At the end of the workday, some of your fellow engineers head out the door together, perhaps for dinner, drinks, or even a movie. They used to invite you, but you had family activities or night school after work, and repeatedly declined. After all, they were only your colleagues and you had friends of your own to hang out with. But now you're wondering if that was such a good idea in the long run. The group e-mails often refer to technical solutions arrived at during the course of a few drinks, and you're beginning to feel increasingly isolated from the group's problem-solving process.
Many technical professionals face this and similar problems. It's especially the case in a fast-paced technology environment, where hard work and tight deadlines often bring teams together for long periods of intense effort. The lines between work and leisure blur, leading to more work being done outside of the traditional office environment.
Of course, the problem can go both ways. You may be very interested in fostering and participating in activities with your colleagues outside of work, only to find that they go their separate ways at 5:00 p.m. Good ideas that could be aired out and refined outside of the formal work environment are instead never heard.
Does It Matter To Your Job?
Activities outside of the workplace vary a great deal depending on the company. In some cases, there are few if any opportunities for colleagues to spend any time together outside the office. Everyone simply takes separate paths at closing time. At other companies, project teams might meet for dinner after work, during entertainment events on the weekends, and even on daylong or multiday leisure trips.
To a large extent, socializing with colleagues is driven by corporate culture. How much you participate largely depends on your interest in doing so and how much effect it has on your job performance. A lot of times, there's no requirement to participate, and attendance is neither taken nor noted. However, engineers working long hours together often become friends outside of work.
If the latter is the case, why should you care about whether or not and how much those around you socialize with each other? First, it may have something to do with how much you enjoy your job. If your socialization goals are substantially different from those of your colleagues, then no matter how good the technical work is, there's a good chance you will be unhappy or dissatisfied with your job. But, if your social goals are similar to those of the corporate culture, then you will simply have more fun and fit in better. If you don't, then you could feel like an outsider, even after months or years on the job.
Second, it may affect your ability to do your job, or how you're perceived about performing your job. If you head immediately off to your family or night school at the end of each workday, you might find that your managers question your commitment to the project. Plus, colleagues could start relying less upon your contributions because you're not present when some critical decisions are made.
Only you can gauge your interest in socializing with your colleagues. You may enjoy meeting after hours or on weekends with your colleagues, especially if you're young and have similar interests. In other situations, you might have a full life outside of work, involved with family, friends, or the community. Even if you don't have the same social needs as your fellow engineers, you may be comfortable with your job and at the same time be different socially.
Socializing that has to do with job performance, however, is something you should understand and address in your career. It can be overt. For example, your group may have an annual "team-building event" involving a daylong or even weekend exercise learning how to function as a team outside of the office. Not participating, even while providing a good excuse, automatically makes you less of a team member.
These situations are easy to identify. Plus, though they may cause you career problems if you decline to participate, at least the choice and the consequences are easy for you to identify. But that's not the case when the socialization rules are less formal, yet exist nonetheless. You may be unhappy without knowing why, while your managers and colleagues also are unhappy with you. It's important to identify the unwritten rules that a company, department, or project group places on socialization, and then determine how you plan to navigate through those rules.
You can start finding out what you need to know during the interview process for a new job, if you proceed diplomatically. You could ask questions about how the project team makes decisions, and how management feels about the work-leisure boundaries without appearing overly concerned about whether or not you will arrive at home on time every day. Consider when you make your best technical decisions. Notice how the engineers on the team typically interact with one another. And, ask yourself how to build teamwork in the department.
Another thing that you can do before taking a job is to sit in the company's parking lot at the end of the day and observe people leaving the building. If people tend to leave the building alone, and right at the end of the official business day, chances are high that there's little after-hours interaction among the professional staff. On the other hand, if people leave in small groups, spaced over a period of several hours, they most likely spend some relaxation time together before going home.
People already working for the company are your best source of information. Even if they don't work in the type of job or department in which you are seeking employment, they will be able to tell you something about that company from an inside perspective, especially the way that the staff interacts.
Getting To Know Your Colleagues
You might wonder how you can meet these people. If the company is a large employer in the general area in which you reside, you probably already know someone working there. Ask around. If one of your friends or acquaintances isn't employed there, most likely they know someone themselves. Otherwise, night school classes and community activities provide good arenas for meeting people who work for the employers that you're interested in. With a little bit of research, it's possible to find out about how colleagues in that company work and "play" together.
The biggest problems may arise when you're already in a job, as you gradually find your socialization goals greatly differ from those of your fellow engineers. This actually won't be a problem unless it affects your job satisfaction or your perceived performance.
Is it possible to attain success in a job under these circumstances? Yes, but it takes some work on your part. You can do so by being upfront about your after-hours commitments with your colleagues. That way you will keep up-to-date on decisions or technical plans made after hours, and you can maintain your working relationships with your fellow engineers. You may even grow into a new role, becoming the sounding board for ideas that the group developed after hours.
If you're the opposite, and seek to encourage after-hour activities, start modestly and don't try to immediately tie it into work. Consider organizing a weekly or even monthly dinner in which people who enjoy talking to one another are given the opportunity. When I was a college professor, I offered my graduate students just that type of gathering. Those who participated had jobs, families, and school responsibilities, but those who attended then still continue eight years later.
How about organized, company-wide activities? Many companies hold company picnics, lunches, holiday parties, and even dances or daylong outings for employees, and sometimes their families as well. In many instances, the company subsidizes some or all of the cost for these events. Often the parties occur on company time, although some may start on company time and extend into the evening hours.
These are the types of events that you should consider attending, even if you don't participate in informal group or departmental gatherings. Rarely are business or technical topics discussed there, and no penalty is given for arriving late and leaving early. Go and eat the food and watch the people. Consider it as inexpensive entertainment, nothing more or less.
However you do it, recognize that you need similar socialization attitudes to those you work with in order to be happy in your job. Seeking that out and fitting into the type of culture you're most comfortable with is one of the keys to a satisfying job and work environment.