Getting to Know Your Office Culture: Part 1

How do you know who to ask for what in your office? Who is the person to ask “where are the envelopes kept” or “what time do we normally eat lunch”? Why do your co-workers continually refer to the office printer as “Sheila”? Getting to know the office culture of the organization with which one is employed essential. As a new AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland, I am currently in the process of getting to know this organization and feel that this process is important to share with those who may find themselves in the same position.

Entering into a new position at a new organization can reveal strange rituals and customs about that organization. This is what is referred to as organizational culture. It’s necessary to recognize the importance of acknowledging and becoming comfortable with office culture in order to acquire the information that you may need to be successful within any organization.

Who’s in Charge?

For example, you may find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure who your supervisor is. What do you mean you don’t know who your supervisor is, that’s so obvious! Or is it? Why are you constantly being approached to complete tasks by other members of the staff? Why when you have questions, are you constantly being herded to another individual for an answer or clarification?

What should you do when confronted with this sort of office dynamic?

–          Organize a meeting with staff and supervisors where you can clearly state what your role is within the organization. Establishing your creditability to other staff members is key to gaining their cooperation. In a meeting setting, parties involved are given the opportunity to voice questions within an environment supported by organization leaders.

–          Communicate with staff, volunteers, and other key players: engage in open dialogue.

What Time….?

One former Volunteer Maryland Coordinator graciously emailed me about some interesting and funny occurrences regarding his office and his year at his service site. Here is what he had to say:

The most important thing to learn about your office is the way in which your coworkers observe the passage of time.  In other words, in your office, what do words like “soon,” “when you get the chance,” and “next week” mean?  Coming straight from college and my, you know, normal frame of reference (clocks, calendars, the moon), I assumed that all people work with the same definitions.  So when I began calling people downstairs and asking questions, and they said they’d get back to me “tomorrow,” I smiled happily and hung up the phone.  This was great news.  I would have my answers, and perhaps a meeting the very next day.  I could move on with my work.

The next day, and the days after that, I learned an important lesson as my phone continued its silent meditation.  All my frames of reference for time were worthless in this building.  “Tomorrow” could mean anything from two weeks from now, to, well, tomorrow.  Sometime by the end of May, I had a pretty good grip on how time worked at [my organization].  Any amount of time could be multiplied by 3.5 if I just left it alone, or by 1.7 if I really hounded someone for a response.  Planning ahead became indispensable.

Share some of your funny office culture stories!

Tips from great resources dealing with office culture:

  1. Company resources: learn where they are and how to use them.
  2. Get something to work towards, even if it’s small.
  3. Find a mentor.
  4. Start learning names.
  5. Dress the part.
  6. Every cubicle comes with its own unique buzzing, fluorescent light.
  7. A 9 a.m. start time means that you should be at your desk, computer on and ready to work. A 5 p.m. quit time, however, does not mean that you should be in your car and easing out of the parking lot.
  8. Your ringtone cannot be as loud and as inappropriate as you want it to be.
  9. Jeans and flip flops are not OK office wear. Denim slacks and strappy sandals are (depending on the organization).
  10. Every employee must accept that “on occasion your work life will interfere with your personal life.” If you say, “That’s fine but on occasion my personal life will interfere with my work life” it doesn’t go over well. Ever.

(Taken from and


5 thoughts on “Getting to Know Your Office Culture: Part 1

  1. Barb Cooke

    Loved “getting to know office culture”!! Still looking for a mentor for our computer program but have cubicle with a buzzing fluroescent light. . .

  2. Pingback: Just because the office is closed… « Volunteer Maryland

  3. It’s fun to read your post. I loved it. We spent our whole day in the office so it is mandatory to know it’s culture. The time discussion was amazing. In my office they work, work and work. I am using a zoomed glass to find the culture 🙂

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