What to Do When Your Work Isn’t Your Job
Advice on managing the invisible tasks that creep into your day but not into your job description
At SRCCON:POWER last month, I facilitated a session called “That’s not my job…yet.” About 20 journalists—from a range of seniority levels—talked about the extra work we take on outside our official roles. We named, scored, and categorized invisible labor, and we made a roadmap for negotiating a change.
This is an attempt to distill that conversation, and to help guide managers and employees alike, so that the newsroom is supported and everyone can thrive.
What’s So Extra
We started by listing the “extra work.” Quite a few non-social-media managers had been asked to run a Twitter account. It seemed like half of us had acted as a newsroom’s unofficial IT. What tasks would top your list? (Seriously, write some down.)
Like we did, consider who benefits from each task. If you had to place it on an axis, where one end represented the benefit of the organization (hello, tidying up a conference room) and one was primarily for your benefit, where would it go? Now add another dimension: how much enjoyment the task brings—one side for the work you love and one for what you loathe.
Here’s what that looked like for us:
It’s a cathartic exercise (and an excellent ice breaker), but its usefulness crystallized when we broke down the quadrants.
What is the work that you hate, but is good for your employer? For me, that’s manual data entry. Assuming it is something you are willing to do at all, this is work you need a timeline on. Either it should represent a small portion of your day-to-day or it has a clear end date. You can help with X, but only for Y amount of time.
Work you hate but benefits you? It’s a category that, at first glance, seems like an oxymoron. But this is the work we might take on because we think it will allow us to move into more interesting roles in the future. It could be assisting with scheduling to show your leadership potential or learning new technology that would be required knowledge in a promotion.
The work you enjoy is simpler. Good for you and you enjoy it? These are your passion projects. Cement them in your role if you can. Be open about your interests and pursuing them so that others offer you similar opportunities when they arise.
Finally, there is work you like doing but which offers no professional benefit. Our own personal interests in areas such as mentoring or training can be taken advantage of here. So, it’s important to be aware of how much time this work takes, and that it’s made visible to others. It does not mean that you have to stop because it doesn’t immediately advance your career.
Of course, these dimensions don’t capture everything. At our session, we brainstormed alternative axes such as internal/external visibility and emotional energy. You can keep the exercise but swap the dimensions for whatever works best. The means are up to you, so long as the end is a better sense of what you want.
When you eventually do have a sense of what you want, it might be time to set up a discussion with your manager.
How to Talk About Time
While your goals might vary wildly, some basic bits of advice hold up. One universal note is that good documentation will come in handy whether you’re making a case for a raise or for bringing on an intern.
Here are some more basic pieces of advice to use as a starting point for productive talks with a manager.
Step one: Prepping for the conversation.
Before the meeting (and if they haven’t followed up on setting one, you can do it yourself), here are some suggestions for feeling well-equipped.
Practice: Find a coworker or friend you trust and test run the conversation. You’ll get another perspective on how well you make your case and hopefully work through some initial nerves.
Problem solve: Write a list of the issues you want to raise with your manager and include possible solutions. You don’t need a written list to give them, but it’ll help frame your thinking in a solution-oriented way so you can dive into terms rather than focus on venting. It’s important to be specific here. One manager, P. Kim Bui, gave some excellent advice: “Rather than say ‘I’m experiencing burnout’ say ‘I’m finding task X is taking up a lot of time, and that’s giving me burnout. What can we do to scale that work back?’”
Document: If your work doesn’t already require it, document how you spend your time. It’ll help your manager to see how task X is preventing you from getting to your other work.
Get advice: If it’s feasible, talk to others in your organization who might have walked a similar road. They can offer some useful insight into the organization’s thinking overall.
Write the agenda: You don’t have to be the most senior person to set the agenda. In fact, all the managers in the room at SRCCON:POWER agreed that it was helpful when an employee provided an agenda for a meeting that the employee had set. After all, the more time that managers have to think in advance about the topics at hand, the more thoughtful their responses can be.
Step two: In the room.
Once you sit down with your manager, you want to keep the conversation productive and leave with a clear sense of next steps. Some examples of techniques that participants had success with:
Start on the same team: Start from a place of “We both really want this shared thing.” Find a mutual outcome/goal and frame the conversation around that.
Face the feelings: Language can expose vulnerability and convey emotion, but the goal is to express where you are coming from in a productive way. One participant, Kaeti Hinck, said to “talk about the feeling without bringing the feeling into the room.”
Ask questions: This meeting doesn’t need to be a one-sided vent session. Find out what your manager’s priorities are and ask what they need from you in order to bring your requests to reality. Make sure they acknowledge and understand the problem you’re facing in a meaningful way.
Get specifics: Set a timeline and a chance to meet again. Work together to outline concrete steps or a plan for how you can follow up.
Don’t commit right away: Both your manager and you should take time after the meeting to consider the options you’ve discussed. It’s tempting to say “yes” right away when a boss asks you to do (or stop doing) something, but it’s perfectly all right to ask for a little time to think on it.
Step three: How to follow up.
In order to make the most of your conversation, you’ll probably need to return to it at some point. Here’s some advice on how to navigate next steps:
Start a paper trail: Send a follow-up email outlining what was discussed, and what further action is required by the other side. This gives your manager a chance to correct the record if there was any misunderstanding. It also provides a paper trail for you both to refer to if you don’t remember exactly what was agreed to.
Continue to document: Try to keep track of how work goes after the fact. You don’t need to share every detail with your manager, but having a solid sense of how the issue is progressing will allow you to answer questions in meaningful ways and provide specific examples if called upon.
Set the next meeting: When it’s time to discuss again, set a new meeting and return to step one.
Celebrate victories: Recognize when progress is made. It’s unlikely your job will ever perfectly encapsulate only what you want it to (if so though, congrats and please write about how to do that). But enjoy the moment when your boss listens to your concerns and acts on them. Everyone likes to hear they’ve improved someone else’s life; tell them!
Our SRCCON conversation was productive and eye-opening (for me, at least). But it was not all-encompassing. These techniques might not work for you. If you’ve had success with other methods, please let me know! The end goal is to bring to light all the work that we do and ensure that time and energy are compensated, recognized, and rewarded.
Julia Wolfe is a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics and interactive graphics. Previously, she worked at The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, and The Toronto Star. She is also an adjunct lecturer at CUNY’s graduate school of journalism.