I Wish I’d Known: What To Do When You’ve Got Nothing To Do At Work
Although I’d held a few jobs throughout and prior to my university studies, I had this illusion of what the working world would be like once I entered it permanently. I imagined myself an uber stylish business woman (well-fitting blazers and pencil skirts a necessity, obviously) running from meeting to meeting, working long hours, and finally getting to use all that knowledge I (partially) retained from university. I imagined it would be the ultimate payoff after years of memorisation and homework. But the reality of the working world was a little bit less than what I was expecting.
Unlike schoolwork, which is assigned in mass quantities and gets done if you have time, tasks in the working world must get done, and on time. The consulting industry (which is where I’ve been for the past two years) especially relies on this concept, because you’ve got to win your projects in a competitive market, and slip-ups can cost the company dearly. Because of this, consulting companies can sometimes be inundated with work, and at other times be slow, especially at certain times of the year (Christmastime, for example). Personally, I love coming to work with an excessively full plate because it motivates me to work hard. But when the tables eventually turned and I found myself with a very light workload for the first time, I struggled and didn’t know how to cope. How was I going to excel at work when I didn’t have anything to excel at? What should I be doing? Is this going to endanger my job, will my company decide they no longer need me?
When this first happened to me at my job back in Canada, I struggled to find my place at work without a heavy task load. I spent hours a day reading newspaper articles, blogs, or listening to YouTube clips. I’m embarrassed to admit that in a way, I wasted company time. But to be honest, I was under the impression that it was my manager’s role to keep me occupied, and if he wasn’t, I shouldn’t bother him. He was probably busy, but would get to me when he had work to pass along. But thinking this way was a huge mistake.
The lesson I wish I’d learned back then was that just because there’s no work from your manager, does not mean there’s no work. And if you want to get ahead in your career, which I assume you do, than the easiest way to stand out from your peers and fellow junior-level colleagues is to get out there and track the work down yourself. And this all begins with something I brought up weeks ago: getting to know as many colleagues as possible, both in and outside of your department, as soon as you start a new job.
When I first began my job here in Melbourne, I made a decided effort to talk to and be friendly towards as many new faces as I could. I didn’t always remember what their job title was, or where in the building they worked, but I chatted nonetheless. One of the things to remember is to mention your skills, what you’re good at, or even your hobbies. Developing relationships with people who are not your managers is the first step to keeping busy when the workload is light.
Once you find yourself with a less than packed schedule of work, this is where you can take action. Estimate how long you’ll take to finish what’s currently on your plate. If you’ve got anything less than a day or two, it’s time to mobilise. Take a walk around the office, visit a few friends and employees outside of your department (if your workplace permits interdepartmental work – most do), and ask people if they’ve got anything that you could help with. The important thing here is to ask in advance of your potentially empty work schedule, because unless the task is urgent, it’ll take anywhere from half a day to a couple days to get even small and simple tasks from others. Familiarise yourself with the fact that corporate time is a severely exaggerated version of real-world time: what should take someone 20 minutes will often take them a day. It sucks, especially when you’re desperate for work, but it’s the truth.
Something else I’ve learned is that volunteering for the most straight-forward, menial tasks is a great way to get an in with another department or project. Currently I’m working on a few projects at work that are quite interesting, and my involvement began by simply offering to photocopy some files for someone, or to organise their excel spreadsheet. Pay attention to the content of these documents, and ask a few questions about the project once you’re finished. By showing that you’re paying attention to the project, and being interested in learning more, you’re making impressions on the people around you. And when they decide that they need help in the future with something a bit more in depth, they’ll likely come to you because you’re the most knowledgeable (and interested) helper they can think of.
I didn’t figure this methodology out until about a year into my working life. But once I did, it’s like I magically keep busier than many of the other junior engineers in my department. I have Marketing asking me for help, I have other technical sections asking if I have a free moment, and I gladly help out whenever I can, in whatever capacity. Sometimes I’ll stay late to get it all done. Not only have I now established myself as a happy-to-work, dedicated junior employee, but I’m building relationships with people I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with. In a job market like the one we face right now, the more people that can vouch for your, the better. Working life is built upon a foundation of references, referrals, and recommendations, and the broader you throw your net, the more positively your result will be.
A year ago, when I found myself without work, I kept quiet, kept to myself, and read completely non-work-related content on the internet, assuming it was someone else’s responsibility to keep me occupied. I’m ashamed that I thought that now, because I placed my ability to succeed on someone else’s shoulders, someone else who was managing a number of other employees just like me. But when I learned to take the responsibility back, to chase up my own work and keep my timesheet full, that’s when I realised what a benefit that can be, both professionally and personally. I’ve made new friends at work, I’ve developed a reputation as an adaptable and willing employee, and I can walk around the entire building and recognise more faces and have more conversations than I ever could before. If you want to be an employee that coasts, that meets the status quo, and most importantly, is disposable, I can tell you that my old approach will work for you. But if you want to be the best you can be, to stand out amongst the sea of junior employees, and start making a name for yourself the day you step foot in the office, you now know what to do. And I can tell you from experience, it’s far more fulfilling to be the latter. Taking control of your career starts from day one, and as long as you realise that, you’ll do just fine.
Have you ever experienced the work-free work day? How did you deal with it? I think sometimes it can be nice to relax and take it easy, but other times it’s just tough. Do you have any other ideas for getting more assignments? I’d love to hear them 🙂