I’ve been working for nearly 20 years — first in Oregon, then in South Carolina, and now in Germany — and have held numerous positions in a variety of fields over these last two decades. I’ve worked in service, sales, retail, project management, office administration, language training, travel planning, and content creation, just to name the big ones. I’ve been a permanent employee, freelance, a temp, paid under-the-table, worked in-office, and totally remote.
To say that I’ve learned a few things over the years would be an understatement, as each position always comes with its own learning curve influenced by the industry, company culture, and internal processes. No two jobs are exactly alike, but much of the experience we gain as we navigate our working lives leaves us with transferable skills that we can parlay into new opportunities.
As I write this, I’m a little over a month into working with a new client. This is a project management role that calls for full-time hours and comes with some sweet perks, along with the financial stability I’ve been lacking since moving to Germany at the end of 2015. While it’s been a bit of a transition going from my flexible schedule as an English teacher back to a 9-to-6 workday, it’s hard to complain while I’m working from the comfort of my home office (yes, often clad in sweatpants), with no commute and no pesky coworkers making noise over the cubical wall every six minutes. I’ve been fully entrenched in learning the ropes over these past few weeks, and even though I’m highly qualified for the position (it took just two weeks from the time I submitted my CV for an acceptable offer to land in my inbox), experiencing this “new kid in class” feeling again has brought to light a handful of workplace skills that have proven themselves valuable to me time and time again.
I wanted to share some of these concepts here as tips that can be put to use by anyone, regardless of industry and position. (And yes, some of them may seem like no-brainers, but sometimes it’s the seemingly most obvious that we need to remind ourselves of.)
1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
How many times have you prefaced an inquiry with, “sorry to bug you, but…” or left off with a “sorry for all the questions!” as an attempt to laugh off the feeling of being annoying? Stop doing that. Asking questions shows that we’re engaged, curious, and trying to do things correctly. I’m not necessarily going to agree with the whole “there are no stupid questions” thing, because I think there can be. But bad questions are usually rooted in laziness. This isn’t an excuse to forego initiative; you do want to utilize the resources available to you before going to someone with a laundry list of questions, because it is annoying to pester someone about meeting details you could have discovered simply by looking at their google calendar, but don’t be shy about speaking up when you’re genuinely unclear. Whether you’re new to a company or simply starting on a new project within your existing role, asking questions is an effective way to build trust and gain confidence.
Besides, which is actually worse: bugging someone to double-check a few figures? Or forging ahead and making a costly mistake because you didn’t want to ask yet another question about the budget you’re supposed to be keeping in check?
2. Don’t be shy about admitting when you don’t know something.
This goes along with asking questions, sure, but it can also be as simple as embracing the freeing feeling that comes with confessing your ignorance:
“I’m not familiar with this software, do you mind taking me through it?”
“I don’t know anything about this project yet, but I’m happy to help out where I can.”
“I don’t have the answer to that question right now; let me find out and I’ll get back to you.”
“No, I’ve never heard of [insert thing that seemingly everyone else knows about].”
It can be hard to admit when we don’t know or understand something, often because we’re fearful that others will interpret our lack of clarity as though we’ve not been paying attention. Maybe we’re afraid they’ll think we’re slow to understand things, or even that we’ve misrepresented our abilities. But because it does take a certain amount of guts to openly say, “I don’t know,” being comfortable with doing so can lend you real credibility at work. It’s a form of taking ownership, which people tend to respect (especially if the alternative is feeding them a bullshit answer that wastes everyone’s time).
So, along similar lines…
3. Own your mistakes.
Don’t be the person who starts creating excuses and playing the blame game when screw-ups come to light. Sometimes errors are collective, like when Carl in graphics didn’t get that rendering back to you by Thursday afternoon like he was supposed to, or that time your shift manager was supposed to start inventory before they left the night before and you didn’t have enough time to get it all done in one day. But how often has it really mattered who is to blame versus the actual outcome of the situation? Use mistakes as an opportunity to show that you’re someone who can take responsibility and find solutions.
If you were supposed to proof slides for a presentation and you missed a whole section, saying “that was my fault, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it right now” sounds a lot better than “wow, I’m not sure what happened, I must have gotten my emails mixed up or something” or “oops, I didn’t have much time to edit because I was so swamped with other work this week.” The thing about excuses is that everyone has made them, and nobody really cares what yours are. If you missed a deadline or booked the wrong flight or forgot to put in the order for table 12, the reasons for why it happened don’t really matter. Save yourself the awkward, flustered justification and just admit you messed up. It feels surprisingly freeing, and nobody can come at you with follow-up questions for which you’ll need to keep a straight story or explain yourself repeatedly.
Now, let’s say the mistake really was because Carl in graphics didn’t hold up his end of the deal. If you’re the one being confronted about the missed deadline, which sounds better?
“You know what, I should have followed up with the graphics department sooner. I misjudged the time I would need to wrap this up, my mistake.”
“I asked Carl to send the rendering to me by Thursday, but he didn’t, so I didn’t have enough time to finish.”
Again, just own the problem. Throwing Carl under the bus doesn’t take any of the heat off you, and aside from the social implications that tend to come from blaming others, it makes you look like someone who might need extra hand-holding to get things done on time. So, next time you drop the ball at work — whether it’s a huge mistake or a small error — just acknowledge that shit straight away. You’ll look all the better for it and everyone can move forward that much sooner.
4. Don’t be scared to set boundaries.
This one is especially important to keep in mind when starting at a new company or with a new client, but even if you’ve been at the same job for years, I do think it’s possible to begin implementing personal boundaries when it comes to your work/life balance.
You do not have to be tied to your email or your Slack/Skype/Hangouts messages at all hours of the day and night. Projects can vary, yes, and there may be instances where you’ll need to tend to something outside of your normal working hours. But don’t be afraid to keep this to an as-needed basis. By making a regular habit of replying to your coworker’s non-urgent email at midnight, or responding to a text your boss sends on a Sunday morning about something that could have easily waited until Monday, or answering a work call when you’re supposed to be on day three of your vacation, you’re inadvertently training your colleagues to believe that you’re always accessible and that it’s perfectly normal for them to expect a response whenever they reach out.
As I mentioned earlier, my workday is from 9 AM to 6 PM, and I try to adhere to those working hours as best as possible. I always have my laptop up and ready to go by 9, my Skype status is set to active, my phone is nearby in case someone calls or messages via WhatsApp, and I leave a tab with my inbox open all day so I’m aware right away when something new comes through. When I take a break at some point in the afternoon, I’ll set my status to away and I do try to loosely ignore requests for that hour or so. But because it’s during the workday, I’ll usually go ahead and reply to direct messages to let people know when I’ll be back at my desk. But when 6 PM rolls around? I’m done. If I’m mid-task or something urgent is in progress, of course, I’ll stick around to see it through. But I otherwise have no qualms about logging out and shutting down at the end of the day.
I know it used to be that the person who showed up early, worked through lunch, and stayed late was regarded as the hardest-working and most worthy of managerial praise, but I like to believe we’ve evolved out of that era. You can prove yourself as a responsive, hard-working member of the team without sacrificing your personal time. Managing your worktime effectively, being communicative with your team, and doing the best you can to stay on top of your tasks during your contracted working hours is far more valuable than checking the group Slack channel when you’re out for drinks with friends on a Saturday night.
It’s harder to disconnect than it is to keep in touch, as so many of us are always walking around with the equivalent of a tiny computer in our pocket. But as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to during whatever it is that your workday looks like, never feel bad about putting up boundaries around your personal time. Let people wait.
5. Make the most of this opportunity.
Depending on where you are in your career, you might have…feelings…about your current job. Maybe your boss is a nightmare, maybe the position doesn’t align with your skills and interests, maybe you’d like to turn your side hustle into a full-time gig but you have bills to pay that exceed your extracurricular earnings, or perhaps things are mostly fine but you’re not exactly thrilled about your professional life and you don’t want to spiral into continued years of boredom and complacency. Any of this sounding familiar?
Remember that 1) you’re always free to keep looking around for something else or to pursue your own thing on the side, and 2) your current position doesn’t have to last forever. If you’re truly miserable at work, then by all means, do what you can to make a change; but I implore you to you also make the most of your current opportunity while you still have it. Does your company use tools or software you’ve seen mentioned in listings for other jobs you might be interested in? Do a deep-dive into those programs and learn the hell out of them so you can point out in your next cover letter that yes, you’re a pro with Salesforce (or whatever).
If your workload is regularly overwhelming, can you take a step back long enough to develop a personal strategy for prioritizing and managing your time? If you’ve spotted an opportunity for internal process improvement amid this chaos, can you define it well enough to share with the team and offer suggestions for how to implement your proposed change?
Instead of resenting your schedule or dwelling on the downsides of your commute/long working hours/unconventional days off/[insert further grievance here], can you figure out a way to make the most out of the forced structure? For example, I’ve started scheduling myself two mornings a week to write or otherwise work on personal projects before my workday starts at 9, and I try to use my lunch breaks as an opportunity to get outside for a walk and change of scenery. Maybe you can use your commute to listen to podcasts or an audiobook; or use your “weird” Tuesdays off for going shopping when stores are blissfully empty and running errands can start to feel more like a fun activity than a task on your to-do list.
If nothing else, take an objective look at what you can learn from your current job and try to appreciate this peek into an industry. There’s so much more to most positions than just what’s outlined in the “duties and responsibilities” portion of a job ad, and much it of we won’t even realize was valuable experience until we’re well into something else.
Even the dreamiest job still sucks sometimes, but if nothing else, mindful use of these five simple tips should help you keep a grasp on your personal sanity at work. Additional side effects may include a boost in professional confidence, tackling your days with increased efficiency, and remembering that even the shittiest of workweeks won’t last forever.
Summer is an Oregonian-turned-South-Carolinian who moved to Germany in 2015. She enjoys adventures, cooking, and the internet. She’s on Instagram, Twitter, and writes about travel, food, and expat life on her blog.
Image via Unsplash