Tag Archives | politics

Internship Diaries – Entry #3

Image by Moresheth, Flickr

Image by Moresheth, Flickr

 
Just joining in? Catch up with Entry #1 and Entry #2.

Office Relationships

No, I don’t mean THOSE kinds of relationships (though they’re not entirely excluded). All work environments have a set of relationship dynamics in play, and up until this summer, I had never had to deal with office dynamics, or what some might call ‘office politics’. As an unpaid student intern, I was preparing for the worst. If they treated me like I didn’t know anything, I could hardly blame them – I’m not even studying anything even remotely related to mental health.

However, by and large I am treated as an equal. Although the paid employees delegate tasks to me, they usually ask for my feedback and take it into consideration. My boss always wants me to come to meetings to participate and offer my thoughts, even though I am only here for one more month. Once, I couldn’t make a meeting, and she rescheduled it just so that I could attend.

Of course, in a teeny tiny organization like the one I work for, things like that are easy to do. When you work for a large corporation, it’s inevitable that some things will slip through the cracks. I’m lucky, to be sure, but I’m still a firm believer that everyone else can be this lucky too, unless your boss is truly evil. If you want to be treated more like an equal and gain more experience, ask. Just make sure that you have the time for the new responsibilities. Why wouldn’t your boss let you sit in on a meeting if you’ve already finished all of your other work for the day? And if you show that you’re eager to learn, it’s harder for a superior to treat you like you’re “just a student” who doesn’t know anything.

That doesn’t mean I don’t deal with my fair share of confusion, though. Some offices are full of lively relationships, where people are friends outside of work and go for lunch together and gossip at each others’ desks. These days you even hear about progressive companies instituting things like company retreats and putting recreational activities inside their offices and whatnot. Others are cold and clinical – people do their work and go home, only interacting for business purposes. Mine isn’t quite like that, but I would hardly call it overly friendly.

Everyone gets along quite well at the office. We collaborate on projects, and even when staff members disagree they always keep the discussion respectful and informed. We make small talk about our weekends and the weather. But that’s about where it ends. No one sees each other outside of work hours or shares too much with each other. This is all fine, but what if you want more?

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a packed social calendar, but sometimes I wish that some of us were friends. I really enjoy the company of the younger people in the office – I think they’re smart, funny, and just all around cool people. I would like to spend more time with them and get to know them better. Yet, my few attempts to do so generally fail. I don’t know how to “take things to the next level” without it being awkward. Most people would just say, “Hey, can I add you on Facebook?” But in an environment where no one initiates these kinds of things, it’s hard to feel like you’re not being super obvious and weird.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that I have not yet solved. So this is me asking YOU for advice – how would you make friends at work? How would you take it to the next level?

As usual you can tweet be with your thoughts (or anything else) @chelsearrr and I will see you next month for my last post!

A Lesson In Office Politics

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Office politics are unavoidable. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Optimistic, inexperienced young people entering the workforce can be vulnerable to workplace tensions. Many working students simply want to prove themselves and work hard. That may not be enough to succeed at work. If students do not heed their workplace’s political landscape, they can unintentionally offend co-workers in their endeavor to impress their superiors, risking conflict and possibly their reference and/or paycheque.

Temporary summer employment presents a special case of office politics. Perhaps vying for employment the next summer, or after graduation, or in trying to show their work ethic to improve their reference, summer interns can irritate permanent staff by working at a different standard than expected.

I’ve heard several stories from friends and family about how, during summer employment, they were told by permanent staff members to work slower, or less efficiently, so as not to raise standards.

I recently learned my lesson in office politics during a summer job. I found a summer job with a real estate management agency as an office assistant. I signed a contract stipulating I would work downtown at their newly acquired property from May until August. The real estate company recently bought an old apartment building, and I was to help the existing resident manager revamp the building’s office.

An introductory meeting at the company’s head office provided welcoming words and a briefing about duties, when fellow summer student workers and I eagerly showed up for our first day. Head office was in an impressive marble and glass building. The meeting was held in a sunny corner conference room with friendly vice presidents to greet us, and several fruit plates. We (the summer students) were given individual portfolios containing information about the company, and contact information for the resident building managers we would be working with. According to my portfolio, my resident manager’s name was Valerie. The next week, on my first day of work, I arrived at Valerie’s building and buzzed her apartment from the directory. I wore a blazer, collared shirt, and dress pants. A grumpy woman, around fifty years old, emerged from a ground-floor apartment wearing cutoff sweats, a holey t-shirt, and a look of confusion. She opened the door halfway.

“Who are you?”

“Hi, I’m Helen. Are you Valerie, the building manager?”

“Yes.”

“I was sent by Realty Management Inc.” She stared, unresponsive. “I’m working here for the summer.” Further confusion. “I’m a summer student, they hired me to help with the office until August.” Still no response. “Is that the building’s office?” I pointed to a closed, unmarked door off the lobby.

Valerie turned, seeming to see the office door for the first time. “Er – yes.” She let me in the front door and led me to the office, withdrawing a bulging, rusty set of keys. While she jangled the ring looking for the right key, I pondered the power of a fruit plate, and how official it could make a meeting seem.

Despite the legitimate impression last week’s meeting gave, the certainty of the HQ administrators, and the neatly organized folders, Valerie had no idea I was arriving, or even that I was assigned to work in her building for four months.

The office door swung open, revealing a dark, dank room with dust coating every surface. Ah. The disused, cluttered office accounted for the miscommunication. It seemed that Valerie hadn’t been using the office, and instead had been conducting business out of her ground floor apartment. The phone, desk, and computer lay dusty and unused.

“So, you will work here all summer?” Valerie asked, lowering herself into the desk chair, stirring up dust.

“Yes, until August. I’m here for anything you need in the office. Filing, organizing, helping with the computer.” I sat down opposite the desk in a metal chair similar to those kept in church basements. She simply stared at me from across the desk, creating an silence far too awkward for such a small, dark room. I smiled, trying to ease the tension. “So, anything I can help with, just let me know.”

She continued staring, unmoved. “I don’t need any help.”

I don’t remember how I responded, but I know I could not conceal my overt shock at her blunt insensitivity. Within five minutes on my first day, I was plunged into workplace politics – the real estate company wanted me to help modify Valerie’s office, but Valerie didn’t want to change her managerial style (or lack thereof), and she certainly did not want a new style taught to her by a random student. Valerie likely thought that with the new company buying her building, I could have been sent to work with, learn from, and eventually replace her.

It seemed I had signed away my summer to work with someone who didn’t want my assistance and who disliked me on principle, even if my intention was only to work hard and do a good job. The former building owner had allowed a “hands-off” managerial style, while the new company wanted an involved, hands-on manager. Judging by the dusty state of the apartment building’s office, Valerie was dedicated to the former “hands-off” managerial style. Many times, when I pried too far into office logistics, or tried to improve efficiency, she would shut me down. Due to our disparate motivations, throughout the summer, the awkwardness between us never fully dissipated, and there were several incidents where she purposefully prevented me from doing my job, likely to retain her own job security. However, I never pushed back hard enough to spark conflict when she isolated me from administrative business. As a senior employee, she was more trusted and valuable.

If a conflict arose between us, as a temporary employee I was more disposable.

Fortunately, with some extreme patience and unrelenting cheerfulness, Valerie eventually warmed up to me. We parted with a hug.

During summer employment, students have to adapt to workplace politics quickly in order to succeed – to do a good job and exit with their deserved compensation without stepping on too many toes during their brief time working. As passers-through, their obligation is not to point out the faults of their co-workers, even if they are less than friendly. The goal of a summer student employee should be to depart with experience, a solid, good quality reference, or even just a full paycheque for their work. Thanks to Valerie’s rudeness, I learned my lesson: professional enthusiasm is best applied in combination with political awareness – check office politics to secure your paycheque.