Making the Workplace Work
August 17, 2023
Exploring challenges and opportunities at the workplace
A Two-Part Series
Part 1: All in a Day’s Work
Keyboards click, phones ring, and a low hum of voices drift out from the kitchenette.
From daybreak to lunch break to late afternoon, desktops glow and coffees flow as the buzz of business fills the air.
The sights, sounds, and smells of the office paint the backdrop for most of many people’s days.
How can we make the most of our time at the workplace?
And can we find fulfillment, meaning, and self-expression in the process?
Barry Ackerman: founder of Supportive HR
Eli Garfinkel: founder of Placemint Agency
Bracha Ortner: founder of Bracha Ortner Coaching
H.S.: long-time AP department manager
Qualities of success
What are the traits of a high-value employee?
H.S.: Motivation, organization, work ethic, and follow-through are all very important. Ask questions, stay on top of your work, and pitch in wherever you’re needed. Don’t push off the tasks you don’t like doing—it’s worth just getting them over with. When there’s a job on my to-do list that I dislike, I try to tackle it as soon as I start my workday. This way, it’s done, and I don’t have to think about it again.
Making it meaningful
Can work feel like more than just a job—and should it?
Eli Garfinkel: There are many ways to make even a “boring” job feel fulfilling. Learn new things on your own that apply to your field. Come up with better ways of doing the same routine. A desk job can be made fun when you create friendly and healthy competitions and contests within the company.
H.S.: Be friendly with your colleagues and help out around the office when you can—it will make you feel good.
Mind the mental gap
An employee may care deeply about performance and work hard to reach success, but generally, their aim is to support their family, not to make Paper Pros, Inc. the biggest seller of office supplies in North America. How can one show that they’re dedicated to the job?
Barry Ackerman: There’s an interesting dynamic between employers and employees. The owner’s company is the product of tears, sweat, and blood; the result of massive investments of efforts and resources. For the worker, the business is just a route to their paycheck. Business owners often don’t understand why you’re not as dedicated to their baby as they are. They don’t understand that employees want the company to succeed, but that’s so that they can get a paycheck so they can pay rent and tuition and camp and the babysitter. They don’t have the same pride in the company’s success.
To bridge the gap, employers shouldn’t expect their workers to mirror their passion, although employees should show that they care about their work. The best way to do that is by giving the most miles per gallon. Be present; be focused. Don’t schmooze on the phone or shop online. When you’re at work, give it your 100 percent.
Take initiative. When you finish a project, ask what else is needed. Offer to help when you can. Instead of having tunnel vision in your work, be aware of what’s going on in the company. Innovate; think of more efficient systems. Keep your eyes and ears open for areas that need improvement and opportunities the company can capitalize on. Show your boss that you aren’t just punching in and out; you’re willing to go the extra mile.
Most Lakewood offices accommodate our town’s unique structure, allowing the women abbreviated workdays that end at three or 3:30. A great way to show dedication is by offering to complete unfinished tasks at home—provided, of course, that it works for you.
Eli Garfinkel: The key is to show your employer that you care about the company’s reputation and its bottom line; it’s not just about the time and the work. Mentoring others and generally being a team player go a very long way.
Balancing life and labor
Working mothers tend to feel like they’re overworking and underachieving at the same time. It’s impossible to do everything, much less do a good job at it all. What’s your advice for working women?
Bracha Ortner: I struggle with work-life balance a lot. The tips I share are things that I’ve put into practice to make my life smoother. They help me tremendously, but they definitely take conscious work and effort.
Sit down and list your priorities in order of importance. These can include your Yiddishkeit, marriage, children, and self in addition to your work. Starting from your first priority, outline how much time each task needs and allot time slots to engage in each one. Once you see your responsibilities on a paper and allot time slots to your top few priorities, you can usually shove the smaller things into little windows of time that you might not have realized you have, do two tasks at once, or delete some of the less-important tasks. I recommend that you keep reevaluating what’s working and adjusting what isn’t.
Block out the time needed for each task. When you’re doing the job, do it 100 percent, with no distractions. Leave your job at the office. Keep your worries about the overflowing hamper for your cleaning slot. Don’t beat yourself up about all the things you “should” be doing. Each job happens in its designated slot. Everything else can wait for later.
I use this method all the time. I have an office job during the day, so I do my coaching work at night. Some nights, I do less housework and more coaching work; other nights, it’s the other way around, and on yet other nights, I arrange to have cleaning help. When two pressing tasks have to get done, the first thing I do is write down the deadlines and calculate how much time I need in order to meet them. I decide when I want to do the work and figure out if I can squeeze the other priority before or after it. I focus on the project without distractions. Once I’m done, I either get back to the less-important chore, or I let it slide.
Don’t forget to take a window of time in your day and savor it. For example, when you walk or drive to work, you can enjoy the time and make it special. Take in the sights, turn on nice music, or listen to something interesting.
After a full day at work, Leah* felt exhausted and unready to engage with her kids. One idea that helped her was spending the drive home breathing and relaxing so she could get her bearings before she got home. Though she still arrived home tired, at least she’d had some alone time to recharge.
The next piece of the mindset work is being okay with letting things slide. That can be hard work! We all have ideas of what we want to accomplish, and we feel frustrated and upset when we can’t meet our own expectations. Remember, no one can do everything; it just isn’t possible. Instead of thinking, I’m a terrible housekeeper. Why can I keep up? tell yourself, I’m doing my best. When I’m working and also taking care of my family, it’s just not possible to do it all. Even though I want a cleaner house, it’s just not possible for me to do more. I’m doing so much already. There’s relief in acknowledging that we’re human, that it’s not possible to do everything, and that that’s okay. We all do so much, and it feels very overwhelming. But when we clarify the what, designate the when, and demolish the guilt and second-guessing, there’s a lot less stress and a lot more peace of mind.
Maxed out and done in
How should an employee deal with overwork?
Eli Garfinkel: Instead of saying, “My workload is too heavy,” describe what is happening. For example, you can say, “Right now, I can give 60 percent of my focus to 100 percent of my workload. If you reallocate 25 percent of the workload, I can instead invest 100 percent of my effort into the remaining projects.” This way, you’re not asking your boss for a favor; you are explaining the trade-off that happens when you’re overworked and presenting a more effective alternative.
Barry Ackerman: I recommend being open and honest about what you can handle. You can tell your employer, “I’m being asked to do things that are really beyond my expertise.” Explain that your real job is being neglected if you focus on the extra projects that they assigned you.
“I got my life back”
When Ahuva* took on additional responsibilities in her management position, she was sure it would come with a raise.
“My boss mentioned something about a $10,000 raise, but he later walked back the offer. He seemed to think the extra job would somehow be swallowed into my already too-full load.”
Ahuva regularly skipped lunch at work; mundane things like eating and having a coffee were pushed behind a looming mountain of work.
“I would leave the office every day feeling physically sick. I’d go home and take care of my family. After doing bedtime, I would walk downstairs and head straight for the computer to catch up on work.”
It wasn’t a crisis or an earth-shattering event that changed Ahuva’s thinking.
“One day, I just realized how insane it all was. I walked into my boss’s office and told him I was taking the new project off my plate. I stopped answering work calls and emails at night. I advocated to hire an assistant for myself. I was finally able to spend time with my family and get to the many responsibilities that had been pushed to the wayside. At night, I could unwind from my long day instead of logging back in to my job. I felt like I’d gotten my life back.”
The craziest part? “A few weeks later, my boss offered me a raise—totally out of the blue. The amount was $10,000.”
Big, bad boss
A difficult boss or manager can make a job feel joyless and stressful. What’s a worker to do?
Eli Garfinkel: Employees love to use the term “toxic boss,” but in truth, the fact that your boss demands productivity, hard work, and 60 minutes of focus every hour does not mean they—or the situation—are toxic. Toxic is a strong term and should only be used when a boss is making demands that are inappropriate or way beyond what’s expected of the employee.
If your company does not even pretend to care about your opinion, that’s a red flag. Forget the lunches and the perks; if you aren’t being heard, it’s a real problem.
If you literally have to drag yourself to work or are in fear while at work, you should probably leave and then start your job hunt. The negative effects of working for a truly toxic boss are so bad that they can ruin mental health and marriages, sometimes beyond repair.
Barry Ackerman: Communication is a strong tool. We can find a way to work well with almost anyone by communicating clearly. At the same time, we have to recognize that we can’t fix people and we just have to accept some aspects of others.
Impressing the unappeasable
“Yossi hired me on the spot for my job as warehouse supervisor. When I later met his partner, Sruly, things got really awkward,” Moshe* shares.
Like some exacting medieval monarch, the new boss saw his whims as law and his workers as plebian subjects.
“The hire was already a done deal, so Sruly asserted his relevance by relentlessly second-guessing my every move. From his choice of words to his confrontational and often nasty attitude, it was clear that he disliked me. Sruly would ask me to get large shipments packaged and shipped—a task that typically takes at least three days to complete—and get upset when I didn’t finish the job that day. During brainstorming sessions, he would discount all the employees’ ideas, but he would later implement them with an added tweak and take the credit. I’m a high-achiever and a perfectionist, but my work was never good enough to garner praise from Sruly. And although I was a manager, Sruly would often bypass me and direct the workers on his own, which, of course, caused lots of confusion and disruption to the work.
“This was my first foray into the workforce, and I was eager to impress my unpleasable boss. Once I realized how unhealthy and abnormal the situation was, however, I began to tune Sruly out and just do the best work I could. I eventually learned how to answer back assertively, which set off defensive responses.
“Once, Sruly yelled at me about something that was outside his purview. The next day, I told him, ‘I’m not okay with what you did yesterday.’
“‘You’re the employee. I’m the boss,’ said Sruly. And he launched into a fresh tirade.
“‘I think my time is up here,’ I said, and I walked out.
“I’ve never looked back.”
Climbing the ranks
How can an employee advance their career?
Barry Ackerman: What’s your end game? As an employee, it’s important to know what your goals are. Some people want to be promoted; a lot of people don’t—they may be very good at what they’re doing, but they’re not interested in a managerial position. The manager of an auto shop needs a very different skill set from the mechanic.
If you decide that you want to climb the ranks, start by earning trust among the other employees, particularly with the people higher up. You have to demonstrate the leadership and organizational skills required to be a supervisor.
H.S.: Ask! People are happy to leave efficient workers to their jobs—don’t wait around for an offer. If you want to do more, tell your supervisor.
When I was an entry-level worker, my department’s AP manager left. I told my controller I wanted to become assistant manager.
“The position isn’t open right now,” she told me. “But I’ll keep you in mind.”
Three months later, a higher position needed to be filled. The controller mentioned that I had been looking for something more, and I got the job.
Today, I’m the manger of 10 employees. But if I come into the office kitchen and the cup holder needs to be refilled, I don’t hesitate to do it. If there’s a need, do it; nothing should be below your dignity. A can-do attitude is appreciated by employers, and it can help further your career.
*Name has been changed