We need to talk about “office housework,” because women and minorities are doing more of it.
What’s office housework?
Some is actual workplace housekeeping, like tidying up the break room or rearranging chairs around a conference table. The term also encompasses communal tasks like having lunch catered, setting up an offsite, or giving a new colleague a tour of the photocopier and restrooms.
By definition, office housework is unseen and unrewarded. No one sealed a promotion to senior director on the strength of being awesome at corralling meeting RSVPs or the “just-in-time” replacement of coffee filters.
And don’t think for a moment that when you’re working from home, you can’t fall into this trap. Here are some examples of office housework shared by webinar participants, even as the COVID-19 pandemic had forced many of them out of their bricks-and-mortar workplaces:
• Sarah: Rounding up people to attend meetings
• Shwetha: Taking meeting notes and sending out action items
• Jonella: Data-entry
• Kathryn: Merging slide decks
• Rebecca: Routine system maintenance
• Stephanie: Managing distribution lists
• Shannon: Being keeper of the credit card for miscellaneous team purchases
• Gregg: Drafting form letters
• Stacey: Picking up the mail for the staff
You want to be the good team citizen so you throw up your hand and say, “Sure, I’ll do it,” then come to regret it.
One reliable way to torpedo your future leadership prospects is to be the heroine who tries to do it all. Think about it: if you’re the one who is always saying yes to the little things, the time-consuming busywork, and messy tactical to-dos, that will eventually become your personal brand. You’ll keep attracting more of the same.
The way you turn down an ill-fitting request can do a lot to increase your chances of attracting a better-matched opportunity next time. I spoke to Coca-Cola retail sales leader Pamela Stewart about how to artfully decline a request that underestimates what you’re capable of.
“To high achievers, who are often people pleasers, the idea of saying no can be painful, but the inability to set boundaries around your time and space erodes the opportunity to attack your boldest dreams,” says Pamela. It’s her belief that it’s important to decline any request that you know is going to infringe on time with your family, a career boundary, your thinking space, or time to rejuvenate. “You’ll show up a better person and a stronger leader,” she says.
To firmly, diplomatically say no, Pamela recommends expressing your gratitude while redirecting their expectations of you. Here are two scripts you can use:
• “I’m grateful to be considered for this opportunity. But, based on my schedule and other demands, I’m unable to help in this instance.”
• “I’d be happy to help out, but I can actually do more. Please also consider me for [name your ideal assignment].”
Then move on, guilt free.
I’m not saying you should never contribute to office housework. Instead, take a stand for sharing the load equitably. Don’t let your leadership strengths get buried under a mountain of low-level, inconsequential tasks, and don’t let the burden land disproportionately on others, either.
If you’re in need of support or ideas, talk to a mentor about how she or he deflects the minutiae of everyday work life in order to lock focus on the bigger picture. As one webinar attendee, Valerie, said, “They’ve stopped asking me now that I’ve trained up others to do this and shown my strategic side.” Working less on low-prestige busywork can free you up to focus on delivering results and making a difference.
When you’re invited to work on something that you’re truly, innately inspired to take on, it’s easy to say yes. And the requests you say no to can be as career defining as the ones you accept.
What’s one example of the office housework you’ll say “nope” to this week?
Adapted from Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw-Hill) by Jo Miller.