Friday, February 26, 2010

The ins and outs of socializing at work

As we discussed in a previous post, architecture is one of those college majors and professions that seems to beget a lot of fraternizing in your class or firm. That fraternization isn't just limited to dating, though--you often end up having a lot of work friends who are also your outside-of-work friends. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, require some consideration about being friends outside of work, regardless of what you do for a living. Some of this is easier to do when you first start at a firm, but it's always good practice to think about who you surround yourself with in your personal life. When I say that, I don't mean that you need to only hang out with upwardly mobile people in your firm, but rather it's a good idea to consider if this person is good for you. Are they pretty positive? Are they super-confrontational or super-passive? Do they blame everyone else for all their failures? Are they irresponsible with their work duties? In short, are they someone you would voluntarily hang out with even if you didn't work together?

It's hard to know until you do hang out with someone. Until you do get to know your coworkers better, just treat them all the same: with respect. The first rule of socializing at work (and the first rule of work in general) is to treat everyone with respect, from the receptionist and cleaning crew to your colleagues and the firm owners. No matter what you end up doing or with you end up being friends, treating everyone with decency is the best way to go. Even if you don't particularly like someone, you can still get work done with no hard feelings.

That being said, most folks generally know how to make friends--be nice, say hi, talk about stuff, hang out, etc. The thing about work friends is that you have to ensure that your friendship does not affect the quality or quantity of work that gets done. While this first rule of socializing at work is to treat everyone decently, the first rule of work is to get your assigned work done, and do it well. Some people will always do a good job, no matter what. But some people will shirk their duties and want you to lie or fudge or cover for them. Some people will complain about situations at work or gossip a lot and want you to engage in those behaviors with them. If you're not comfortable with doing these things, then it's imperative that you speak up and set your boundaries, which can be hard to do with your buddies. Some people will believe that you have to put up with cruddy or unethical behavior out of them because you're "friends", which is why it's doubly important to learn as much as you can about your coworkers before you hang out together outside of work too many times. If you can avoid the whiners and slackers and cheaters before you ever become good buddies with them, then you draw your boundaries with them even more clearly. There's no "if you were my friend, you'd say I was in at 8 when I really came in at 10"--they know they can't even ask you for that favor in the first place.

Even if you have good friends that you work with, and you end up hanging out a lot outside of work, I believe it's still being a good friend to be the voice of reason/neutrality sometimes with your work friends. Occasionally, my work friends (and my husband, with whom I worked for over six years) would hear me complaining about something or someone, and they would either agree with the other person or at least play devil's advocate with me. They didn't automatically side with me just because s/he was my friend or because s/he couldn't stand So-and-So either--they would be tactful but honest. I'd like to think all of my friends would do such a thing for me, whether or not I worked with them.

If you have a question you'd like to have answered or a topic you'd like to see covered in a future post, please post it in the comments or send me an email from the sidebar. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The ins and outs of dating at work

I just returned from a long weekend trip to celebrate my fifth wedding anniversary. My husband and I are both architects, and we met at work. We met on my very first day in the office (he had been there for three months), and we hit it off instantly. That was nearly ten years ago; we're still together and still happy together, but it wasn't a walk in the park. We dated, married, worked together, and lived together for six and a half years before my husband decided he wanted a change and went to work at another firm. During that six and a half years, there was a lot of figuring out how to make work and personal life happen in a way that ensured sanity and professionalism at work and no one poisoning anyone else's dinner at home.

Some firms expressly forbid dating a coworker, but I find those policies to be obnoxious, presuming, and unrealistic. First of all, how am I supposed to know who I'm going to get along with and be most attracted to? Second of all, if you've ever been in architecture school, you know that this is a rather in-fraternizing college major--by the time you all graduated, I bet at least half of your architecture class had dated one another at some point. That carries over to our profession as well. At least half of my friends who are architects married another architect, and another quarter to third married someone in a related field--engineer, contractor, plumber or other construction tradesman, landscape architect, or interior designer. It's just how this profession is, and acting like you're not going to meet someone good enough to date at work is unrealistic.

Whether or not your office has this "no office dating" policy, the first rule of office dating is to keep it very quiet. Don't flirt with and talk to each other constantly unless it's actually about business, and if you go to lunch or out for a midafternoon Starbucks run, avoid any kind of intimate contact (holding hands or looping arms together or brushing the other person's cheek or hair). If you really like this person, you'll get to see them outside of work and you can do all the hand-holding and snoodling you want at that time. Don't tell anyone about it (for a long while anyway), and don't be putting up pictures and whatnot of this person at your desk either. When my husband left our office, we had been married for nearly two years, and some people didn't even realize we were dating. They never saw us hanging all over each other, and when we arrived at work in the same car, most folks thought we just lived in the same neighborhood and carpooled.

The reason for the first rule (keep it quiet) is because of the second rule of office dating: make sure you can handle the possibility of this not working out. There are at least four couples I can think of who ended up married after meeting at my office (and then dating), but I can also think of at least four others that didn't pan out. Some of them did very well with continuing to get along, and others got a little messy and became grist for the gossip mill. You don't need rumors and innuendo floating around about you and another person, and you don't need to have either of your jobs jeopardized because you start having spats about how a dimension plan should be laid out, all because you each thought the other was selfish and unable to commit.

The rest of the rules for office dating are a lot like the rules for dating in general. Clear communication and respect for each other does a world of good, especially if you end up having to work together on a project. My husband and I did end up on a couple of projects together, and we realized that it was a terrible, horrible thing; I found his communication skills to be severely lacking and rude, while he felt that I took his critiques of my work too personally. We finally approached our project managers and asked not to work together again, and after another attempt to put us on the same team, the message was finally received loud and clear. This experience caused us to have some serious conversations (and we still have them from time to time) regarding what is respectful and clear communication and what is just being rude and insulting. While my husband has helped me understand and see how not all "rude" communication is personal, I have hopefully helped him see that his has to temper how he talks to others as he moves up the ranks in his office--no one will listen to him if the medium is coarse, even if the message is completely correct and called for. (I'm still working on this....)

I love the fact that my life partner not only understands the work I do, but he also knows some of the people I work with and can provide insight into their behavior (i.e. "Don't worry, he acted like that towards me; he's a jerk to everyone."). But in order to make it work, we had to decide up front how this was going to work and how we would prevent problems that would cost us respect and/or our jobs. Ultimately, it's been one of the best gifts I've ever received from architecture: someone who loves me just as I am and can join me in heckling bad terrazzo trim details in a building while we wait for an elevator.

In some upcoming posts, we'll talk about socializing at work in general and avoiding the gossip mill. In the meantime, if you have a question you'd like to have answered or a topic you'd like to see covered in a future post, please post it in the comments or send me an email from the sidebar. Thanks!

Friday, February 19, 2010

This cracked me up.

Let's end the week with a bit of levity, shall we? This article made me laugh with its description of what it would be like to direct an architect the same way some people direct their web designer. (Though to be fair, I've had a client or two that gave me this kind of direction...)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When life gets in the way: coping with mental illness in the workplace

I mentioned in a previous post that we're often expected to leave our emotions and personal problems behind when we step through the office door, and sometimes that's just plain old nonsense (and impossible to do). More often than not, the problem is that people bring too many of their problems to work. This can be hard to figure out because we rarely advertise our problems in an explicit manner. That is to say, very few people ever pull you aside or stand up in a meeting and say, "My mother was an alcoholic and I was always picked last for kickball in gym class--bear with me while I project my rage and codependency issues on the rest of you, my fine but undeserving-of-this-abuse colleagues." You' (and everyone else with a job or in college, for that matter) will meet a wide range of people with varying odd, frustrating, or frightening and discomforting behaviors--explosions of verbal fury, constant snarkiness, lying, paranoia, anxiety attacks, no sense of humor, a terrible and/or inappropriate sense of humor, or just straight out giving you the creeps...the list is endless.

If you have flu-like or cold-like symptoms, it's acceptable and even desired by your office to go home and stay home until you feel better. However, if you come in with symptoms of some sort of mental illness or serious behavior problem, your office is less likely to do anything of the sort. Why? you may ask. Why wouldn't a firm (of any kind, not just architecture) not make an employee fix an obvious problem that's costing one person their job and everyone else their productivity? First off, no one likes to confront anyone on anything. But second of all, if a company pulls someone aside and says "we think you have rage issues/alcohol problems/bipolar disorder/whatever," they may be bound by law to help the employee get help for that problem. There goes money and time to help this person get well, which may or may not work. Also, if they say "we think you have ______ problem" and fire the person without first trying to help them, the firm can be sued. It's a tough situation for the firms, and it leaves their employees in a tougher situation, trying to deal with a disruptive colleague.

If you're looking for a way to combat mental illness at work (in all its forms, great and small), the first place to start with is yourself. Make sure you're not bringing your issues and hang-ups to work and taking them out on others. Trying to see a situation as clearly and neutrally as possible is a good way to start. When you leave a situation feeling angry, sad, persecuted, depressed, etc., pause and think: do/can I see all sides of this situation? If not, what would help me understand what's going on/what just happened here? Ask a colleague for their honest opinion. (However, you do have to be selective about whom you ask and/or your timing of when you ask--for example, if you ask the office whiner about his opinion, you'll get the whiner's angle, but not a neutral angle. Likewise, if you ask someone who's generally trustworthy for their opinion just before their big deadline, know that they're not directing a lot of energy your way at that moment and may not be seeing clearly either.)

If you find yourself in a constant bad/low/wretched/angry mood, this is where a good mentor steps in. You can bounce ideas and problems off of them to see if you're overreacting. And while therapy is not for everyone, it can be very helpful depending on your past history and your present problems. A good mentor (and frankly, any good friend) should be able to tell whether you're dealing with garden variety mood swings and issues or if you really need professional help. A mental health professional can also help you figure out if you really and truly need medication. A childhood friend of mine discovered a few months ago that she had undiagnosed ADHD for most of her life. She told me that while she had been hesitant to go on medication, it had truly made all the difference in the world. Not only is she able to finish a task once she starts it, she is many times more productive at work, and she no longer leaves colleagues hanging because she hasn't finished something, and she no longer gets distracted in meetings that last longer than ten minutes.

The second way to combat bad behavior in the workplace, whether it's actual mental illness or someone just working out their issues, is not to buy into it. Set your boundaries and guard them. If the office whiner comes moping into your cubicle space to complain about one more person who's got it in for her, calmly deflect her with, "Gee, that's unfortunate, Louise. Forgive me--I have a big deadline for Alex. I hope you figure out a solution for that." When the office rageaholic throws a fit and starts screaming four letter words at you, do your best to remain calm and steady--don't back down and don't flinch and act frightened. Instead, respond with, "Marco, I can understand how this would frustrate you--it does the same to me. But we have to come up with a solution that the contractor can work with, or it's going to hold up the project. Are you willing to help me/us figure something out?" And while companies really don't like to confront people on bad behavior, sometimes they just have to do so. If someone's behavior is making work intolerable for one or more of you, you have to let HR (or whatever passes for HR in your office) know about it.

I could do an entire month's worth of posts on this topic (at least), but if you have any specific questions about this or any topic that you'd like to see covered here on Intern 101, feel free to ask in the comments or in an email from the sidebar. Thanks!

Monday, February 15, 2010

When life gets in the way

I apologize for the occasional and spotty nature of my posts here in 2010. I had a string of professional obligations and deadlines to keep, and then the last couple of weeks were completely dedicated to coping with the illness and finally the euthanasia of my beloved cat of twelve years. It was very hard to watch her go, then let her go, then realize that she's gone when I got home and saw her favorite spot on the sofa was empty, and it takes a lot out of you.

The work world would have you believe that emotions are something that you turn off when you cross the office's threshold and that you just have to push your pain aside when you're at work and fight through it. I think it's fair to say that, while there's an element of truth in this, it's mostly a load of crap. We are who we are all the time, not just at work, and we carry with us at all times the pain and problems of our personal lives. When a loved one, regardless of its species, is ill/dying/deceased, it's impossible to ask someone to simply scrub their souls and psyche of this pain from 8 to 5 and act like nothing's wrong. Something is wrong; deal with it. I told several coworkers about what was going on with my cat, and I received a great deal of sympathy and empathy from them, along with offers to help in any way possible. This in itself was helpful, as I was able to give them plenty of advance warning about the day that my husband and I would take the cat to the vet for her euthanasia--I would not be in that day, and I would not be checking voicemail or email. My colleagues knew what was going on, and they proceeded to help me with tasks that might be affected by that day.

My father died unexpectedly when I was in college, and I managed to continue school without missing a day. However, there were some legal issues surrounding his death, and I knew I might have to be absent from classes at some point in order to go to court. A very kind fellow architecture student and friend of mine wrote a letter for me (and I signed it) that described for my professors my father's death and the legal situations surrounding it, and while I was committed to completing architecture school, I may occasionally need to be absent while I tended to these other issues and that I would do what it took to stay up on my classes and my degree. Upon receiving this letter, my professors were extremely kind and responsive, willing to work with me if something came up. Fortunately, I never had to go to court, but it was good to know that I wasn't going to be punished grade-wise for handling my life.

This same courtesy extends to the workplace. If there's something big going on with you, it's helpful to at least let a couple of people know so that they can help you get through a rough time, even cover for you if need be. As my cat declined in health, I found work to be a welcome respite at times because it gave me something to do that didn't involve death, but at the same time I found that certain tasks were just too much for me to do/tolerate. Some of my colleagues were willing and able to help me where I fell short, and that kept my projects moving and kept clients happy. While we have lives to lead and personal problems to solve, we do have to keep projects moving at work.

There were times in the past couple of weeks that I found myself to be unable to be useful. I was distracted, slow-moving, and exhausted--I felt like I had ADD combined with the flu. A couple of times when I felt this way, I left early and either made up the time the next day, or I just used sick time. When life really comes at you, make sure you've got things covered at work if you can, and then give yourself a break. Being at work when you're really angry and upset and worn out is the least productive thing you can do for yourself and your employer. Take the time off, go home and cry/scream/sulk/hold your loved one, and come back later when you've had a chance to recover. Even if you have to take the time off as unpaid leave, it can be worth it. (It's better than staying at work and acting like a jerk to everyone.) If you're not familiar already with your employer's rules on bereavement leave, now is a good time to find out how many days you get and for what family members does it apply.

In the coming days, we'll talk some more about life getting in the way of every day interactions. In the meantime, if you have a topic you'd like to see discussed or a question you'd like to ask, feel free to do so either in the email from the sidebar or in the comments of a post. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Taking Initiative: asking good questions of others and yourself

One of my favorite bloggers on work issues, Steve Roseler, had this recent post on helping good people grow by asking good, probing questions. These questions are good to ask a manager when you're assigned a project, as they help you understand what the manager needs from you. But the questions are good to ask yourself when you're trying to solve a problem, especially when there's no one around to help you.

Have you ever had a manager ask you a good question or frame a problem in such a way that really changed the way you think about your job and/or your work?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Taking Initiative: ur doing it rong

As I was telling a friend of mine, an architect at a different firm from mine, about my recent posts on initiative and getting hired in a bad economy, he recounted the following actual experience he had at his firm. With his permission, and with a few details changed, he has allowed me to share this as a cautionary tale to my readers.

My friend, whom I'll call Frank, has been managing the design and documentation process on a large project for the past year or so in his office. It's a big enough project that it's kept four to six people decently employed during a time that every other firm in his town is laying folks off. Since early December, there's been so much to do on the construction documents (CDs) on this project that he and the team have been working at least one if not both weekend days in addition to at least 9-hour days on each weekday. Everyone has been working this much...except for one intern, who we'll call Jake. Jake just does 8 to 9 hours a day and goes home, and he's rarely if ever in on the weekends. He finally did come in on the last weekend before the project was due and was in for about four hours. Whoo.

As Frank describes it, Jake is an employee that gets moved from project to project depending on which team needs help getting the work done. Wherever the demand for labor is, that's where Jake gets moved. The problem with this is that because of the semi-transient nature of his time use, Jake doesn't take ownership of anything he works on. For him it's, "I'm doing stuff for them" instead of, "We're working on X" or "I'm part of their team." Jake sees himself as temp help with no stake in the end product, instead of being an important part of a team with a lot at stake. To think that your role is ancillary is to sell everyone short--if the team didn't need the help and this task wasn't important, they wouldn't put you on the project, no matter how brief your role will be; and if your work wasn't at least decent and useful, the firm wouldn't still have you. This kind of attitude can often spill over into how you do your job: it doesn't really matter what I do, so I don't really have to learn that much/check my work/ask questions about how what I'm doing fits into the scheme of things, because someone else who "belongs" on the team is going to check/do/fix it later anyway. Sadly, Jake has fallen victim to this kind of thinking as well. Because of his lack of ownership in his work and his lack of ownership of the projects he works on, having Jake's help is almost like having no help at all.

One great way to take initiative is to care about what you do and how you do it, even when your role on a project seems secondary or even tertiary. When I have been put on projects to help out with one small thing, I have sometimes noticed something that was incorrect or had gone unnoticed and needed to be figured out/dealt with, which is a good thing. Every detail you check out or track down from front to back on a project, as it relates to what you're working on, is one more detail that won't surprise the team out in the field once construction starts. Sometimes, being that peripheral person is a great opportunity, because you're looking at the project with fresh eyes...which is how a contractor and the subcontractors are going to look at the drawings and specs when they receive them. When you see the project fresh and cannot make sense of the drawings or how to build a certain part of the building even after working on the project for a month, then someone in charge needs to know. When you call that to someone's attention, and if you can find a way to solve the problem, then that's taking initiative.

And remember yet again the Boss' Paradox: they don't always remember what you're doing, but s/he knows how well you do it. For Jake, Frank has been the boss for the past few months, and Frank knows how Jake does what he does--it's barely adequate. "If we have to do layoffs after these CDs go out, and anyone asks me about it," Frank told me over a drink on Friday, "I'm going to suggest Jake. He works like he really doesn't care and takes his job for granted, and there are way too many good, unemployed interns out there who would be glad to take his place and do a much better job."

No one likes to work 60-hour weeks for months on end, but sometimes we have to pull those hours for a few weeks and even a couple of months in a row in order to get the job done. But just as importantly (if not more importantly), we have to do our jobs well, consistently well. Especially in a bad economy, it's too easy to be sent away if you consistently don't care about process or product. Don't just take a job or a task--take the initiative to do the best you can on it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taking Initiative: a good question from a reader

On the most recent post about taking initiative, Anonymous writes:

For young professionals or architectural interns, what is going on inside architecture firms right now as far as hiring is concerned? I've read articles that said firms are not posting jobs now since they are afraid of receiving hundreds of resumes per opening. I've also read articles that firms can't hire and that unemployment for the architectural profession is 40%-60%. Do you recommend that we keep sending resumes to firms now or wait a few months or change professions?

Good question. First of all, I'd like to know the sources of the articles you read, especially the one about the 40%-60% architectural unemployment rate. My guess is that 40%-60% might be a market-wide number but not an overall profession number. In a recent email to its members, the AIA's national president quoted the national architectural unemployment figure in 2009 as 15%. (I have to wonder if those are AIA member numbers or overall profession numbers.) However, some cities or areas that were hit really badly by the recession (like perhaps Detroit) might be seeing 40%-60% architectural unemployment. It's hard to say. Some firms here in Colorado lost about 10%-15%, like the rest of the nation, while others were hit harder when several projects went on hold at once, or perhaps because they grew during the 2000s and suddenly couldn't keep all of those people billable and busy. And some firms laid off very few if any folks. (Those were usually the really big firms who have offices in several cities.)

Of my 20+ friends and colleagues in architecture who were laid off in the past 18 months, nearly all but about two or three finally have jobs again, though one of them got a job in a different field. Some of them were interns, and some of them were licensed architects. So again, it's hard to say. A pattern I've been noticing is that those who were less likely to get hired by someone were usually older folks who were still not licensed (as in, older than 35). Some of the interns I know who were laid off got gigs with folks who started their own firms, and another that I heard from recently will be going back to grad school in a few more months. (As I've mentioned before, grad school is a good place to ride out a crappy economy.)

But let's say grad school isn't an option for you; either you can't swing it financially, or you've just completed grad school. What now? I posted recently about getting a job as an intern in a bad economy. After you've got a good resume and cover letter together, ask professors or former employers (if you left on good terms) about firms that might be hiring or at least to whom it might be worth sending a resume. While firms may not be hiring, it's not like they're casting aspersions on those who dare send a resume--we all know it's a craptastic economy and that everyone is trying their hardest. It might be worth adding to your cover letter something about "I know you are not hiring right now, but I'd like to send you my resume for when projects pick up--if you will be needing good interns, I can definitely be of service." You can ask for an informational interview, just to get a practicing professional's view of architectural work and the economy, and you can also mention that you are available for contract work if that is desired or preferred in the short run.

The AIA's job board can be somewhat helpful, though at the time of this posting they seem to be looking for more licensed folk than non-licensed folk. But remember, that's just the ones they're posting. The articles you're reading may be right--firms don't really have to post open positions right now because they can either call up the folks they just laid off, or their present employees know someone who's really good and could be brought on board with minimal fanfare. And here's where the news can be good for you: while some firms will call back some of their old employees, they're likely not to call all of them back. With so much labor available--some of it pretty dang good and cheap--they may be willing to take a chance on you. If you have little to no experience, it may be worth their time to hire you because your wage will be low and your learning curve will be pretty sharp.

So, to finally answer your question, Anonymous, it's still worth your time to send out resumes, provided that you do a little research before you start carpet-bombing your town with your paper, and provided that you've tuned that paper up a bit. You may have to work elsewhere for a while before you finally land a job in architecture, but I say that if you really want to do this, you can make it happen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Taking Initiative: doing what needs to be done

We often hear about how companies like it when employees take initiative--it shows drive and motivation, and it provides value and makes employees valuable, etc. Thing is, I'm not sure if "taking initiative" is ever really defined for working folks in general and new, young professionals in particular. defines it like so:

–noun introductory act or step; leading action: to take the initiative in making friends.
2.readiness and ability in initiating action; enterprise: to lack initiative.'s personal, responsible decision: to act on one's own initiative.

These three definitions are all part of taking initiative at work; they are the three components to making a positive change in a workplace or even in your personal life. Ultimately, I boil taking initiative down to this:

Seeing what needs to be done, and then doing it.

Seeing what needs to be done is harder than it sounds. Because they know so little about the architectural workplace right out of school, interns spend the first couple of years just learning the ropes about what you're supposed to do and what the result should be. There's so much to learn that often interns don't even know what question to ask, other than "Hunh?" But after a couple of years (and sometimes, depending on the observation and the firm, even sooner), interns will see things that just aren't working and/or don't make sense. Being on the outside of management has its advantages; because you're not in the fray, you'll watch your managers go through the same panicked rush every time they're getting a proposal out the door, or you'll see them stagger in after a long out-of-town trip to a client, and you'll think that there's got to be a better way.

Perhaps there is a better way, but do a little research first. Ask how your firm does what it does--put together proposals, conduct user group meetings, print check sets and final document sets, etc. Knowing how it's done now can inform your thought process and help you come up with ideas on how to improve something. For example, one intern I know used to get frustrated because his manager was frequently out of the office at out-of-town client and user group meetings. The intern asked his manager if he could attend any of these, and the manager said unfortunately not--the budget was pretty tight, and it could barely afford one person traveling, let alone two. So the intern proposed to his manager that the team conduct online user group meetings for every other meeting. They could either print and overnight some drawings to the clients, and they could look at them and discuss them over Skype, or they could use some online meeting system like GoToMeeting or GoToMyPC and mark up a PDF of the plans while they talked with the client. The intern's manager didn't take his suggestion, but another team in the office did, and they loved the virtual meeting format. It saved them time and money; not only did they not have to travel to the meeting three states away, but as soon as a virtual meeting with one department was finished, the manager could email an intern to say, "The redlined PDF from this meeting is saved in this place on the server, so you can get started making those changes in the plans and elevations."

In the next couple of posts, we'll talk about some case studies of taking initiative. In the meantime, if you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here or a question you'd like to have answered, feel free to let me know in the comments or via email from the sidebar. Thanks!