Those of us who work in the Co-op program at SFU are in the unique position of hearing from both employers and students about what makes a successful work term. Here's a list of ten simple ways to get off on the right foot.
1. Listen well.
You'll be introduced to many people and it's hard to remember who everyone is, but do your best to really listen when you are introduced. Tip: use the name right away – when you are introduced to Melanie Smith, say "Hello Melanie." It helps. Listen to the instructions you are given.
2. Introduce yourself to others.
Hopefully in your new environment people will introduce themselves to you (some workplaces even assign a buddy to guide you through your first days) but if that doesn't happen, be proactive. If it is lunchtime and you haven't been invited by anyone, ask someone if you can come along or join a group in the lunchroom. Don't suffer silently at your desk, or fall into the antisocial habit of eating alone. Smile at people and look friendly!
3. Look like you're there to do business.
Bring pen and notebook to meetings. Have them handy when you're talking to your supervisor or a colleague. Write down instructions so you don't forget anything.
4. Get familiar with the organization and the in-house programs, systems and terminology they use.
Read documents, memos and emails that are given to you to see their communication style. Learn what information is confidential and when to cc a document. Previous Co-op students have said the best compliment they received was when a colleague expressed surprise that they were a student, and all the things you do to fit in go a long way to achieving this.
5. Ask Questions.
Sometimes you will have many, so save them up to ask at an appropriate time. Tip: if you're in a meeting and many acronyms are used (as in "the ACTO reports will be presented at the QUIRK conference") and the conversation quickly moves on, jot them down and ask afterwards. You will hear much in the first week that you don't understand, and that's very normal. Don't be afraid you'll sound stupid – you'd be surprised how often we in Co-op hear from a supervisor on a site visit "I'm concerned ________ doesn't ask questions, as I have no way of knowing if s/he understands my instructions or what's going on here."
6. Do basic tasks well.
As the new person, you will likely be given simple tasks to do in the beginning. This is not a reflection on your abilities, but you don't yet have the knowledge that is necessary for advanced tasks. No one expects you to be wildly excited about photocopying, but if you sigh deeply and do it poorly, your supervisor is not likely to give you more complicated projects anytime soon. Supervisors often indicate to Co-op how much they appreciate the assistance given with basic tasks and recognize that you are there to do more. Note: if your photocopying stint lasts more than 2 weeks, contact your coordinator for help with the best way to approach your supervisor to initiate new tasks.
7. Read the cues.
If your supervisor is rushing by your desk in a panic, that is not a good time to ask a question. If a colleague's office door is closed, that is normally a signal not to interrupt unless something is urgent. When a supervisor says the work you completed was "adequate" or "not quite what I expected," be aware these are not good comments and you should ask for clarification so you can correct the errors you made or provide the expected caliber of work.
8. Seek out tasks.
Your supervisor may not be aware you have been given little to do, or you completed a task quicker than expected. Tip: DO NOT use what you might think of as free time to text, call or email friends, or play with Google. There is no such thing as free time at work. Employers have a lot to say about people who waste time and wait for supervisors to approach them with instructions, none of it good. From what I've heard lately, this is the biggest complaint employers have about new hires of a certain age so don't fall into the stereotype!
9. Apologize for your mistakes and move on.
No one expects perfection. You will make mistakes because you are new. Avoid making big ones by listening to the instructions you are given, and asking questions for clarification when you don't understand. Then when you make a small mistake, accept responsibility, apologize sincerely and move on. Tip: apologizing once is usually enough - no need to do it over and over and over again.
10. Accept feedback graciously.
If your supervisor tells you the way you did something was wrong, don't argue – fix it. Rather than say, "But you didn't tell me the data to include," say "Please tell me what data to include and I will do that right away." The ability to accept feedback, even when it hurts, is a key skill in the workplace and you will demonstrate your potential if you master this well.