Office jobs can get a bad rap. To some, working in a cubicle is tedious, conventional, and contributes little good to society. In the movies, office work is often portrayed as painfully monotonous—a character with such a job spends eight hours a day in the same cramped space under fluorescent lights, bored and frustrated before whatever bold life-changing event takes place.
This type of work experience may seem an unnecessary burden to millennials, who are looking for what one report synthesizes as “freelance flexibility with full-time stability.” More and more companies are offering flexible work arrangements, so people are working in a variety of places and at times of day that work best for them. And thank goodness: a freelancer myself, I rejoice in the options that allow me to do work I love without leaving home and my kids each day.
And yet, I learned a number of valuable lessons in the time I spent at a desk before I started my freelance business. Not every office job looks like Office Space. There are virtues to being in the same space at the same time every day, working with people face-to-face to complete a shared goal. These experiences still benefit me today in my roles as a freelancer and a mother. Here are the lessons I learned working in an office that I’m still using today.
I can’t count the number of times I emailed someone sitting all of six-feet away from me. Sometimes it was to share a file or forward a request from another individual, but other times, it was to ask a question that might have been answered more easily face-to-face. Some people needed that information to come via their inbox. Others would take too long to respond, slowing down progress elsewhere, and I knew I would have to pop by their desk to talk in person.
In order to get my job done well, I needed to know which form of communication each of my colleagues responded to best. With everyone getting a couple of hundred emails a day, it was important to be concise but friendly (and to use words, rather than emojis or GIFs) in the messages I sent. This skill remains useful today, both as a mom (between school, carpooling, and sports teams, there’s still a lot of emails!) and as a writer and editor.
Much of my time in office settings was spent in assistant roles, which meant organization was key. I needed to know what information was coming in, what was going out, and to make those processes happen as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The ability to manage these kinds of tasks is just as important (perhaps even more so) when maintaining a household with four young children.
In our home, I am the contact for emails from school about volunteer opportunities, seasonal schedules at the karate studio, texts from my husband about work events that mean he needs to stay late, and my freelance assignments. Staying on top of things is crucial to getting us all to the right places at the right times. It can be overwhelming, but when everything is working, it can also be intellectually stimulating and satisfying to serve my family and my clients this way.
When I was working in an office setting ten years ago, social media didn't have the hold it does now. But it was still possible to get distracted from my work by blogs and news sites. And even within the responsibilities of my job description, some tasks were simply more enjoyable than others. Of course, I’d rather read a new manuscript submission than file a stack of edited pages!
But all the work needed to get done—not just the fun stuff—and the accountability of the physical workspace offered helpful encouragement to give attention to the less glamorous tasks. Working alongside other employees striving to achieve the same goals also provided camaraderie and motivation when the admittedly tedious tasks presented themselves. Now, even though I don’t have the same external accountability of an office, I’ve retained that discipline of plowing through my to-do list—my feelings about each task aside.
The importance of building relationships
In the same vein, I sometimes miss the work community I had in an office environment. The flexibility I have now is the only way I could keep writing and editing at this stage in my life. But working primarily through email, with the occasional phone call and even rarer in-person meeting, has its drawbacks, too. I have built solid relationships with editors and clients through various modes of communication, but that real-life face time (the kind with lowercase letters) is tough to replace.
It doesn’t happen in every office, but the community built up in such a space can turn into a circle of friends or even something like a family. Shared values and interests can filter the wider population down to a group of people whose hearts are in the same place as yours, and who may have an impact on your life for longer than you realize. So even while the commute to and from the office may feel like a drag, interacting with other people daily is something that’s often missed in the seemingly ideal work-from-home life. Now that I don’t see coworkers regularly, such social contact is something I strive to incorporate in other ways—phone calls with friends or relatives, for example, or inviting friends over for coffee.
At each of my older sons’ kindergarten graduations, every child in the class came to the microphone to share what he or she wanted to be when he or she grew up. Among these newly minted first-graders, we had a prospective farmer, astronaut, superhero, and even pizza delivery guy. These little kids had big dreams, and it was as adorable as it sounds.
If I could fast-forward to their high school graduations—not that I want to!—I would tell them that those are still great dreams. But it’s also possible that you can do wonderful, fulfilling work in a more traditional setting and learn some important life lessons along the way.
Could I have learned these lessons outside of an office? Sure. But I wouldn’t trade the work I did, the people I met, or the lessons I learned for anything. My “workspace” looks different now, but they helped shape who I am today as a writer, editor, mother, and friend.