There’s an episode of Friends where Rachel’s colleagues at Ralph Lauren keep leaving her out while they go outside to smoke. While they’re out there, as Jennifer Aniston’s character discovers, conversations about work continue, decisions are made and opportunities are taken. So, for the good of her career (although not of her lungs), Rachel joins them. But who can blame her?
We all want to make sure we get enough face-time with the right people at work. That episode might be 21 years old, but the storyline still feels relevant to our working world – especially in the wake of Covid-19.
Today, with teams spread out geographically and working more flexibly than ever, there’s a 2020 version of that 1990s scenario playing out on a daily basis. Working from home certainly has myriad benefits – no commute and less money spent at Pret, for starters – but one of the downsides is you have to work harder to make your presence felt. Because when you’re not physically in an office, how do you make sure people still notice you and what you do?
The bad news is that out of sight really can mean out of mind. ‘If you’re not showing your face to your manager at least once a week, it becomes harder for them to immediately call you to mind,’ says Laura Vanderkam, author of The New Corner Office: How The Most Successful People Work From Home.
‘When we need someone to do something, the way our brains work is that we’re more likely to choose someone we see than someone we don’t.’
But it’s not just about being considered for promotions or opportunities. Building and maintaining work relationships is essential for wellbeing, too. ‘We can end up creating in a bubble at home, or feeling like we don’t want to interrupt or disturb anybody,’ says Samantha Clarke, workplace happiness consultant and author of Love It Or Leave It: How To Be Happy At Work. ‘It’s really important for you to keep crystallising those relationships so that you don’t feel alone or isolated, as well as contributing to your team in a valuable way.’
However, it’s worth noting that it’s a two-way street, and companies need to challenge themselves on their long-held biases towards presenteeism. ‘As much as you can be pushing, the company needs to pivot in its culture, too,’ says Clarke.‘An active bridge between those who work in the office and those who don’t needs to be created, while managers should get training around awareness of those who are more vulnerable or introverted. They need to learn to recognise people who are deeply qualified but don’t shout the loudest.’
In the meantime, if you’re not going into the office these days and others in your team are, it’s worth putting in some extra effort of your own. The last thing you want is to be in the position that Rachel from Friends found herself in. So, help yourself be seen and heard by following these six helpful habits – none of which include taking up smoking...
No one wants to be the person who talks too much, but when working remotely, we’re naturally communicating much less than we would be in the office. So we need to make up for that. ‘If you’re not in a fairly constant level of communication with your team and boss, you have to take that to task,’ says Clarke. There are so many ways we can do that, whether it’s picking up the phone – ‘A lot of people seem to forget the phone can be used as a phone,’ says Vanderkam – or using Slack or the instant chat on Microsoft Teams. Remember how much casual conversation counts: ‘In order to trust people at work, you have to like them, and in order to like people, it can’t just be all about business,’ adds Vanderkam.
Schedule regular check-ins
‘One of the best things you can do is develop some sort of regular discipline about checking in,’ says Vanderkam. Clarke agrees: ‘Getting into the habit of regular sessions where you’re virtually sitting down with your manager is crucial for advancing that relationship.’ By having these meetings in the diary in advance, you won’t worry so much about interrupting your colleague’s work day or that they’ll be too busy to talk to you. There will also be more of a commitment from either side to have these conversations, rather than letting them slip off the priority list.
Vanderkam says scheduling them once a week is a good balance, and to do them by video if you can. ‘Our brains don’t really distinguish between seeing people on video and in person because they’re still in front of you,’ she says. One-on-one video calls are the most valuable, she adds, and if it’s going to be a group check-in, put the limit at six people – otherwise conversation isn’t easy.
Want to get more face-time with someone at work, but don’t know how to initiate a video call without feeling like you’re wasting time? ‘Come up with some sort of question that you’d like their advice on,’ says Vanderkam. ‘That’s always a good way to make people feel both useful and good about you, because you’re asking them for advice so clearly you have good taste. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with – in fact, there are a million authentic reasons you might ask someone at work a question.’
‘You need to become your own best advocate in the workplace,’ says Clarke. ‘It’s important that you share your successes, because if you don’t toot your own horn, no one is going to do it for you.’
But if you’re worried about bragging, how should you approach it? Vanderkam advises that you put your achievements in the context of opportunities. For example: ‘I’ve really enjoyed working on this task, and I was so proud when the client said X about me. So I’d love to have the opportunity to do something like it again.’
There are so many virtual collaboration tools that extend beyond Slack and Zoom. Clarke recommends Miro and Mural, both of which are visual online whiteboard services designed to allow spread-out teams to work on projects together.
Meanwhile, Vanderkam suggests Pragli and Sococo, which recreate an office space online, giving each team member an avatar so you can see who’s at their desk or not, who’s in a meeting room and who’s taking a break. These sorts of tools give a sense of cohesion between those who are in and not in the office, and help you feel more like part of a team.
Sometimes, the last thing we want to do after a long week at work is go to the team Zoom social or take part in the work book club. But Vanderkam sees these smaller things, on the ‘softer side’ of our careers, as very worthwhile. ‘View it as an investment of your time,’ she says.
‘Even 20 minutes on the Zoom happy hour goes a long way.’ And if you’re able to make a hybrid of your new flexible working life, then do. Popping into the office, even just once a fortnight, will make a difference. And on that day? ‘Be the most wonderful social butterfly you can,’ says Vanderkam. ‘Coffee dates, after-work drinks – do it all. It helps.’
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