What a two-person office has taught me about workplace culture

main.jpgI recently celebrated one year at my company, jabber logic, which provides marketing and consulting services for nonprofits and small businesses. In the past year, as I’ve explained to friends and family what I do — helping clients rebrand, managing social media, writing website copy — there’s one fact that seems to stand out most: I’m one of just two people in my office

My boss, Amee McDonald, founded the company with her husband, and we work with contract employees on specific projects. But, most days, it’s just the two of us in an open office. There are no cubicles to retreat to, and no hiding the fact that you just microwaved a fragrant bowl of soup. I’m not only constantly aware of the office dynamic; I’m partially responsible for it. And while that alone can be demanding, it’s also been a valuable lesson in determining the kind of workplace culture I want and what I can do to shape it.

A few of the lessons I’m working on: 

Passive aggression is for suckers, and I am a sucker.

I sometimes try to distance myself from the so-called “Minnesota Nice” by reminding people that I grew up in Illinois. But, really, it’s all the Midwest, and I am just as susceptible to choosing icy, meaningful silence. Passive aggression is the ultimate immature move: It lets you register your displeasure without the effort of actually articulating your feelings, acknowledging the other person’s perspective, or searching for any kind of compromise. In a two-person office where there are always a few deadlines looming, there’s no room for airless, wounded silence. Getting over my damn self and talking out a situation has always made me feel better — and more able to tackle whatever I’m working on.

Personal strengths and habits matter.

Personality tests like Clifton StrengthsFinder can feel like a corporate imposition, but they’re a standardization of something that really is valuable: awareness of yourself and of those around you. My boss is self-aware about what kinds of work she’s best at, the times of day when she’s most productive, and the fact that skipping lunch helps no one. Working closely with someone who articulates those tendencies has taught me to consider my own habits, but also to watch how other people work. Noticing the way a colleague prefers to process information, or what makes them short-tempered, can make it so much easier to work with them. Even better: Encourage them to discuss those personality quirks by acknowledging your own. 

Work feels best when there’s a common goal.

In some of my past jobs, I’ve gloomily compared myself with smarter, more confident coworkers and felt secretly thankful when one of them got stuck with a complicated task instead of me. Even in supposedly collaborative brainstorms, I’ve worried more about saying something “smart” than about truly contributing to the pool of ideas. Now that I’m one of just two people in the office, I’m more likely to be part of jointly editing a document or talking out a situation until we hit on the right decision. I’ve been encouraged to feel invested in our success, which is genuinely exhilarating. I hope I can continue to find workplaces where I’m included as part of the team, and I know I need to return the favor by thinking about what the organization needs as much as I think about myself. 

(I realize many nonprofit employees have the opposite problem: They’re pressured, or pressure themselves, into overcommitting at the expense of their well-being. A good leader should understand the difference between investment and self-sacrifice.)

It’s important not only to feel comfortable at work, but to help other people feel comfortable, too.

I’m a shy person, and many of the people I’ve worked with have been shy and introverted as well. In just about every job I’ve had, I’ve struggled with when and how to bring parts of my personality into the office — say, the part that supports Planned Parenthood or the part that has deep and specific feelings about Kanye West. My “work self” may never be identical to my “dance party self,” but working with just one other person makes it impossible to stay closed off. It’s been validating to be able to talk about my relationship with my boyfriend or my family dynamics at work and to be trusted with the same level of depth from my boss. 

And being half of my office has made me realize that that trust and validation is my responsibility as much as anyone’s. If I’m anxious and irritable, if I stay in my own corner, if I don’t reach out to coworkers when they need it, that directly influences the people around me. And it influences how satisfied I am, and even how well I perform at my job.

I can only control myself, so these lessons may be harder to follow once I’m in a workplace with more than two people. But what I’ve learned from my two-person office is that how I control myself is more powerful than I used to think.

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