How to make an open office plan work

terreriumDuring the past few weeks in Boston, we’ve gotten record levels of snow and cold temperatures. My daily commute has become a trek over snow-covered peaks and ice-covered paths — that is, if I leave my house at all.

Working from home has so many perks — especially if your office is on an open plan like mine. The peace and quiet (and comfort of working in sweatpants) is a welcome respite from the daily clamor of the train and shared office space.

My office moved to an open plan about 6 months ago, and while I generally like it, many people don’t. It’s a big transition if you’re used to your own office, or even your own cube. That said, there are some easy ways to make open offices much more manageable.

Here are some tips for managing your life in an open office:

1. Establish rules
Don’t assume that people have the same problems with the open plan that you do. Maybe you’re sensitive to that guy speaking loudly on the phone, but your overpowering perfume is giving your neighbor a headache. This is where establishing and following a shared set of rules makes everyone’s lives easier. Rules might include not eating crunchy or smelly foods at your desk (think popcorn and tuna melts), not wearing perfume or cologne, not putting your phone on speaker, and respecting the headphone rule (which I’ll talk more about below).

2. Relax
When we moved, I had the distinct feeling that everyone walking by was looking at what I was doing. I’m the type of person that doesn’t want people to see my unfinished work, so the idea that people would potentially have access to my projects mid-process was stressful. I felt exposed and uncomfortable. 

But after a few weeks, I realized two things: First, the majority of other people feel the same way, and second, no one is looking at your screen! Everyone is busy and has better things to be doing — like their own work.

3. De-clutter your desk
Part of moving to an open plan is making the workforce more mobile. The goal is to get people moving around, interacting, and thinking creatively. It’s hard to feel mobile when your desk has a pile of 3 year old paperwork on it. Get rid of it! Some people have records they need to keep for legal or other reasons — consider scanning and keeping digital files if possible.

It’s not just paperwork, either. One of the first things I noticed when we moved was how many chotchkies I had in my old space, just to fill it. In an open plan, you likely just have a desk space and maybe a small drawer, so keep a few things to personalize your space (for me, that’s a few small plants and a digital picture frame) but other than that, keep things clear.

4. Use your headphones
The most important rule of the open office is the headphone rule. It’s simple: If someone is wearing headphones, that means they’re in the zone and shouldn’t be interrupted. If they have one headphone in and one out, you can approach.

This will help if you are frequently distracted by people walking up to your desk and asking you questions (work-related or not). But if you have more of an issue with the ambient noise of an open office, consider investing in some noise-cancelling headphones.

5. Don’t be a victim
Because the office is a shared space, there will be times when people aren’t respectful of their noise level. Maybe it’s a visitor who isn’t used to open plans, or maybe it’s just someone who’s blissfully unaware of the etiquette. Remember — their loud speaking voice is not a personal affront against you, and complaining about it loudly to the people around you is likely even more distracting than the original offense.

If you are feeling truly distracted by this person, don’t feel bad about asking them to quiet down. But keep in mind, there’s no need to be rude about it. They’re not doing it on purpose, and when you bring it up, they’ll probably be embarrassed – so no need to add insult to injury and yell at them.

6. Remember, it’s not the end of the world
It takes some getting used to, but open floor plans aren’t all bad. One of my favorite parts about an open plan is that it’s more egalitarian. In a traditional setting, the office VIPs got the corner offices and could hog all of the natural light. Now, I get to share the benefits.

Blog like no one’s watching

bokeh treesMost bloggers obsessively check their stats more than they write. It’s a great way to tell if your words are resonating, and if whatever marketing you’re doing to promote it is effective. If the blog is for a business, measuring its impact is obviously important. Plus, it’s a little endorphin boost whenever you get some new views or shares or followers.

I purposely don’t promote this blog on Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook. I do check my stats, but only when I log in to WordPress to write a new post. It’s not that I don’t care whether people out there are reading — in fact, I hope you are, and I’m happy when people comment on my posts and continue the conversation. But, if I don’t care about the stats…what’s this all for? Is there some intrinsic value in blogging?

I’d say so. Writing is a good habit for everyone to get into — it helps you better notice the world around you, develop critical thinking skills, and lower stress levels.

I like to use this blog to think through those things that unsettle or excite me. It’s easy in this smartphone age to not think that deeply about anything, really. From the early morning commute spent playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Twitter, to that lovely feeling of sinking into the couch in front of the TV after a long day at work, there’s always something to hold our attention.

I hate to sound like one of those technology alarmists that wish things would go back to the “good ol’ days”. While I think Candy Crush is a waste of time, I’m not suggesting that I use my time for productive activities only — who among us is immune to that sultry siren that is binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix?

All I’m saying is there are so many devices and BuzzFeed listicles out there competing for our attention that it’s hard to think long and critically about just one thing.

So, that’s what I’m trying to get out of this blog. I might write about some piece of cultural ephemera that no one will remember a year or even 6 minutes from now, or I might write about something more serious; but the value I get from sitting here and writing is the practice itself — focusing on that one thing, and really giving it some thought.

How to Write a Professional Email

Email is one of those things that seems so simple, and is so easy, that people forget to use it properly. It’s supposed to make your professional life easier — but if it’s not used efficiently, often it ends up complicating things.

Of course, I’m just as guilty as the next person of firing off a confusing response with no context, or an urgent email with no subject line. When a project isn’t unfolding the way I envisioned, I can usually trace it back to a communication breakdown. So, below are the tips I try and keep in the back of my mind whenever I write an email.

keyboard

1. Take a minute. It’s easy to just fire off emails without thinking (or proofreading), but try not to fall into this trap. No one likes the person who sends 3 emails in a row about the same subject, each with additional information. Most people get way too many emails in general, and inefficient emails cut into productivity and flood inboxes. If you take time to proofread your email and make sure it’s clear and concise, your job (and everyone else’s) will be a little easier.

2. Use your manners. Some people underestimate the importance of, or don’t think they have time for, being polite over email. But in today’s professional world, you’ll often interact with people over email that you’ve never even met in person. Think about the way you’d like that person to remember you. I’m not saying you need to address them by name in each reply — I think that’s redundant. But do say please and thank you.

3. Provide context. Maybe you have a high-priority project, and it’s at top of mind for you. So, you email one of your co-workers about it — but you just refer to it as “the website,” or “the spreadsheet,” or whatever your project happens to be — leaving your co-workers scratching their heads. Don’t assume your most important project is everyone else’s: Chances are it isn’t. The easiest (and often best) way to make sure everyone’s on the same page is to just use the same email chain, but if that’s not appropriate or useful, just be sure to remind your recipients about the basic details of the project you’re talking about.

4. Remember you’re not the center of the universe. I’m sure your job is very important, but acting entitled (in person or over email) isn’t going to help you. If I haven’t responded in a few hours, don’t email me again, “just checking” if I got the first email. If it’s been 24 hours and your request is urgent, it’s time to pick up the phone.

6. Respond in a timely manner. That said, if someone gives you a project over email that might take a few days, weeks, or months, respond to them within 24 hours. You won’t have an update yet, but it will ease the sender’s mind knowing that their project is on your radar.

5. Don’t cc my boss. There are exceptions, of course: If it’s a high-priority project she’d want to be privy to, that’s one thing. If I’m not doing my job, or not responding within a reasonable timeframe, or if I’m being unprofessional, you also might want to do this. But, even in those cases, ccing my boss just makes you look petty.

6. DON’T USE ALL CAPS. Especially if it’s in the subject line. NO ONE LIKES BEING SHOUTED AT, and all caps just makes you seem rude. If you are sending a particularly long email and need to call out the important bits, put that in the opening, or organize your email into sections with bold headings (almost like this blog post).

7. Reign in your punctuation. Are you feeling quizzical???? One question mark will do.

8. Don’t use non-standard fonts and colors, swirly designs, or quotes. Please. Don’t make your default email background tie-dyed. If your company has branded guidelines for your signature block, go ahead and use them, but if not, just keep it simple. And please don’t add a quote. You just look like you have too much time on your hands.

9. Don’t rely on email if there’s a better way to communicate. Do you need a quick answer to a quick question? Most companies have a chat client, and this is a great use for it. There’s also this machine called a telephone. Is your request actually urgent? If not, don’t use that little exclamation point in Outlook. I once worked with someone who marked over 80% of her emails high importance. You can guess what happened: No one took her emails seriously. If she ever actually sent an urgent email, chances are most people didn’t actually read it in a timely manner.

10. Don’t email incriminating or private conversations. This should go without saying, but it seems like every other week there’s a scandal involving someone’s very embarrassing leaked emails. You can bet your employer has access to your emails, and these days, you should keep in mind there’s a good chance someone else can get  their hands on them as well. I’m not saying you should be sneaky; just be mindful of the fact that your private communications are never as private as you think.

Beer brewed the hard way? Picking apart Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad

What beer were you drinking during this year’s Super Bowl? Bad IPA

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl (I know, I know) but I was drinking my very first homebrew, which I wouldn’t quite call a failure, but I also wouldn’t really call a success. It’s alcoholic and carbonated, which I guess makes it a “successful” beer, but it has a funky, bitter aftertaste that makes it not so enjoyable to drink. Brewing bad beer made me really appreciate what goes into making this stuff: With the same standard ingredients and the same basic process, you can brew something that tastes delicious and nuanced, or you can make something kinda terrible.

I may not have watched the Superbowl live, but I was caught in the wave of articles and listicles about the ads this morning. One Budweiser spot caught my eye in particular. Big beer has been feeling the pinch from the craft beer boom for a while now, but Bud’s “Brewed the Hard Way” ad shows how nervous they really must be. In 60 seconds, they try to bring down those pretentious hipsters with their smoked porters and twisted mustaches frame by frame, and reclaim their spot as a quintessential American beer.

It comes on strong with the “Us Vs. Them” vibe: There’s the manly music that makes you feel like a guy who drinks Budweiser is a guy with swagger. Compare that to the shot of the Quintessential Hipster: bushy beard, waxed mustache, thick-rimmed glasses, and a dark beer in a glass with a stem – overlaid with the words “It’s not brewed to be fussed over.” Dudes who drink Budweiser are hard. They’re not these wimpy, bespectacled Brooklynites sipping microbrews with the Untappd app open on their iPhones. The people who drink craft, the ad suggests, are pale, pasty, and boring; but guys who drink Bud? They’re rugged and fun. You drink craft out of tiny glasses with your boring friends. You drink Budweiser at a crowded bar with hot chicks.

At the same time, the ad plays a subtle schizophrenic hand and goes in for those same craft beer converts it’s thumbing its nose at. Bud is losing market share, after all, and their ads need to do the double-duty of keeping loyal customers and winning back a legion of craft beer neophytes. Why else include the tight shots of the cascading malt and hops being crushed between those discerning fingertips? (Cute puppies can only do so much, after all). It’s a marriage of pinky-out craftsmanship and blue-collar values: this beer is brewed proudly with our hands, the ad says. It’s a beer of the people, crafted by experts. Later in the clip, old ads for Bud are juxtaposed against a vintage shot of the Clydesdales — see, hipsters? We’re nostalgic too.

60 seconds is a long time for a commercial, but it’s still impressive how much message is packed into this one. And, to be honest, I can see how appealing this ad could be if you want to think of yourself as an all-American tough-guy with a taste for cheap beer (and football). These days, it can be almost embarrassing to drink such mainstream beers – some of the bars I go to don’t even carry them. (That said, I’m squarely in the craft beer enthusiast camp, and that probably plays pretty heavily into the bars I choose to go to). This ad amps up the macho factor and allays these social anxieties. Hey, man, you’re the cool guy with the Bud in your hand.

But, just like your mom told you in middle school, bullies do their thing because they have low self-esteem. Bud is trying so hard to be cool, their insecurities are shining right through their golden suds. They say they’re proud to be Macro. Sorry Budweiser, but I’m not buying.

Beers I’m drinking instead:
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: My favorite IPA at the moment.
Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union IPL: Traditional IPA with a twist.
Left Hand Milk Stout: In their own words, “udderly delightful.”
Nedloh Barrel Aged First TImer: This one might be hard to get if you’re not around Rochester, NY. Nedloh cropped up last year down the road from the house I grew up in, and I’m sorry I don’t still live nearby. When we visited, we liked everything they had to offer.

And, for all you pumpkin peach ale drinkers out there:
Dogfish Head Festina Peche: Peachy neo-Berliner Weisse
New Holland Ichabod: Pumpkin ale with just the right spiciness.

And, if you haven’t heard enough about this ad, here’s a great analysis from Jim Vorel for Paste. Favorite tidbit: “Elysian Brewing, the Seattle brewery that Anheuser just purchased last week, makes a … yes … pumpkin peach ale. It’s called “Gourdia on My Mind .” Anheuser is literally mocking the consumers of the COMPANIES THEY NOW OWN.”

If the shoe fits…Go husband hunting

Maybe it’s because I’ve been entrenched in writing marketing emails for the past few weeks, but I’ve been really paying attention to the emails I’ve been receiving lately. One I got this week stands out from the pack, and not in a good way. I’ve already pointed out some of the things I like in an email, but after receiving this one, I thought a little primer on what not to do might be useful.

Namely: Don’t use sexism to sell shoes.

The email in question is from Nine West, a brand that I’ve been loyal to since high school. It’s one of my go-to brands: I know how the shoe is going to fit, and the prices fit nicely into my budget. In this campaign, however, Nine West is suggesting I don some leopard spotted heels to aid me in what is clearly the most important part of any young woman’s life: Husband hunting.

Image of Nine West ad featuring Starter Husband Hunting campaign

I was going to write a full post about this, but it turns out I’m veryvery late to the party. This campaign is at least 5 months old, and apparently, going strong – which makes me wonder.

I’m not a fan of this campaign, but I don’t know if it’s enough to make me stop buying Nine West shoes. If you’re loyal to a brand, how far would they have to go to lose your support? And, from a marketer’s perspective – how much backlash do you need to receive before backtracking?

Email Marketing: Anatomy of a Subject Line

The importance of email marketing has been debated over the past few years, but most people still agree that it’s one of the best ways to connect with your customer. That said, as a consumer during the Christmas season, I hate email marketing. My inbox has been inundated, and it’s brought to mind some best practices I try to enact when I’m on the other side of the screen.

The subject line
It’s obviously important: A good subject line means your message is opened; a bad or even mediocre one means it’s sent to the trash folder. Even so, it’s often an afterthought. I’m as guilty as anyone: You spend so much time on the content development and building your HTML email and making it pretty, and then you get to the subject line and it’s tempting to just bang something out quickly. Don’t do it!

The emails I delete without opening

  • The ones that come too frequently: If I get an email from your company every day, or worse, multiple times a day? I’m deleting them all, and I’m unsubscribing from your list. I don’t care how good your subject lines are.
  • Repetitive subject lines: This seems to happen a lot with job boards, apartment listings, and similar sites. Maybe they think they don’t have to try very hard, because if you’re subscribed to a job site, chances are you’ll want to open the emails and won’t need much convincing. I don’t like them because they just don’t seem very human — and they’re probably not. I’m sure these are automated messages that just get sent out based on job field and location, but still.

What makes an irresistible subject line?
This is going to make me sound a little crazy, but some of my favorite emails are from Pack, every crazy dog person’s favorite social networking site. They send me periodic newsletters, and I always open them because of their kooky subject lines. One memorable one that I’ve lost to the email ether just said:

Dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs!

Some others include little hearts, and…well, take a look:

dogs

You can see I didn’t open one about a new Rescues program, but I did open the email right below which is actually about the same thing. It appealed to me in early December as the onslaught of Christmas campaigns started to flood my inbox: Instead of using every technique under the sun to try and get me to buy something, here’s an email telling me to put my wallet away. Refreshing! (Spoiler alert: There were lots of cute dog pictures in the email.)

Pack knows their audience: We’re crazy dog people, and we will be spoken to like crazy dog people. Even so, Pack varies their subject lines and use a few different categories:

  • Informative: “Introducing our new Pack Rescues program.”
  • Click-baity: “There are cute dogs in here, you know.” How could I not open this email?
  • Cutesy: Without the little heart, The Pack Dog Newsletter would be boring. With the heart, it becomes irresistibly cute.
  • Situational/seasonal: “Please, put your wallets away” grabs attention because Pack not only doesn’t normally ask for money, but they also sent this during prime Christmas marketing season.
  • Funny: I laughed out loud when I saw the “Dogs dogs dogs dogs…” email. “Doooooogs!” above is serving a similar function.

Varying your tone and style of subject line increases your chances for engagement. But, if you don’t think all of these types would be appropriate for your business (I don’t think I’d take too kindly to a funny message from my bank, for example), A/B testing subject lines would be a good way to figure out what tone and style resonates best with your audience.

Something I haven’t seen from Pack that I find to be hit-and-miss is personalization. Of course, it’s been proven to be very effective, but I think some companies are a little too flippant with my name — or maybe that’s just me. That’s the hard part about marketing, right? The concepts are pretty simple, but implementing them takes skill and tact.

Helpful resources for email marketing
A MailKimp…chimp email marketing field guide
And, MailChimp’s invaluable CSS inliner tool
Copyblogger’s email marketing ebook

 

Cults and today’s brands

Are modern brands taking notes from cults? An article by Derek Thompson in this month’s Atlantic suggests as much. Creepy? Yes. But, there’s still something to be learned, I think. The author quotes Douglas Atkin, who says, “The common belief is that people join cults to conform…Actually, the very opposite is true. They join to become more individual.” Harnessing this insight has proved successful for a number of companies.

The article has certainly generated some visceral responses on both sides of the issue. So, is it creepy, or advice worth taking? Read it here.