Lessons from the Recession
OfficePRO magazine, October 2004
The creative approaches required to survive become some of your most valuable tools when conditions change
BY DIANE DOMEYER
If experience is the best teacher, then the toughest experiences may provide the most useful lessons of all. And the recent recession has surely been a tough experience for many. The techniques you developed during the recession to help you navigate through a difficult period can continue to guide you—even as conditions improve. You may be surprised how four specific lessons that you learned the hard way over the past few years remain key to your career advancement as an administrative professional.
Lesson #1: Doing More With Less
This is a lesson you know only too well. Layoffs and limited hiring during the recession didn’t mean the work got any lighter; they meant fewer admins were left to take up the slack and share responsibilities.
So how did you handle the situation? You taught yourself to respond to reduced budgets and staff with time-saving ideas and creative thinking. You probably kept several balls in the air to keep customers and internal clients satisfied.
You may have approached colleagues in other departments for advice in areas where their expertise could benefit your projects—and returned the favor when they needed help. Perhaps you also discovered how to maximize the value of temporary professionals brought in during peak workload periods by immediately integrating them into the team and making them feel welcome. You combined this sense of team-work with a personal commitment to do what was necessary to help your group succeed. And you probably amazed yourself at how much you could accomplish.
In the process, you may have faced frustrations or occasional missed goals. But you learned to view these, too, as valuable lessons rather than “mistakes.” You taught yourself not only how tasks could be most efficiently tackled but also how to bounce back quickly from disappointment.
What did you gain from these experiences? The lesson that it actually is possible to do more with less. You came up with your own unique ways to cope with limited resources and additional stress as you and your coworkers stretched yourselves to accomplish your objectives. These approaches will remain major attributes for you as you move forward.
Lesson #2: Sharpening Time Management Skills
To accomplish more, administrative professionals also have been required to enhance their time management skills over the past few years. Perhaps your manager, also under the gun, allowed you more latitude over your projects and time. As a result, you had the flexibility to learn and put into practice some important organizational and time-saving techniques:
Prioritizing. To make good choices, you taught yourself to focus on areas you could control and not waste time on factors that were outside of your sphere of influence. For example, although it was not your decision to reduce budgets or staff, you learned how to contend with these limitations by concentrating on areas where you could actually make a difference. Perhaps you mentored a less-experienced staff member who then was able to become more productive and take some of the pressure off you and others.
You also learned the importance of devoting most of your energy to tasks directly tied to your group’s top goals. You knew you couldn’t afford to spend too much time on the “nice to do” at the expense of the “need to do.” Now that economic conditions are improving, some of your company’s overall strategies may shift to accommodate new market demands. Any such changes can alter your group’s big picture, so you need to be aware of them. Continue to consult your supervisor about departmental objectives to use as a guide in setting personal priori-ties. And be sure to ask for clarification whenever you are unsure about any aspect of a new direction your group is taking.
Daily Plan. Another time-management technique you may have used in the recent past was drawing up a to-do list each day based on the overall priorities you had set. As you learned, a daily plan of attack can help you better focus your energy and keep you from becoming distracted. There will always be those unexpected items requiring immediate attention, but with an agenda in hand, you can minimize the disruption these cause and rapidly get back on track. You still should be spending at least 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of every day mapping out your activities.
Meetings. How did you approach meeting attendance during the recession? Some gatherings you probably had no choice about, but when your participation was optional, you tried to spend most of your time on meetings tied to projects in which you had key involvement.
As time goes on, interdepartmental project teams will continue to be popular and demand more of your participation at formal gatherings. So you must continue to selectively attend group meetings, choosing whenever possible only those requiring your expertise or offering critical information you need.
When you must call a meeting yourself, carefully plan it ahead of time, considering the real needs and schedules of others. Distribute an agenda in advance so invitees can arrive prepared to address key issues and you can keep the meeting on track. In addition, take notes for those who can’t attend and be sure to start and adjourn on time.
As you have already found when using these techniques, the more you accomplish and prove yourself accountable, the more trust you build with your supervisor. That means he or she may ultimately allow you even greater autonomy and responsibility, which can help you further distinguish yourself.
Lesson #3: Adapting to Change
Change is a permanent part of business life. To remain competitive, companies must continually evolve. Especially during the recession, many aspects of your work life were in flux. How did you cope?
One of the key lessons you learned is that flexibility and a positive attitude are pivotal in managing change. You recognized that you may not be able to avoid the effects of shifts in organizational structure, procedures, or workload, but you can deal with them successfully by adopting an open-minded approach. Maybe you responded enthusiastically when asked to work on projects outside of your job description. Or perhaps you took proactive steps to learn new soft-ware applications that helped you man-age unfamiliar tasks.
You learned that change is not just something to cope with; it also brings opportunities. Being part of a smaller staff during the downturn may have spotlighted your abilities and made you stand out. Or perhaps downsizings necessitated combining certain roles in your department—roles you prepared yourself to take on (in addition to your other responsibilities) through self-initiated training.
Today’s changing economic conditions are bound to produce new possibilities. In the same way you resisted clinging to thoughts of “the way it used to be” and focused instead on moving ahead, see how many fresh challenges you can identify when transitions occur in your department. Think back on past projects that proved especially rewarding for you and pursue new assignments with the potential to provide that same sense of accomplishment.
Lesson #4: Being Indispensable
If you survived layoffs during the downturn, you probably did so by becoming indispensable to your organization. How did you make sure you were an employee your company couldn’t live without?
By concentrating on your team’s most pressing priorities, you immediately began to tackle tasks without being asked. You also proved yourself by helping other employees cope with the challenges of the recession. As you acquired new skills you recognized would be valuable, you became the go-to person in these areas for your colleagues. Maybe you acted as a mentor to assist less-experienced workers not only with technical issues but also in enhancing their interpersonal skills.
To increase your visibility, you volunteered for new assignments, special projects, and cross-functional teams that could benefit from your expertise. And you recognized the importance of enhancing your verbal and written communication skills to help you better showcase your ideas in reports, e-mails, and at group gatherings.
Your ability to see things through your manager’s eyes was a major factor in increasing your worth to your department during the recession. The more your supervisor saw that you could be depended on to identify—and, when appropriate, take care of—areas that needed attention, the more valuable you became. Now, focus on the new demands an improving economy is making on your work group. You can make a significant difference in helping maintain productivity and morale that will not go unnoticed.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The creative approaches you had to come up with to survive trying times can be some of your most valuable tools as conditions change. The lessons you took away are perennial career-enhancers that will continue to ensure your success.
Diane Domeyer is executive director of OfficeTeam, which specializes in the temporary placement of highly skilled administrative and office support professionals. OfficeTeam has more than 300 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at www.officeteam.com.
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