My wife’s friend recently asked me to read the script of a movie he’s written, so that I could help him prepare a marketing synopsis. In the opening scene, the main character is bellowing about the office and cursing that someone has ‘taken his smokes.’

My first bit of feedback was that it was clear that the author had never actually worked in an office. The way people spoke and interacted in the screenplay was inauthentic. I mean people behave inauthentically at work all the time – but there’s a specific way that it’s done in the real world that you won’t understand until you’re in it.

Work is a strange place. A lot of odd rituals have formed to keep so many disparate personalities coexisting in a shared space as part of a team. Here are some of the weird things you’ll learn about work – that weren’t in your job description.

    First, forget your job description. There may have been a list of things that you were told you would be responsible for when you were hired, but those only have a peripheral bearing on what will occupy your time at work. For the one thing, most career growth and development comes from taking on things that are outside of your job description. Showing what else you can do.

    The bulk of your job is actually talking about your job. You will spend a great deal of time not doing your job because you are asked to attend meetings about how you do your job, file regular reports on the minutia of how your job is going, write self-reviews about how well you feel you’re doing at your job, ask others for feedback about how you’re doing your job, and prepare informative presentations on what you’ve most recently accomplished on the job.

    People greet each other an awful lot. Sure it makes sense to say hello to someone the first time you see them in the morning. But how about when you pass them in the hallway several times a day? What if you pass them on the way to – and back from – the bathroom? The constant greetings start to feel strained and awkward. However silence can seem antisocial. And there are the times you walk past several people in a row? It can lead to a rapid-fire machine gun of ‘hey, howyadoin?’s.

    This is probably why many people move about the office with their heads down, checking their smartphones. Being busy with something else is a loophole from the greeting rule.

    Except we will completely ignore each other in the elevator. The elevator is a strange, not quite-at-work-yet environment. People will generally ignore the presence of others and focus on reading their phones, touching up their grooming in the mirror, or listening to whatever is playing through their earphones. Then the minute you reach your floor and you step off the elevator, it’s game on. Let the greetings and small talk begin: “Hey, how ya doin? Didja catch the game last night?”

    Some people like to speak at the urinal. I may go as far as the polite nod if someone comes up to use the urinal next to mine, but I don’t want to do small talk or give an update on a project’s status while peeing. Some people don’t mind that sort of multi-tasking. I find it weird. I don’t get social until we’re at the sink washing our hands. That’s fair game.

    I had once just come back from a successful trip, and was using the washroom when a member of the sales team at the next facility who had seen our event on the news tried to high-five me. That’s not okay.

    People say ‘thank you’ a lot. While it’s natural to thank someone for doing some work or helping you out, it seems that ‘thank you’ has become the new all-purpose sign-off. Everyone says thank you at the end of a meeting, they thank each other again in turn at the door on the way out. When someone drops by your desk, you close the conversation with mutual thank-yous. Emails end 90% of the time with:


    – name.

    It’s the new ‘sincerely.’

    Everybody comes to work sick. Even in a place with paid sick days and flexible scheduling, people don’t like to stay home when they’re ill. You don’t want to seem weak, or like a slacker. We don’t trust that the world will keep turning without us, and quite frankly if we’re going to take a sick day, we want it to be when we’re well enough to enjoy it.

    So you’re going to see a lot of coughing, sniffling, miserable people hunched over desks powering through it. (Which means you’re going to catch whatever it is too – and because the originator was able to keep working while sick, you’ll feel obligated to as well. The cycle continues.)

    You have to participate in strange semi-social rituals. At some point on the job, you’re going to find yourself lip-syncing the climax of the song ‘Happy Birthday’ because you don’t actually know the name of the person whose desk you’re all gathered around with a grocery store cake. (See ‘People get really excited about free food.’) I’ve written messages on birthday and going-away cards for people I’ve never spoken to, bought a ‘Secret Santa’ gift for someone I’d never met, and dressed as a zombie for a full work day as part of a team Halloween costume event.

    People get really excited about free food. There are in fact free lunches: leftover sandwiches from client meetings, timbits, bagels, team pizza parties. When free food is put out, people you haven’t seen in so long you forgot they worked there seem to come out of nowhere.

    People get really possessive over office equipment that doesn’t actually belong to them, particularly chairs. The good notebooks are coveted and hoarded. One guy got away with keeping one of the extra-comfortable chairs from the conference room at his desk and everyone else resents it. There’s an on-going dispute between two of my neighbours about whether the ‘good’ stapler was swapped with a sub-par look-alike.

    We spend a lot of time at work, so people end up staking out their territory and becoming protective of it.

Every office has its own cultural and rituals, so your first job that’s not in your job description is going to be to learn the local norms and try to adapt.

Peter Harris
Peter Harris on Twitter


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