Watching an episode of Mad Men recently, I found myself feeling every inch of what was taking place on screen. It wasn’t about drinking Bourbon in the office and it wasn’t about everyday sexism – it was about an office move. (For anyone who is still watching Mad Men, there are no major spoilers here, but perhaps do scroll on past the next paragraph to be on the safe side.)
I watched as familiar characters tried to feel their way around an unfamiliar office. A lift with more buttons. A building with more floors. Offices with no windows. Meetings with more people. Anonymity. Demoralised, discomfited staff. Discomfort that was palpable.
I’ve been there. I’m sure most of you have been there at one time or other too. A move you do not choose is particularly challenging, but in most cases, any work move at all – building, department, role, manager or entire job – has moments of unease.
I still remember one such move as clearly as though it was yesterday. I left behind a glossy, flagship building with high ceilings, huge windows and view out over Dublin city, for a smaller, darker, older building with views out over Dublin buses.
The rules were different. The culture was different. My questions were stupid. The days were long. It took time to settle. In a way, some of us who moved that day never really settled at all, and that’s fine. Work isn’t about being best friends with everyone in the office – it’s about finding something challenging and interesting that has learning potential and pays the bills.
But what if it’s too much – what if a new culture, a new office, or a changed environment is making you miserable? Having been there many times, here’s my two cents.
First, acknowledge it. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s nothing, that it doesn’t matter, that you’re lucky to have a job. If you’ve just come back from maternity leave and everything has changed, it’s hard. It’s very hard. Don’t feel you have to pretend it’s fine when it’s not. If you’ve just moved jobs and nobody listens to what you’re saying, that’s hard. If your company has outsourced your department, don’t let anyone say “well at least you’re not losing your job” – you are losing something, and it’s something big. if you spend more time at work than doing anything else other than sleeping, it’s OK to be upset when it changes.
Then take an objective look at what’s working and what isn’t. How much of your discomfort is down to dealing with change (most of us find change difficult to some extent) and how much is because there’s a material problem?
If your existing job has changed after coming back from maternity leave, do you need to speak to your manager about it? Is the new role better – could it be an advantage in the long run? If you have concerns, bring them up sooner rather than later, before it’s assumed that you’re fine with the change. Once that happens, it can be hard to go back, and most unfairly, you can look like the unreasonable person.
If you’re in a new office environment – look at what’s genuinely a problem versus things that are just uncomfortable because they’re different. If there are real issues, bring them up early – don’t sit on them so long that people will assume you’re fine with being beside the noisiest printer in the building or in the tiny office with no window.
If you’re the new person, and finding it difficult to fit in with a different culture, bide your time. Listen to everything and absorb how it works. There are probably many elements that are good but just new to you. There are probably elements that are not so good, but rushing to tell your new colleagues how they should do things won’t endear you to them. Take your time, and sell your message in a measured way. If your suggestions are better, you’ll get there in the end.
If there’s nothing tangible you can do, but you’re still uncomfortable, set some check-in points for yourself. Decide that you’ll review how you feel in six weeks or three months, and if you’re still as unhappy, you’ll take action – that might mean dusting off your CV or putting some feelers out among contacts or trying to use LinkedIn again. But even knowing you have the option to do something can help towards handling whatever is that’s making you uncomfortable.
And if it comes to that, just go. Don’t stay somewhere that makes you miserable. Never underestimate how important it is to be happy at work – or at the very least, not miserable. Yes, work is just work and real-life is life, but it’s still the place you spend a huge amount of your time every week – it’s the place you are when you could be doing something for yourself or spending time with your kids, so make sure it’s somewhere you want to be.
To paraphrase an old saying – it’s about accepting what you cannot change, changing what you cannot accept, and having the wisdom to talk it through over a bottle of wine if you’re not sure which camp you’re in. Just don’t have the wine in the office – that’s only for Mad Men.