Being an Office Manager is important, but it’s also hard and oftentimes lonely. That’s because there isn’t really a ‘guide book’ for this job, and it’s difficult to know where to go for support when things go wrong. I realised that the key to addressing this was in community, and so, hosted the first ever meetup for Office Managers in Cape Town to discuss how we navigate our day-to-day challenges. I also started a Slack workspace for Cape Town Office Managers, so that you can join the community too!
No Office Manager, no office
“Office Manager” (OM) is an antiquated title that doesn’t capture the wide range of tasks necessary to keep a team of 50+ people happy in their work environment. In reality, we are the UX designers for all the employees of the company.
When UX design is working perfectly, nobody notices. Similarly, the point of office management is not to get noticed; it’s to keep things running. If an OM is struggling, however, anything from a lack of whiteboard markers to a lack of electricity could bring the company to its knees (this might be an exaggeration, but you get the point).
Most of what I do as an OM is stuff I’ve never done before. I face problem after problem equipped only with my wits, Google, and slices of advice from my CEO – none of which are a given.
‘Not knowing’ is hard
Recently, a wall in the office needed to get knocked down, asap. I knew nothing about building and construction, but I also didn’t want to get ripped off - so I figured I better learn more about this fast. Last month, I had to learn about remote access portals, and before that it was interior design.
These things are hard and, while thinking about how to tackle them, I frequently find myself wishing there was someone I could ask: How did you do this? I knew I wasn’t the only OM working in Cape Town and so, I set out to understand whether other OMs go through the same things that I do.
More importantly, though, I wanted to show that enabling OMs with more resources doesn’t only keep the fridge full, but also enables people to do their best work.
Finding out who else feels the same
To understand the landscape of office management a bit better, I started visiting OMs in their offices, and chatting to them one-on-one. I wanted to know how they work, and if what they do is similar to what I do.
To my surprise, I found that OMs really are the same animal across industries. While the company size and culture affect the OM role significantly, the challenges we face and the way we solve problems is actually remarkably similar. Would you suppose that an OM at a JSE-listed corporate has the same philosophy around stationery inventory as an OM at a small fin-tech startup? They do. And they both struggle to plan their week because of the daily influx of ad hoc requests.
This told me that there was a conversation – possibly many – waiting to happen between OMs who have the savvy, experience, and varying perspectives to help each other out.
Rather than roaming around getting OM insights for myself, I realised that the value of this resource could be compounded by getting a group of OMs together: What I needed was to get these people into one room.
Starting to build a community for OMs
I wanted to start a conversation and find out what an OM community could look like. I created a meetup on Meetup, and didn’t market it too hard; I wanted to start with the curious few to help me test this idea.
We ended up being a group of six, and answered only two questions each:
- What challenges are you facing right now?
- What’s something you know now, that you wish you knew when you started?
Focusing on only two questions meant that we had conversations stretching over two hours, packed full of gold-nugget ideas and insights. We chatted about a range of pro-tips for office management, such as how to build sustainable systems in an office and understanding how to organise your day. More on these tips below.
Pro-tips for winning at office management
- Systems are an OM’s ‘swiss army knife’: We all agreed that systems are to OMs what swiss army knives are to, well, humans: They equip you to do more using less energy, but you still need to be clever about how you use them. There are many online services out there that can help with solving problems like these; but when it comes to knowing which one to pick, and which one will best serve your needs, a community of OMs with similar problems is far more valuable than any spec sheet or sales rep. Not only will the community probably have been in the same position you currently are, but your question will probably help a bunch of others at the same time.
- When prioritising, visualise the impact: OMs spend their lives straddling the knife’s edge between urgent and important. The key, however, is to visualise the impact by asking yourself: Who will this affect, and how much will it matter to them? Another way to think about it is to ask, “What will happen if I don’t do this now?” Give yourself an idea of what the consequences might be by working backwards from an outcome. If you can measure the impact, you will be able to prioritise what you need to do with a little more confidence.
- Cut out the middleman: OMs have to play many roles, and one of the most important is managing relationships with various suppliers. When it comes to plumbers, painters, ‘plant maintainers’, or whatever it is that you need, make sure you have them on speed dial, rather than using a contracting service. Building relationships like these gives you more control, better service guarantee, and a higher chance of a discount! Take ownership and responsibility, and go directly to the source where-ever possible.
- Set a precedent for how you respond: Whether it’s hourly, or at a certain time of the day, people will appreciate knowing how and when you’ll address their issues. Office management is essentially a kind of customer service, where your colleagues are your customers, and it pays big time if they know how long they have to wait to get a response from you. Always make sure your answer is either a “Yes”, a “No”, or “I’ll focus on this later.” Just don’t leave people in the dark.
Community really matters
These are just a few insights from a lengthy conversation. We discussed many more things, and there will be even more to share in the coming months, because one thing is certain: In a role where there is no guide book or cheatsheet, it really, really pays to have a support squad to help you figure out the answers. The value of a community is that – when you need answers – you can get them.
If you’re an OM, or even if you know an OM that would benefit from being part of such a community, join the Slack channel to be part of the Cape Town OM Support Squad.
It’s okay! You are not alone! :)
Zsa Perry is the Office Manager slash Team Experience Designer at OfferZen in Cape Town. Her real forte is assembling furniture, but in between that, she draws on experience in advertising, online education, treasure hunt design and logistics to manage the office, run team events, onboard new employees, and to surprise and delight the people of OfferZen.