Office Worker Essentials

A century ago the majority of people were employed in manual labor: either on a farm or in industry. A small minority worked as professionals. They were the early knowledge workers. Their primary tools were the pen and paper. How times have changed. Today every knowledge worker has a myriad of tools at their disposal and they are expected to master them.

You have to work with at least two office tools: email and calendar. First things first: resist the temptation to use your office email for personal messages. The company owns, operates, or at least pays for the email system. It should be used only for company business. Find an email provider that you like (Google Mail, Yahoo!, iCloud,, etc.) and sign up for a free account (if you haven’t already done so). Use this account for your personal messages. Even though you will end up with two email boxes and two calendars, you are still better off keeping company business and your personal business separate. This applies to you if the other email is your school or college email, not work.

Setup filters for your incoming email that tag (and sort) your mail. This allows you to focus on the more important messages (either because you tag the important ones, or filter out the less important ones). Setup shortcuts, or just learn the ones your email system already has, that allow you to move the messages quickly into your email archive or the trash bin. Use filters to retrieve tagged messages from the message archive.

A good email habit to get into is to check your messages just a few times a day, only when you are ready to process them. Processing your messages means that you look at the message, and decide on the spot what to do about it. If you can complete the work required by the email in less than 30 seconds, then do it right then. If you think that it will take longer, then schedule time on your calendar to get the work completed. If you need to keep it for reference, then tag it and archive it. Otherwise, delete it. 1

Keep your calendar current with all your scheduled activities. Attempting to keep meetings and appointments in your head will sooner or later result in missing one. Add calendar entries that reserve time for doing your work to ensure that nobody schedules you for something else when you need to focus. Most calendaring apps allow you to color code your calendar to see at a glance what your day or week looks like. Pick 4 to 6 categories, assign colors to them, and color your calendar entries accordingly. You’ll be surprised how much faster you will grasp what your day or week looks like.

As you attend meetings and talk to your colleagues have a notebook so that you can write things down. You will come across well organized and dependable as a result. People will trust you more if they know that they can count on your listening to what they are saying, taking notes, and following up on requests or action items.

For your engineering work, keep a separate engineering notebook where you record your engineering thoughts, sketches, theories, and observations. For both of these uses there are good electronic notebooks for laptops and tablets. If you are not comfortable having everything online or you can’t quite feel that the electronic pad can capture everything that you want to sketch, then you may still want to have a paper notebook. Always date your notes; it is a practical habit to adopt to ensure that you can also find your ideas if at least you vaguely remember when you thought of them.

There is a good chance that your workplace will also have a corporate wiki for collaboration and knowledge management. You need to learn how to use one and get used to working with it regularly. Wikis are a great way to collaborate with your colleagues even if they are in the same office with you (because writing will clarify your thinking), but especially across time (asynchronously) and geography (especially long distances). For more on how to use a wiki see: What Makes a Good Wiki and What Makes a Good Wiki Page. In addition to the collaborative editing aspect of every wiki page, the comments and highlighting on every page are a useful collaboration tool, too.

Another element of every person’s life (both personal and work) is online chat, also known as messaging. In the work setting chat has been elevated from idle diversion to the status of a useful productivity tool. Chat channels are used for connecting people around a common projects, interests, or locations. To be a successful chat user, you must learn how to manage your chat-driven interruptions. There are times when you may not want to be interrupted by chat messages. Let your team know this in advance. Tell them when you are available, so that they can count on you. Most messages do not require immediate attention. A workable strategy is to let people know that if it’s urgent, they should use some other method to contact you, like a phone call, etc.

That takes us to one of the oldest office tools: the telephone. For most software developers the telephone lives on as a device for conference calls, though even in that aspect is getting replaced by online voice and video calls or tools like GotoMeeting and Since these days you are not likely to get a lot of voice messages, I recommend that you check your messages before you leave for the day; you never know, it might be from somebody important.

In almost every knowledge worker role, certainly most roles in software development, from time-to-time you are expected to prepare and deliver presentations. Learn how to use a presentation software, be it PowerPoint, Keynote, Slides, or anything else that your workplace standardizes on. You need to know at least how to: (1) edit and create presentations, (2) put the presentation software in full-screen presentation mode from the beginning and from the current slide, and (3) pick the appropriate screen for displaying your presentation. Practice these skills for a few minutes every week until your learn them, or at least practice it before you present. Make sure that you practice with the equipment that you will present with. Since there is a good chance that you don’t present a lot, during those few occasions when you do, you will have a lot of eyes on you as you fumble with your computer, projector, or the cables that connect them together.

Plan your work and work your plan. It is an old adage and it still holds true. Avoid the desire to make a perfect plan. Your goal should be to make a plan that can guide your work. A good plan will warn you when you are getting off track. When you cannot make a plan for the work, that’s a sign that at this time you may not know enough to do that work. This can be either an opportunity or a problem: if you realize this early, you may still be able to learn what you need to know, but if you find out late that you are lacking critical knowledge, then you might not be able to complete your work on-time. Then you have to ask for help. For details on how to plan, see my earlier post: Brief Introduction to Personal Planning.

Whenever you accept to do any work, even as simple as a task, part of that work is to report the completion of that work to whomever gave it to you. Or, if the work takes more than a day, then it is a good idea to agree ahead of time how often you are expected to report on the status of the work. If it takes more than two days to do, then identify smaller chunks of work that you can complete in a day or half-a-day. As you work through the first few tasks, you will have a better idea about how the work is going. And, you’ll be able to report on your progress.

Lastly, learn to touch-type and dictate. Most software developers spend a great deal of their time in front of the keyboard. Thus it is a very useful skill to learn how to type without having to hunt and peck for every key on the keyboard. Typing at a respectable 30 to 50 words-per-minute is within everybody’s reach.

Dictation used to be a skill reserved for top executives. Today voice recognition is built into almost every mobile phone and computer. As a result, it is possible to dictate to the computer what in the past you would’ve had to type. However, dictation is a skill that needs to be learned. Learn how to do this and you will save yourself a great deal of typing. (As you may have guessed, I dictated part of this post.)

Look through the above list, pick something that you feel you should do next and get going on it. You will enjoy getting more effective, more productive, and you might also have some fun along the way.


  1. For more on processing your messages, see *Getting Things Done*, by David Allen.