How to Become a Kick-Ass Employee

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Ten years ago, I wrote an article on Site Point called Being a Kick-ass Employee.

Over the last decade, I’ve continued practicing these ideas. Since I posted that article, I’ve worked as a remote employee out of my home office as a successful web developer. I changed jobs a few times and had several promotions through that time.

Outside of my writing style back then (cringe), I find most of what I wrote still true. At least in my industry, I don’t understand why these principles aren’t talked about more often. It seems people prioritize intelligence and knowledge over these fundamental habits. I wanted to share a few additional insights I’ve learned since writing that article.

Communication is still Key

I consistently found, through my experience and watching others, those that learn to excel at communication are the people who get promoted. Maybe this is unique to the web development field, but I would venture to guess that is not the only industry where this is true.

Especially working remotely, I found communication to be essential.

Those that don’t communicate effectively end up causing confusion or wasting time, and it doesn’t just affect them — it can have a ripple effect on anyone around them.

Communication also includes making sure you ask if anyone has ideas with problems you are having a hard time figuring out. Chances are someone else has resolved that same issue and can save you a ton of time.

Here are some common situations I’ve encountered from people who are not great communicators:

  • When working on a task that isn’t crystal clear, they don’t clarify what they should be doing.
  • They often will spend vast amounts of time on tasks that others accomplish in a fraction of the time. Which can also be caused by inexperience or lack of problem-solving skills, but communicating when you are stuck can also help.
  • They continually make the same mistakes, which can also be caused by a lack of organization. But I like to think of it as a communication issue with yourself. Not taking notes on problems you encounter regularly, and not trying to solve them.
  • They don’t communicate about their progress. People aren’t sure what they are doing at any given point, which is a big red flag if you work remotely! Remote workers are easier to fire.
  • They seem to ignore or miss deadlines. We all miss deadlines on occasions, but if there is a risk of not having a task done on time, this needs to be communicated as early as possible.
  • They consistently point out significant flaws in requests after spending large amounts of time. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but thinking about how to tackle a task early is vital to communicating effectively early in the project lifecycle.

Remote Work is not that Different

For me, converting to working out of my home office was a welcome change. I didn’t have to commute to an office (other than hauling my ass downstairs). Especially when my daughters hit school age, I found my home office to be infinitely less distracting than working in a company office.

With that said, there are some minor downsides. Unless the company is entirely remote, there are times when you can feel left out when people are doing activities at the office (going out for drinks, playing games, etc.) But as long as the company is bringing together people once or twice a year, I felt connected to the company. Having tools such as Slack, video conferencing and google docs has helped bridge the gap with remote development. I’m going to guess that remote work is going to continue to become more popular as people realize how much it saves money and time.

If you do work remotely or are considering a remote position, take note of the following:

  • Make sure your environment is as free from distractions as possible. If you can’t focus on your work at home, it will be hard to be successful.
  • Don’t feel like you can’t take breaks by going outside, walking around, stretching, doing a random set of pushups, etc. Working remotely can make us more sedentary, and that comes with huge risks. Learn to get up off your ass and do something physical throughout your day!
  • Consider purchasing a standing desk. I’ve been using a desk from Autonomous for about three years and I love it. This is an affiliate link that provides me a kickback (without any extra cost for you). I only recommend products that I believe in. Your support is appreciated.
  • Set a work schedule and try to keep it. It is much easier to put in extra hours when you work at home, but this can easily lead to burnout. Sometimes you have to work extra but try to make these occasions rare.
  • Get a Spotify membership or another streaming music service. Being able to listen to music can make working more enjoyable.
  • Make sure you take a lunch break. Thinking requires energy, and getting hangry during a video call is embarrassing!
  • If your company doesn’t have annual or semi-annual gatherings to meet up physically, ask them if they can make this happen. Connecting with your co-workers outside of the digital world is essential.
  • Working remotely requires an extra level of communication. If you have a question, you need to put it down in writing somewhere (whether in slack, JIRA or whatever project management system you use).
  • Make sure whatever time tracking software your company uses, that you are accurately recording your time. Working on a task that you describe as “some complicated problem” for eight hours might cause people to wonder what you were doing.

Being Promoted has its Downsides

Everyone likes more money, right? But getting promoted can come with significant downsides.

If you are excelling in your current position, how confident can you be about shining in your new role? Don’t take a promotion to misery! No amount of money is worth your health, lack of sleep or massive amounts of stress.

When taking a promotion, make sure expectations are clearly defined. A huge red flag is if you take on more responsibility, but the company expects you to continue to 100% fill the role you were promoted from. Your new position should be realistic and defined in what you are supposed to accomplish.

Taking risks in your job is great. Just make sure you are communicating with management if their expectations on what you can accomplish are not realistic. Sometimes it is not apparent to upper management how many people are vying for your time, and if boundaries aren’t set clearly, you can set yourself up for disaster, or working 50 hour weeks. Most of these problems can be solved if you communicate what is happening.

Don’t underestimate how much work it is to manage a team. Depending on the team and the type of work you do, it can end up taking massive amounts of time. And when you start doing it, you might realize managing people is not something you enjoy. Communicating these problems can prevent awkward conversations when people notice things are not going so well, or when you go crazy.

Being promoted can open up other opportunities, but it can also cause other problems. Being mindful in how you are doing in your new role, and whether you like it is key to understanding if that is something you can do long-term. You may not love the new position, but if you are good at it, the extra money might be worth the effort towards financial freedom (which I learned from the book Your Money or Your Life).

Separating Work Life from your Personal Life

Loving your job is fantastic. But the goal should be to optimize your time during your work hours with work-related matters and use the time outside of your workday to re-fuel and pursue other passions.

Otherwise, you risk getting burned out, which can make going to work difficult and stressful.

Learn what fills up your soul. Spend time outside. Do fun things with your family. By recharging out of work, you will become a better employee. Often consistently spending extra time working doesn’t produce better or more results. If we learn to pursue happiness in all areas of our lives, we can usually find it easier to produce more with less time, which is a big win for you and your employer.

If doing things that are related to your job is a passion for you, pursue things outside of work that isn’t directly tied to what you do during your day job. That way you have full control over what you work on during that time.

Workflow Optimization

Any time you encounter situations where you or your co-workers are spending a lot of time on something that consistently comes up, you have a tremendous opportunity. If you can figure out ways to reduce or eliminate that time drain, you’ve just increased your value to the company.

This kind of value is what leads to massive raises and promotions. And when you learn to optimize your time, this tends to bleed into other areas of your life, like maximizing your budget, getting rid of debt, etc.

All it requires is paying attention to the bottlenecks that are happening around you. Does this person keep coming to me with the same kind of problems? How can I prevent this from happening?

If you can save 15 minutes for three employees at your company, that ends up freeing over 35 hours a year! That is like having one person work an extra week, without actually working an extra week.

The value of optimizing workflows cannot be overstated — this will make you a rockstar at your company!

Don’t be Afraid to Switch Companies.

Changing jobs can be stressful. However, switching jobs can come with benefits outside of making more money.

Entering a new environment can teach you how people are handling problems differently. It can provide different problems to solve, in an entirely different work environment. And you might realize that other companies are willing to pay you much more than your current earnings.

I ended up taking a full-time job at a different company. Instead of working on multiple projects at the same time, I worked on one massive project. Working on one project exposed me to larger and different problems, and it was a great learning experience. A few years later I ended up going back to the company I left. The experience and knowledge I gained from switching jobs made it worthwhile.

But I don’t suggest making a habit of changing jobs too often. If you are continually switching companies, this can have a negative impact on how your resume looks. If you do switch companies, make sure you leave each job as best you can. And I mean going above and beyond what is expected. You want people to have a positive outlook on your employment, which could open up future opportunities and you could use them as employment references.

When working at one company for a long time, you can start to think every company has the same problems or solves issues the same way. By exposing yourself to different work environments, you become a more valuable employee.

Summary

There is no shame in being an employee. Many people have optimized their time and spending habits while being an employee, to pursue financial freedom successfully.

But if we are going to work in any capacity, we want to increase our chances to earn as much money as possible. It becomes hugely profitable to learn how to be the best employee you can be. People will be willing to pay extra for your talent, and when your company sees the value you bring, they will start throwing money your way.

I’ve personally found I work better as a remote employee. By having control over my environment, I can focus more clearly on tasks and knock out more in less time. But effective communication is needed to excel in working remotely.

Have you learned any techniques as an employee, that has led to raises or promotions?

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Financial Pilgrimage
Guest

Great advice all around. I know you’re in tech and having strong communications in that world can give you a huge leg up. Choose FI talks a lot about talent stacking and effective communication is an under rated skill. I also appreciate your thoughts on being promoted having downsides. I learned this lesson the hard way. Eventually I worked through the challenges but for about 6 months I was having a lot of stress and not sleeping well . It was right around the time when we had our first kid as well. Definitely a tough stretch but things are… Read more »

Grokking Money
Guest

Awesome tips to help excel at workplace. I agree that promotion is not necessarily a great thing! I want my freedom and balance! Loved your take on this subject.