The Agony and Ecstasy of Working in Small Offices

You’ll become an indispensable part of the company (at a slightly lower salary).

Parks and Rec

During my last summer of college, I ended up having two internships. One was at a large academic book publisher downtown, while the other was at a play publisher in the garment district. The office cultures could not have been more different.

At the big publisher, I swiped in amidst the hustle and bustle of the other corporate building’s tenants. I had a cube where I often spent hours reading articles and biding my time while waiting to be handed some administrative work.

At the small publisher, I was in a large room, surrounded by the other employees. I had an endless stream of manuscripts to help proofread and format. We often ate lunch together, in some configuration or another, depending on who had to answer the phones.

At the end of the summer, my supervisors at the big publisher offered me a recommendation and said some kind parting words.

At the small publisher, they offered me a job.

So, for the first five years I spent in the workforce, I worked in small offices. It wasn’t necessarily by choice; at different crossroads in my career, I would have an interview at a Big Six—later slimmed to a Big Five—publisher, but they never chose me. Smaller companies did.

Not that I had any complaints. The small office work culture made sense to an ambitious 20-something like me, fresh out of college. I wanted to know the ins and outs of everything and, once I learned them, my mind was always racing to think of ways to make them better. If I hadn’t developed a small-office-specific skill set as an intern, I don’t know that I would have found a full-time job so quickly after graduation—plus the fact that a small-office internship made me an indispensable part of the company in a way that a large-office internship did not.

But small offices have just as many pros and cons as larger ones. Here are some of the lessons I learned starting my career in small offices:

There are lots of opportunities.

When you work in an environment where there is more work than workforce, the potential to learn is endless. If I wanted to take something on that coincided with the company’s goals but didn’t have a role attached to it, I could make a case to do it. When I worked for the play publisher, I offered to see live theater and review it for possible acquisition—which meant I was seeing shows I wanted to see without paying $10–80 for the tickets, which for a broke 20-something was like gold.

Being part of a small office means both learning and leading. I got to help run our social media accounts. I was the one interviewing and training our interns, which meant I was also the one developing and shaping our intern program. Perhaps the most helpful thing I learned at the play publisher was how to use Adobe InDesign; the company needed someone to create templates for our products, so they hired a consultant to train me. If I had wanted to learn InDesign on my own, a beginner’s workshop at the School of Visual Arts would have cost me $400. Instead, I learned InDesign on the job and gained the skills to take on freelance design projects after hours, earning between $1,000–5,000 per project.

You have access to the higher-ups.

While most people are lucky if they catch a glimpse of a higher-up in the elevator, I knew all my bosses well. The CEO/founder of the play publisher was almost always just on the other side of a wall. He witnessed me spill tea all over myself one particularly sleepy morning. He was also always very encouraging throughout my time there, making himself available for regular meetings and seeming receptive to ideas from someone fresh out of college.

Similarly, when I worked at a small consulting office, the women who ran the office had spent years working in publishing and were incredibly generous with their knowledge. We used to have “school,” where one of them would sit down with us for about an hour and talk to us about how to run a business. Having personal time with the people in charge so early in your career is a gift, and I am grateful for having been able to take advantage of it.

You can get unique perks.

When you work in a small office, you might get fewer benefits—but in my case, the limited benefits were more than made up with perks and opportunities. Besides getting the occasional free lunch ($10–$15) or free swag (free recording of Joe Iconis’s rock musical concert, Things to Ruin=PRICELESS), there were also bigger-picture perks to take advantage of.

At the play publisher, many of my coworkers were also playwrights and we encouraged and supported each other. They made the conference room available for people to hold readings, and my coworkers and I even had a writers’ group after hours in the office kitchen, saving the $20/hour for a rental space.

At the consulting office, I was able to go to publishing industry conferences that executives would often shell out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to attend — all on a press pass for coverage on our website.

Your coworkers become your greatest asset.

Working in small offices brought me much closer to my coworkers. Since we weren’t in a large office that was segmented by department, we knew everything everyone else was doing—which means we understood and appreciated each others’ jobs.

We were also glad to have other people who understood that working for a small office means being part of multiple departments at once. When I worked for the consulting office, my coworkers and I wore many hats, and we would often talk about how we explain our jobs to the outside world.

Most importantly, a small office can’t afford to have people who don’t want to be on the team. We were all passionate about what we did and wanted to do a good job, so we developed a team dynamics that carried us through.

Sometimes you have to run lean.

There are also drawbacks to starting a career in a small office; the biggest being a lack of resources. Yes, salaries and benefits were smaller, but we also lacked some of the luxuries that larger companies provide. New programs or software, for example, were a big investment—so we had to make the case to purchase them. At one office, we couldn’t enroll in a commuter discount program because we simply didn’t have enough people to qualify/make it worth it. We couldn’t just call IT with computer issues, because we didn’t have an IT department. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to solve network connectivity issues by turning the office router off, then on.

The traditional growth trajectory is harder to follow.

Large companies have IT departments and HR departments for a reason. When I worked in smaller offices without dedicated HR staff, there weren’t often standard review or raise procedures, and sometimes when there was company friction, we didn’t necessarily have someone to step in and intervene.

With a small company, there’s also limited room for growth. Fewer job roles meant fewer opportunities to be naturally promoted. Instead, we would just keep taking on new responsibilities until a new job role could be created for us or until someone decided to leave the company.

You have certain types of freedoms—which you’ll miss when they’re gone.

A couple of years ago, I finally got my first job at a larger company, and I have been loving it so far. But I missed some of the freedom I had in a small office. For example: when I started my job at the larger company, I realized that my computer was missing an essential piece of software. Per policy, I put in a ticket with IT, which was then escalated to various stages of approval. A few weeks later, the software appeared on my desktop.

But it was weird to be sitting on my hands for three weeks waiting for the software to be downloaded. If I was at one of my old offices, we would’ve either immediately gone online and ordered the software, or I would’ve brought in my laptop, or we would’ve decided it wasn’t worth it and tried to use some free trial or other online tool. We would’ve been scrappy and creative and found a solution that didn’t take three weeks to implement.

To be honest, I think it’s my small office mentality that makes me such a good employee in any setting. Though I enjoy working for larger companies, I am thankful for my time in my small offices and the things the people there have taught me. After all, sometimes the solution to something that seems complicated is just to turn the router off. Then on.

Kimberly Lew is a writer living in New York. She has such fond memories of her coworkers from the play publishing office that she has a treasured quote book from her time there. It’s not as creepy as it sounds, she swears. www.kimberlylew.com

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