What I wish I’d known when I started my career: Navigating the office environment

Looking back in the early days of my career, I think about the lessons I learned that have helped me throughout my career. Now that I’m the CMO of Leyard’s international business and vice president of marketing and product strategy at Planar, I’m sharing those lessons in the hopes they will help new employees as they enter the professional workforce.

Congratulations—you’ve graduated and landed your first professional job! There are still many lessons to learn, even if you are starting your career in the discipline you studied. While every office environment is different, there are some things that are important no matter where you work. Here are the top four things I wish I would have known on my first day on the job so I could have done my best work every day, from the very first day.

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You are there to do a job

Unlike some roles in which you trade your time for a paycheck even when customers aren’t present, an office job is different. Even if you work hourly, you are expected not just to be there, but to accomplish real work every day. If you are unclear about your job responsibilities and what is expected of you, ask your manager. Observe the respected leaders of your company and their approach, and see how you can model your behavior and habits after theirs.

One of my first jobs was in a retail clothing store, and my boss was an exceptional mentor. She taught us the old retail mantra: “If you have time to stand, you have time to sweep.” The same is true in an office environment. Don’t wait to be told. Find out what you are responsible for and keep yourself busy and focused on the goals of the company.

Understand how your work matters

It’s not enough to just keep busy. You must also understand how your work contributes to the business. Learn who benefits directly from the work you do, what internal and external customers need, and how the business makes money. Having this context will motivate you to excel in your responsibilities, make better decisions and make everyone (including yourself) more successful.

A chief financial officer once told me that even if you do not have an interest in finance and accounting, it is important to know how the score is kept in business. Not knowing would be like playing in a soccer or softball game and not being able to read the score board. Learning to read the score board and how your own activities put points on that scoreboard will help you better understand the value of your work to the company.

Work at the office

Even if your employer has a flexible work-from-home policy, I would advise you to show up to the office. While it may be convenient to avoid the commute, it’s important to get to know your co-workers, for them to get to know you, and to learn from your peers. It is too isolating to be at home, even in today’s modern world. Out of sight is out of mind is something you want to avoid while building your career.

The exception to this is if you are in a field that requires working at the clients’ place of business. If being on location is the best way for you to satisfy customers and grow the business, then by all means, do your work there. Just be sure to regularly connect and update your manager and colleagues so you can continue to build those important relationships even when you are out of sight.

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Early in my career, I made a point of visiting my boss at the beginning of every day to check in and tell him my plans for the day. This won’t work with every manager, but if you have a relational boss, this kind of face time could have a positive impact on your productivity and the trust you build with the team.

You build relationships in the office

Get to know your co-workers by showing genuine interest in them. Ask questions. How long have they worked here? What are their responsibilities for the company? Do they have advice for you as you start out on the job? If possible, find a mentor who can serve as a resource for understanding the company and its specific job roles. Building your network within the organization will help you to quickly learn and establish yourself as you work toward your first promotion. Just be sure your interactions aren’t distracting—hanging out at the water cooler all day will not help develop your career!

Following this advice will help you to quickly become a valued member of the team. It won’t be long before you are no longer the new person in the office and you will be in a position to show hospitality and help other employees get to know the organization and their colleagues.


Jennifer Davis is a senior executive, industry presenter, business leader, mentor and volunteer. She is the vice president of marketing and product strategy for Planar Systems, a global leader in display and digital signage technology. More information about Jennifer is available at her website: http://atjenniferdavis.com/#homeinfo