A reader writes:
I’m in the midst of a career change and have been interning part time at a local university. It’s been a great experience so far for me — I enjoy the work and my colleagues a great deal, but I can’t shake the feeling like I might not be fitting into the office culture. I’ve only been interning there for a few weeks, and so part of me just thinks that I’m just experiencing regular awkwardness when you’re getting to know a group of people. The office isn’t exactly tiny for a university — there are fifteen full time staff and we also employ about 300 student employees over the course of the academic year, so while it’s fairly intimate and flat it’s definitely possible to go a whole day without seeing folks, particularly with the number of meetings we have. I’m also not able to attend many of our staff meetings due to other commitments (such as my job and another internship), so the scheduled face time with all my coworkers is somewhat limited.
There are some spatial barriers to me getting to know my colleagues as well. I have a fantastic office space, particularly for an intern — one of the full time staff left a few days before I started so they set me up in his old office across from my supervisor. I prefer it to having a cube or a common desk shared by multiple people (often students) throughout the week, but I do feel sequestered. My work habits are such that I like to stay focused on my task areas, and while my office door is always open and I will always greet visitors warmly, I tend to stay in it and busy while there is work to be done. I don’t think this is strange workplace behavior in general, but I worry that I’m not making an impression on most of the staff and that they do not know me. Since one of my goals for this internship is to network and become a known quantity in the office, and also because I’m only interning here until the start of August, this is pretty important to me, but I still need to make getting my work done a priority.
The office culture seems similarly warm but still focused on the work to be done and so I’m a little unsure about the best way to engage with them in a way that is appropriately sociable and professional without seeming weird or forced. I’ve made a point to schedule informational interviews with my colleagues to get their insights on our field, the work they do and their challenges, and any pieces of advice for me as I’m seeking entry-level employment in the area. I think there’s space during those moments to build rapport with colleagues I don’t often see, but it still feels a bit stiff. I feel strange and like I might be monopolizing their time by inviting them to have coffee with me just to chat or having a lunchtime interview. I thankfully seem to have a good relationship with my direct supervisor and the director of the office respectively — which seem to me the most important relationships to build during my time — but the majority of my interactions in the office are with them.
Beyond the general feeling that I’m not quite geling in the office, there is one particular instance that sticks out at me. The director of my office originally invited me to the annual staff retreat when I started — at the time I thought it was a very decent gesture to make me feel included as a member of the staff and an above and beyond one for someone who was only interning in their office part-time. Near the end of last week, the director approached me and stated that after speaking with the staff she’d decided that she’d rather I not be present — she is stepping down after twenty years of service here, and apparently it is likely to be an emotional moment for the staff because it is the last time the whole staff will be together. She assured me that the decision was not personal — one of program coordinators they recently hired is also not attending for the same reason, apparently — and apologized to me. This seems like a legitimate reason to me, particularly since I was surprised to receive an invitation in the first place, but it still speaks to my niggling doubts that I’m not quite “fitting” here in the way that I’d like. I plan on casually asking my supervisor for ways to get face time with the staff beyond those interviews and solicit her advice to becoming more known at our next meeting but I don’t want to look like I don’t have enough social sense to navigate office norms on my own either.
Do you have any insights or advice on normal ways to build rapport and become known in an office when your stay is pretty short and your work is fairly silo-ed? My usual M.O. is to build a reputation of being a good performer without being a jerk, but it seems harder to build that reputation in a way that’s meaningful to colleagues when you’re working short term and viewed as fairly transient. I could also be completely in my own head about this, but I figured this is a common enough worry to be helpful to someone else and that it was worth asking an expert.
Well, you’re actually doing exactly what I would have suggested: scheduling conversations with your coworkers to ask about their work and your field and for advice as you make the career shift. I actually wish more interns would do this (or anyone new to an office, for that matter).
If those conversations are feeling stiff, you might look for ways to work on that. For instance, if you’re running down a formal list of questions, you might inadvertently be creating a stiffer feel than what you intend. You could try loosening up the format of these conversations. You could also try being explicit about the fact that you’re having trouble getting to know people — for instance, you could start off the conversation by saying something like, “I’m hoping to get your insight into X, Y, and Z, but to be honest, I’m also hoping to simply get to know people here better, since my work is fairly silo-ed and hasn’t naturally put me in contact with many people in the office.”
Simply saying that explicitly might better tell the person you’re talking to what you’re looking for and how they can be most helpful to you. It’s easy to think that it should be obvious that you’d like to get to know people better and that you shouldn’t have to say it, but actually, it’s often not intuitive to people at all … and saying it up-front can sometimes change the tone or the conversation or spark overtures that people otherwise wouldn’t have thought to make.
Similarly, you might mention this to your boss too — that you’re having trouble finding ways to get to know people in the office and ask for advice. You might get some insights that help — like that they all grab drinks together after work on Thursdays and you’re welcome to come along, or that Jane tends to be a good connector type in the office and you should reach out to her, or that Karen loves talking about her work with anyone who asks.
Speaking of your boss … Disinviting you from the annual staff retreat was bizarre. And kind of rude. And it’s even more bizarre that she’s not inviting the new program coordinator, who’s presumably full-time and not an intern. Your boss wants to have an emotional moment with the staff because it’s “the last time they’ll all be together”? This isn’t a group of friends graduating from high school and singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” while getting all teared up that things just won’t be the same from now on. It’s a workplace. And it’s a staff retreat — the whole staff should be there. Someone above her should intervene and tell her to stop using it as her own personal send-off. This is so bizarre that you absolutely shouldn’t take it personally or as a reflection on you.
Anyway, staff retreat weirdness aside, don’t feel awkward about this stuff. It’s normal for it to take a while to get to know coworkers, and especially so when you’re there short-term. But you also shouldn’t feel like you’re imposing if you ask people for a conversation — getting to do that is part of the value of an internship, and most people will be perfectly willing to spend some time talking with you.