Anatomy of the Office

You spend much of your waking life there, but do you really understand how it works?

6 min read

We arrive early in the morning and leave late in the day, five or even six days a week. Considering how much time we spend there, it's sometimes surprising how little we think about how the office works or how to make our time there as pleasant and productive as possible. Novice engineers, especially, are often shocked to find the workplace to be so different from school--professors are replaced by managers, what you wear is important, and there are many subtle and not-so-subtle relationships to be negotiated. But by dissecting the goings-on of the workplace, you can gain a better understanding of the complex physical and social dynamics of office life, which you can then use to become more effective and happier in your work life. Here are the basics.

Office culture. Like societies, every organization has its own culture. This is evidenced by such things as how formally or informally employees dress and speak, how much or how little people interact, and what the offices look like. Culture also relates to less visible things, like how decisions are made, how problems are solved, and how good work is rewarded.

Recently, I ate lunch in the cafeteria of a large engineering organization. I was struck by the employees' high level of energy and animated conversation, a sign to me that these people were happy and that this was a stimulating place to work. As squishy and hard to pin down as culture may be, it's important to determine how comfortable you are in the organization and how well you fit in, ideally before you accept a job there.

Turf battles. Perhaps no workplace concept is as subtle as "turf." A throwback to the territoriality exhibited by our animal ancestors, turf in the workplace is both the physical boundaries of your workspace and the scope of your work responsibilities. Your workspace can be a real office with walls and a door, or the proverbial cubicle, or, increasingly, an open area that is intended to foster collaboration.

In each case, you occupy a patch of space, just beyond which lies someone else's space. Even if the boundaries aren't officially designated, some people become very upset when their space is disturbed. So the first rule of turf is: don't disturb another's workspace. Even if you only want to borrow a stapler from someone's office, ask before doing so.

A more serious infringement can occur when one person "invades" the responsibility of another person or group. You may not even realize you've done anything wrong, until the person tells you, "Hey, that's my responsibility!" Translation: "That's my job, not yours, so back off!" They may think you're threatening to take over the work they're supposed to do and, by extension, their very job. Even those who aren't particularly good at or diligent about their jobs can be stubbornly territorial.

Remember: it's not home, but you will probably spend as much time at the office as anywhere else. So make the most of it

Many times the transgression is quite innocent. Perhaps you were unaware that someone else was supposed to do that work, perhaps you were just trying to help out. If that's the case, you can usually smooth over any hurt feelings with a quick, soft apology: "Oh, I'm sorry. Didn't know you were responsible for that."

The notorious cc: line. As important as turf is the flow of information in the office. Ever wonder why there's often a long list of people who are copied on memos or e-mails? Who are all those people, and why are they getting a copy of this message? Some recipients clearly need to receive a copy, but others want to be copied just so they can be seen as powerful or influential or simply be kept in the loop about what's going on. In some organizations, this causes the "cc:" line to grow to three or four or more lines of names.

To counter that phenomenon, a few companies have instituted rules prohibiting the wholesale copying of messages. If in doubt about whom to circulate your message to, just ask the person if he or she would like to be included. And if you inadvertently leave people off the list, you can always send them a copy later.

Water cooler talk. What can be more fun for an engineer than the prospect of talking with co-workers around the proverbial water cooler? Whether it's about last night's TV shows or this weekend's plans, office socializing is an important part of work life. The only caution here is that you need to control the amount of time you spend doing this, before it starts to eat into the limited time you have to do your work. Be careful about the credibility of information you glean from office gossip, and don't speak badly of others. It's not only unprofessional, it can lead others to talk badly about you.

Interruptions. Somewhat more vexing than office chitchat are the many interruptions you inevitably get throughout the day, as when people stop by your office to talk. "Got a minute?" they'll ask, but that can easily stretch to 15 or 30 minutes if you're not careful. Phone calls can also disrupt your workday, and, increasingly, incoming e-mail messages beep to get your attention, further derailing your train of thought.

Although it's tempting to stop whatever you're doing and respond immediately to any and all interruptions, you don't have to. You can politely deflect the person at your office door by simply explaining that you're in the middle of something and asking when you can get back to him or her.

And no one says that you must pick up every phone call, especially if you are in the middle of an important task or meeting--that's what caller ID and voicemail are for.

As for e-mail, try to set aside a block of time every workday for reading and responding. Try to handle each message only once: read it and then either respond to it, file it, or delete it.

At the least, respond immediately to the sender saying that you got the message, that your first reaction is thus-and-so, and that you'll get back to them by a certain time. Putting off any kind of action only adds to your "to do" list and saps your mental energy--now you'll subconsciously be thinking about when you're going to get to it.

Work hours. Your manager can control very few things about you and your work performance. One area she can control is when you're supposed to be at work. Even if you work flexible hours, being at the office during whatever hours you've established for yourself is important to your manager as well as your co-workers.

No matter what the quality or quantity of your output, it is an unwritten rule that the boss has to see you at your desk to consider you "working." People who work from home obviously can't do that, so it's especially important for them to keep in close touch with the workplace by phone, e-mail, and other means.

Lunch anyone? As people work increasingly long hours, many become desk-eaters, eating their lunches alone, at their desks, day in and day out. This is not healthy. Of course you must eat, but you also need to take a break from your work every now and then, and lunch is a good time to do that. A relaxed lunch lets you meet other people, stroll around, and, ideally, get out into the fresh air. It invigorates you in the opposite way that eating at your desk may depress you. So make a point of taking a real lunch break as often as you can.

Office space. Since you spend so much time actually in your office, it should be as physically and psychologically comfortable as you can make it. This means liberal use of anything that will relax you as you do your work--photos of family or friends, plants, artwork.

Also consider where and how you store things, and what level of mess or tidiness you're most comfortable with. And make sure that your computer monitor, keyboard, and chair are placed in an ergonomically correct arrangement.

You can get some ideas by walking around and seeing good (and bad) examples of how others have decorated their workspaces. There are also magazines and books devoted to designing and decorating any workplace. It matters, so take the time and effort to make your workspace comfortable.

The well-dressed engineer. Engineers as a whole probably think even less about what to wear than what their office looks like. So how does one "dress for success" these days? This is a moving target and is influenced by the type of industry and the part of the world you work in.

The best guide is to see what others wear to work, find out if there are any guidelines in your organization covering dress, and just use common sense (which, as is often noted, is not so common).

If you're just starting a job and are unsure what to wear, a general rule is to dress a little more formally or conservatively than you might otherwise. The main point is to maintain good personal habits of health and cleanliness, and be neat and presentable at all times.

So as you go about trying to understand the office and creating a work setting that lets you be as productive and comfortable as possible, remember: it's not home, but you will probably spend as much of your life at the office as anywhere else. So make the most of it.

This is the third article in a series for young engineers to help them become more effective and creative in the workplace. It is drawn from Carl Selinger's professional development seminar, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School." The series is available on IEEE Spectrum'sCareers site, /careers.

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