Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Perception v. Reality: You May Be Doing Your Job, but It's Good Other People Think You're Doing It

My current vendor company boss and I were just talking about this, and he suggested I make it a post for my blog. So, here it is.

As a consultant working for my vendor company, I have been pretty lucky in landing my own gigs. Previously, when working for a consulting company in Redmond, I ended up taking whatever new gig they had landed and managing a team around that.

Did you know that I do not breathe every moment for an opportunity to work on website student loans? That, when I go to sleep at night, I don't dream of government fiscal policies and security procedures? I also don't create community websites with forums and blogging in my spare time for fun.

But those are all things I did for my job. And would do again. The thing is, you're not always going to get stuff you like to do. Further, you're not going to get stuff you like to do in the way you like to do it. Basically, the reason they pay you, as far as I can tell, is because they don't want to do whatever you're doing, themselves (also, in many cases, they can't, but that's another blog post).

And yet...customers are paying for the experience that you are giving your all to them 100% of the time. While they don't REALLY expect you to be thinking about loan rates when you're cuddling with your sweetie on the couch, they do expect it to be foremost in your mind while you're working on their project in the office.

Typically--consulting firms and non--also want to know that you are actually WORKING when you're at work. How do they know you are working? Through a whole host of activities, some of which are not actually working on your assigned work.

For many people, perception is as key to you doing a good job as you actually doing a good job; which is to say, they see you working, they hear you asking questions, they receive regular emails at the start or end of the day, they perceive you taking an interest in the team and your work, and they notice you have given the work some thought, probably outside work hours. These things are pretty easy to do--not a lot of extra work involved--but really improve your appearance to a client or manager.

1) Know your group's out of the office (OOF) policy; if you need permission before you work from home (or to leave early or arrive late), get it. This seems very sensible, but sometimes, especially for veterans in industry, this part gets skipped and people get annoyed.

2) Even when you can set your own in-office and out-of-office hours, tell people as much in advance as you can, and remind them often. It's courteous, but it also plays into later steps so that people know what you're doing and where you're doing and when you're doing it.

3) When I first get up in the morning, I frequently log into work email and answer the immediate items. Even though I typically arrive an hour after my boss does, if he asks me questions about my email when I walk in the door, I'm able to answer them/at least be familiar with the topics. Also, my initial morning emails bookmark my work start time; even if my boss doesn't see me until 9 am, he has emails from me starting at 7:30 and he knows I'm working even before he can physically see me doing it.

4) Make an effort to connect with the existing team; failing to do so may cause teammates/clients/managers to perceive that you have not become as invested in the team because you haven't spent the time doing so. Do so as much as possible, without detracting from your workload. I recommend taking a look on someone's desk and asking about what you see there: children, pets, etc. as a casual conversation starter before jumping directly into work. Try to keep track of those details for future conversations, and, when asked, provide similar details on your own. Yes, people, small talk actually counts. When in doubt, the weather is a fast and furious topic to get in and get out with.

5) Take some of your own time and look at your group/industry in relation to competitors and folks in similar markets. Be able to talk a little about the "wider view" of the work you do and how people do it elsewhere. Save these tidbits (don't spout them constantly), but sprinkle them in as needed to show you are paying attention and care about the work (even if you aren't and don't).

6) Use (5) as a jumping point to make suggestions that will improve work performance. Do not concentrate only on improving your own work performance, but work to be perceived as taking an interest in the team as a whole and improving overall process. To avoid being the person who is working "too hard" at this tactic, do not recommend new solutions anymore than twice a week (use your judgment).

7) Be responsive; if you do not already check your email every half hour, set up an Outlook reminder to do so. Respond immediately to emails as soon as you see them, even if you are responding with "I've seen this, investigating now." As weird as it sounds to be obssesive about email, quick turn around time (even if you don't have an answer) really makes people believe you are on the ball, even if you are really rocking in a dark corner recovering from a hangover.

8) Drop into people/teammates' offices a few times a week and ask a question/get some collaboration done in person (where possible). Talking to people outside of meetings is extremely good for creating a healthy team atmosphere. Face time is also very, very good if you want people to remember your name and your face...say if you're ever contemplating applying for a promotion.

9) Try to bookmark the end of the day with an email relevant to the work at hand. I might do a summary for my boss, or answer a group question as close to when I'm leaving as possible; it helps people know how late you were in the office. It also helps if you didn't have a really productive day, realize at home, log in, and send it. An early morning email (3) + a late day email received 3-4 times per week (as bookmarks for your daily productive schedule) helps establish a pattern of a regular, or sometimes even longer, work day. This works especially well for bosses with weird hours in relation to you.

10) Get in before your boss if you can, and leave after your boss if you can. If you have to choose between these items, always get in before your boss if you can. For some reason, bosses automatically assume that if you are getting in after them or leaving earlier than they are, you might not being doing a full work day, or working as hard as the person who is getting in before them or the other person who is leaving after them; it's a psychological affect, but one that hovers in their brain when you're not there to dispel it...such as when they are writing your first draft review.

11) Status, status, status! At least once a week submit a status report to the team and/or your boss letting them know what you did that week and how it maps to goals/targets for yourself and your team. Doesn't need to be anything more formal than a bulleted list; extra points for noting what you'll be working on next as well as the items you just completed.

To super-expand (11), for folks who are worried their bosses are worried they aren't putting in the time, a mini-status can be sent at the same time you answer email in the morning; shouldn't be any longer than three lines or maybe 5 bulleted points, and a second email, just before you go home, with how much you got done (equally short). Continue to triage with mini-status reports until a) you feel the danger is over b) your boss begs you to stop spamming them.

12) Attend team/company functions, even for just 10 minutes. Face time is important to your team, but its also important to people who are not on your team. Who knows which manager might remember your name and put you up for a new opportunity, or an HR person remembers you and doesn't put you on the cut list when they have the choice between someone they know and someone they don't know?

So there you have it: look busy. It helps to be busy, too.

My brother, when I was just entering college, offered me this advice: "If you don't have time to read the chapters, read a few pages at the front, a few pages in the middle, and a few pages at the end. Then answer questions in the discussion when they are about the pages you've read." That advice--like mine above--works great for the discussion period...but you will only do well on the final test if you actually do the work.

So, in addition to working on perception, be sure not to forget reality.


  1. I think I can agree on everything here except the email one. I found the biggest time waster for me and the worst shot to my productivity was email. I turned off the email notifier, set appointments to check my mail every few hours (2-3) and left it at that. My productivity has soared and I've not missed anything.

    Often, if people need something immediately, they will walk down to my desk. Of course, YMMV but I'm finding that other people's fires are really just someone smoking in the boys room, as it were.

  2. Your mileage will vary, depending on your work environment--at companies where your boss doesn't see you every day to know you're in there doing the work, sometimes responsiveness can really make a good impression.

    You make a good point, though, these are all adaptable (and sometimes ignorable) depending on your situation.

  3. I agree with the blog. It has decidedly good rules of thumb which may be nudged, depending on the specific situation. Nevertheless, I've been successful contracting (and managing contractors) with these tips.

    To reduce the time suck of email, I did request a running summary evening email with prioritized tasks for the following day, estimated times, and actual completion and actual times. It cut the prep of the summary to under just a few minutes and allowed feedback and setting of new priorities. Also, this method allowed reminders for schedule changes.