How to Survive in a Fast-Paced Office Environment

- Christine Liew, SFU Business Co-op Program


You are currently looking for a co-op job or a full time position after graduation, browsing through the Beedie Community, job posting websites, or a looking for referrals: it is common that many job descriptions come with a requirement that their ideal candidate is “able to thrive in a fast-paced environment”. Unless you have previous work experience in the service industry such as in a fast food restaurant, the phrase “fast-paced environment” can be hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it before.

Before my co-op term, I had a sense of what fast-paced felt like based on previous jobs and involvement in student club executive teams, but I didn’t know what that really meant in the real office environment. I knew that I enjoyed a variety of different work and that I was capable of being in what I thought at that time was a fast-paced environment.

Fast forward to today. For the past two semesters in Fall 2013 and Spring 2014, I worked as a Project Coordinator at Appnovation Technologies - a web, mobile, and intranet development company. Working in the technology industry, things are constantly changing, and I have been very fortunate as a co-op student to be able to experience a fast-paced office environment in a supportive setting.

Here are the 5 things I learned during my co-op term about fast-paced office environments:

1) Tight Deadlines Mean Always Having a Sense of Urgency

In a fast-paced environment, having that constant drive and energy to get things done is crucial. If you are bound by external factors, such as requests from clients or your sales team, you need to have the attitude of getting that deliverable done no matter what it takes. This is comparable to submitting a paper last minute or the feeling of not being able to finish your final exam. Sometimes, tight deadlines mean compromising your standard of quality and accepting ‘good enough’ to get tasks done in time. Other times, it means asking for more time or help if you think you truly need it.

2) It's about Priority Management, not Time Management

In a fast-paced environment, time tends to manage you, so it is important to understand that the priority of work that is being thrown at you is determined by a combination of difficulty/severity, importance/impact, and deadline. If you work in a versatile role where your time is shared among multiple people across different departments that don’t necessarily communicate with one another, it is very common to have multiple sources of work and receive unexpected interruptions and distractions throughout the day. When you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of things on your plate, it is important to breathe and prioritize. When receiving requests from multiple people, find out when the actual deadlines are by asking if the deadline is fixed and determined by the client or if it is a personal deadline. Learn to counter and negotiate dates based on your workload and sometimes, if appropriate, say ‘no’ to the request. The last way to help you prioritize is to confirm with the person assigned you your current task if they agree that the new task is more urgent.

3) Multi-Tasking Is Not as Useful as You Think

Prior to working at Appnovation, I believed that *the* skill to have was the ability to multi-task. Over time, I learned that multi-tasking is not as productive as I originally thought. By multi- tasking, it is harder to focus on and excel at the task at hand because while you’re actively working on one thing, your mind is being occupied by other thoughts, whether they are intentional or not. As a result of being interrupted by other thoughts, you end up spending more time trying to regain focus on the task at hand. The pain of multi-tasking is usually felt when you have multiple emails, chat conversations, browser tabs, and documents open and you try to work on multiple tasks at the same time or move onto another task before finishing your first one. Time is lost during the context switching while trying to remember the details of your original task upon resuming it. In my experience, it is faster to finish and close one task prior to moving to the next task, resulting in less emails, browser tabs, programs, and documents open all at once. As mentioned in the previous point, it is best to prioritize, not multi-task!

4) Understand Why It Is a Fast-Paced Environment

I like to describe a fast-paced environment as organized chaos, which can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. If you are not used to it or have not yet found ways to cope with it, it can potentially affect how you feel about your job and your company. Take time to understand why your workplace is a fast-paced environment by making general observations from an internal and external perspective and asking yourself a few simple questions. Observe your position and others doing the same tasks, work environment, industry, other colleagues, and company culture and ask if one or more of those factors is resulting in a fast-paced environment. Is it the nature of the industry? Is it the constant tight deadlines? Is the company growing quickly and as a result, experiencing growing pains? Understanding and appreciating the root cause(s) of the fast-paced environment can help you determine your next steps, help deal with the pressure, and possibly provide a source of motivation to tackle the root cause.

5) The Importance of Taking Breaks

This last lesson is simple. Working constantly for long periods of time is not efficient and negatively affects productivity. Research shows that taking a 5-10 minute breather every hour or so and spending that time stretching, grabbing a snack or beverage, getting fresh air by going for a walk, basically anything that requires you to get out of your seat, will really help maintain your level of focus and will give you a boost of energy. I have also learned that it is not about working longer or harder but rather, smarter, which relies on you being at your best by resting and taking personal time to recharge when you’re not at work to ensure you’re ready to challenge the next day feeling energized.

This all goes without saying that fast-paced environments are not for everyone. Some people prefer to have clearly defined tasks within a defined process. Evaluate if you enjoy getting that adrenaline rush paired with an element of uncertainty of what your day might look like without defined tasks and processes. If you do decide to work in a fast-paced environment, be aware that it will be challenging and overwhelming at times, but it will all be well worth it as you come out at the other end having gone through the learning experience.

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