Survival skills for a new workplace

You beat out all the other candidates to get a job offer, and you’re overjoyed. Then you start the new position, and you’re overwhelmed.

Elizabeth Schrimpf, career counselor
Elizabeth Schrimpf: Consider your motivation for moving into management first.

Meetings are confusing. Workplace procedures and priorities don’t make sense. You wonder how you’ll get through the first month.

Don’t despair. You almost certainly have the job skills to succeed in the organization. After all, that’s why they hired you. What you need is a refresher course in “soft skills” like communication, courtesy and flexibility.

Soft skills will help you understand how your new team works and adapt to the organization’s culture. If you do that, you’ll have a better chance of surviving the first month and thriving over the long haul.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when navigating an unfamiliar workplace.

  1. How do people share information? Some organizations prefer scheduled meetings with an agenda. Others take a more informal approach, with team members popping into each other’s offices. Watch closely and conform to the established style, no matter how you may have operated in previous workplaces.
  2. What tools do people use? If your coworkers send files through Google Docs, follow their lead. If they send files through Outlook, do it that way. The same goes for any other workplace tool. Be humble enough to learn—or relearn—the ones your organization prefers. Nobody wants a new colleague who challenges accepted procedures right out of the gate.
  3. What are the non-work-related priorities? Most companies have a set of values. Make a point of figuring out what they are so you understand what’s most important to your new team outside of day-to-day tasks.

Obviously, you won’t learn the answers to these questions the first day, or even the first week. In Sink or Swim, authors Milo and Thuy Sindell discuss the importance of setting short-term goals for yourself in a new workplace. For example, by the first month you will understand the office structure. By the second month you will know which coworkers to ask about various tasks.

When to start looking

Of course, there’s a chance you won’t want to stick around for the second month. What if you feel out of place with your new team and the feeling doesn’t go away?

Step one is to consult with your manager. A good one will coach you through the challenges and help you fit into the organization. The rule of thumb is to give yourself at least six weeks to get comfortable.

If the discomfort continues, step two is to start looking. You can’t struggle to fit in indefinitely.

During your next job search, be more attentive to office culture when considering a potential employer. Make sure the interviewers seem like your kind of people, and make sure you show them your true self. That way, you’ll maximize your chances of finding a position that’s just right for you—and where you’ll be just right for the organization.

Elizabeth Schrimpf is a career counselor in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. elizabeth.schrimpf@wisc.edu. This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.