10 lessons I learned in a year of London corporate life
I worked exactly one year and a day in a consultancy job in London, finishing recently.
Although it is true that I am imminently running back, screaming, into the arms of academia, I learned a few things during that time that I think are worth noting and passing on. These are those things.
1. You need to be patient
In terms of progression, work doesn’t move at the same pace as academia or school.
This is a much longer race.
If you're a member of my generation, the likelihood is that you will be working for close to 5 decades - a considerable length of time.
As a result, you have to modify your mindset. I'm not going to give you a spiel about millennials being addicted to instant gratification - that said, patience is a virtue we probably get less of an opportunity to cultivate in the world of technology we find ourselves in.
It's a virtue that will help you with work.
This is perhaps best demonstrated with expectations on progress. While you can still rapidly learn skills and gain experience, company or career progression will likely be in slow, discrete jumps. You may intellectually appreciate this, but emotionally don’t be surprised if 4 months if you’re twiddling your thumbs a little bit, feeling ready for a change. The impetus is on you to find new challenges and milk your time at a particular position or level for all its worth. See how much you can get out of it while you're there.
2. You need to pace yourself
Leading nicely on from patience, is pacing yourself.
Working life is a very different rhythm to that of school or university. On the face of it, it might sound a lot easier. The simple fact that, for most jobs, once you walk out of the office you don’t have to think about work until you return, is blissful. No longer do you have the constant guilt of not studying enough hanging over your head, or endless assignments.
So, after the initial rush of the first couple of weeks, you may find things easier than what you were doing previously. At least, day-to-day.
However if you’re coming out of education, you’re going to feel the change in vacation time. You don’t have a big summer break that’s guaranteed every year. And while you may have filled up every one of your days off with jobs and extra work when you were studying, the act of doing something different can still be recuperative.
The strategy of emptying your tank with a guaranteed change or rest on the horizon isn't going to work anymore.
You need to prioritise rest and recovery on a more regular basis. Obviously go out and enjoy life - but burnout is a real thing and it can creep up on you. Suddenly it makes a lot more sense why older folk get excited at the thought of a cosy, quiet night in. It's all too easy to become dead on your feet quickly. Get a good night's sleep.
3. Exercise will keep you healthy, sane, and you need to start sooner rather than later
Here’s the thing.
In the hopefully long and successful career you will have, one thing is fairly certain – you will only have less free time in the future. Especially if you ascend to higher responsibilities within any organisation.
Not only that, but once you’re a decade or so into your career, chances are that you’ll be looking to perhaps settle down with a partner, and maybe even have kids. And even if you don’t, life generally has a way of getting more complicated as you get older. The likelihood is that your responsibilities and the demands on your free time are only going to increase.
So if you’re not able to make time to exercise regularly, or do some sort of consistent sport to stay healthy now, you’re probably never going to be able to. You already know how important it is, so establish the habit now.
4. Most things don’t matter
It’s very easy to get bogged down in details – making excel tables look perfect, wording emails perfectly or formatting a powerpoint.
I completely understand the nervousness that comes with entering a new environment, and wanting to maintain a high standard of work from the outset. However, in most cases, these things don’t really matter. Speed is usually more valuable than perfection.
Now obviously, there are times where the most important thing is perfection – e.g. a client proposal, a final design or a contract etc. But in most cases, this probably won’t be what you’re doing.
It’s easy to think that you’re doing good work by making something look pristine when in reality it’s not going to make much of a difference. Consider the purpose of what you’re doing – as long as it is fit for purpose, don’t worry about making it better.
If you can do everything perfectly, then obviously don't avoid it, but don't prioritise perfection over actually getting things done.
5. Show your work
Much like it’s not enough to have a great product to win in the market - you have to make an audience aware of its existence - it’s easy to think that working long hours and working well is enough to secure a good reputation, praise and perhaps promotion. However, chances are the people who manage you have dozens of other things they need to focus on.
Make it simple for them to assess what you’re doing. Take ownership of tasks, and report on what you’ve done succinctly and regularly. You’ll make their jobs a lot easier.
Silently toiling away at what needs to be done late into the evening and not taking credit for it may sound noble and admirable, but the fact of the matter is is that if you don’t allow yourself to be given recognition for it, it will likely go to someone else.
If you’re not really keen on the idea of actively taking credit, consider this – by making it obvious that you’re willing to go the extra mile, you’re helping your employers further by informing them that you’re the kind of person who will do that. When it comes to them to make a decision about who they need for a particular job, promotion, project etc, them having this knowledge to hand will help them make a more informed decision.
Thus taking credit for work you have done will, if done right, ultimately help your team, and overall organisation even more.
I should say - this is a two way street. Equally, if not more important, is taking ownership of things you've done wrong, and being upfront about it. Having this kind of integrity is crucial to building trust, and ultimately learning and improving.
6. It is your responsibility to manage your relationship with your manager
The person with the most impact on your quality of life at work will likely be your manager figure. Regardless of the precise title they wield, be it supervisor, team lead, director etc. It is entirely your responsibility to manage this relationship.
You need to establish what they want, what they need, and what they react to. They will have more than you to worry about in their line of work. Having the conversation of what they expect from you – everything from hours, to responsiveness, to feedback regarding work – is invaluable.
If you're lucky then they would have actively facilitated this kind of contact and communication, and you'll already know the answers to these questions. However, if they haven't, that's merely an opportunity for you to do so.
It’s never too late to have this conversation, and knowing where the lines are drawn allows you to make better informed decisions for both sides.
7. Do something else
Please, do not be one of those people for whom work becomes everything against your will. If you actively choose to live like this - more power to you! However, during my year I found many people who clearly weren't happy with their balance. Take control of it. Life is too short.
It's easy to feel lonely and isolated at work - even if you're surrounded by good people. Merely google something to the effect of 'loneliness at work' and you'll see what I mean - dozens of articles across many publications, all recent, talking about this common experience.
You can avoid this.
Carve out the time to do other things. See other friends, go to the movies, watch a play. You live in a big city - much of the time this can wear you down. Reap some of the perks.
And if you find yourself in a situation, whereby you're at the office late and considering cancelling on your friends because there's some work that really needs to be done, does it have to be done right now? Please see point 4. Unless you're a heart surgeon - in which case this article was never for you anyway.
8. Find a way to enjoy the commute
Everyone has to commute to work, but in London it can be particularly stressful. Sardine stuffed trains and tubes every morning and afternoon can get old very quickly. Not to mention the dramatic temperature change from inside and out of the station.
Suppose you’re lucky and have a 30 minute average commute – this is roughly 5 hours a week, and over the course of a year (with allowances for holidays, sick days, working in other locations, delays etc) 225 hours, and around 9 days of your life. It’s worth considering how you can enjoy this time.
Personally, audiobooks and podcasts are my weapon of choice. Reading a book is preferable when space allows, but if you go to work at around the same time everyone else does, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this with much ease.
9. Prepare your meals
There are several reasons to do this.
Firstly - monetary. It is simply far, far cheaper to prepare your meals in advance. Simple.
Secondly - it gives you more control over what you consume.
If you don't bring food with you, you're at the mercy of the canteen, or the local shops around you. Often you are in a position of choosing a healthy expensive choice, or a less healthy cheaper one. Preparing in advance avoids this situation entirely. If you're not convinced that this matters all that much, consider other times you will be offered food. Most offices, there's a general culture of snacking - sharing around chocolates, cakes for celebrating birthdays etc. In addition, what about after-work drinks? Take control of a variable.
Thirdly - it can be fun! #gains #mealprep
10. Keep an eye on your mental health
It took about 5 months for me to hit my lowest point, mental-health wise.
It essentially culminated with this: I was having a conversation, the subject of which moved to my work. I soon found myself start to uncontrollably sob, slowly moving into a foetal position on the ground. All the stresses and worries I had just poured out of me, and I just sat in a heap for a while.
This was, overall, deeply unpleasant. It forced me to accept that I needed to address my well-being.
Now work wasn't the only contributing factor to this - I had a lot going on. But it certainly was a contributing factor. I should say that I don't for a minute place any blame or responsibility on my employer - it is your job and your responsibility to keep an eye on your well-being. Furthermore, if there is something that is affecting you at work, you need to talk about it. Up until this point I didn't say anything, and had taken no action whatsoever. This was stupid.
London is a great city in many respects, but it really is a hard city to live in. Especially if you're living in the corporate world - It can be utterly exhausting both physically and emotionally.
If you're not careful, you can find your 'normal' state is slowly shifted towards a more stressed, more tired and ultimately less happy version of you. Sure, everyone has bad days, bad weeks, and sometimes bad months. But I urge you - look at how you feel now, and look how long that feeling has lasted. How many days have been bad days? How many weeks?
Having a constant 'survival' mindset when approaching work and life isn't a fun way to live it. A wise friend told me that one simple thing he had learned in his dealings with his own mental health was that "It's OK to not be OK" --> it's not an admission of weakness to talk to someone, quite the opposite.
Most large corporations now are placing an increasing emphasis on education around mental health and associated issues. It is not uncommon to have a problem at one point in time while working in a mentally tough city job. The most important thing is that you do something constructive to address it. Talk to someone, the sooner the better.