that is much more pleasant and friendly, where it doesn't feel quite so much like going to "work."

It takes a certain kind of person to work at a small company (and particularly one with 6 people). If everyone has a 'we're all in this together' attitude, this kind of workplace can be very enjoyable and satisfying. I've worked for at least 3 small companies, and in each I've made great friends and enjoyed an environment where people were more than just civil to each other. And where the acknowledgment of a new baby or a birthday was actually delightful, rather than just an office chore.

The flip side of the coin, however, is the small office where people are defensive. Since everyone needs something from everyone else, when people are not fulfilling their roles or are not getting the work done, small business environments can quickly become toxic. The need to work as a team is greater in a small office. All personality quirks are magnified.

Have fun! Wouldn't it be great to have a job you enjoy going to? Per many of the comments above, always be professional, and be cautious about what you say, especially in the beginning...but don't assume that everyone in your office is to be held at arm's length. You may find a congenial environment where you can play a big role. And that is yet another of the advantages of the small office: often you have more responsibility and more ability to shape the business. Good luck!
posted by hsoltz at 8:05 AM on March 29, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all for the good answers! I'm at least less nervous, now.
posted by generichuman at 8:33 AM on March 29, 2006

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