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What the Earthquake Teaches Us About Workplace Dynamics

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When a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the East Coast on Tuesday, many of us fled our offices, with bosses, co-workers, and HR personnel not far behind.

Some of us ran (OK, that was me!) toward the stairwell, and others walked more casually. Some took charge by telling colleagues to stand in doorways or get under their desks, while others looked confused and distraught.

Your reaction may speak to your personality, especially how you handle pressure. But the quake also provides a bigger-picture window into today’s workplace dynamics — and the challenges Gen Y will continue to face as we grow in our careers.

Here are some lessons from the quake that might shake up your view on work:

Surprises happen, no matter how much you plan

No one could have predicted this week’s tremor. Had you known ahead of time, you might have reviewed your company’s earthquake protocol, checked the stability of your building or even decided to telecommute that day. But you didn’t.

That’s why being organized and prepared for your job is crucial to success. Because you can’t always predict the future, whether it’s a power outage during an important presentation or a massive error in copy that’s already at the printer.

To really stand out, you need to be able to handle yourself throughout the unexpected. Learn to be collected during a crisis, and your boss will be impressed. Show the team you can maintain a calm, positive attitude, especially on days when things don’t go as planned.

Co-worker relationships are more important than you thought

Once evacuated, it was comforting to be surrounded by co-workers. I knew if there was an aftershock, we’d all be safe together. But that’s only because I like the people in my department, and we look out for each other, both in and out of the office.

“People with one friend at work are much more likely to find their work interesting,” blogger Penelope Trunk writes. “And people with three friends at work are virtually guaranteed to be very satisfied with their life.”

Creating meaningful relationships at work will not only make you happier, it can also pay off in other ways. “We each need someone who shows us new aspects of ourselves and opens doors we wouldn’t open ourselves,” Trunk writes. Sometimes that door leads to the emergency exit, and other days it leads to exciting new opportunities.

You don’t want to be left behind in the digital workplace

After the quake, nearly everyone took to their smartphones, checking news updates and texting loved ones. Because the phone lines were jammed, employees without an Internet connection looked, well, a little lost.

Having a WiFi connection at all times is becoming a necessity, not a luxury. With email, maps and instant messaging, smart phones are transforming the workplace. So are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and Google+, not to mention hundreds of other plug-ins, apps and devices.

Stay on top of the newest trends. You never know when these tools will become more than just toys.

We’re scared of what we don’t know

The East Coast is getting a lot of flack from the West Coast, where residents are accustomed to feeling the ground vibrate beneath their feet. But who can blame us for overreacting? We’re all quick to judge, fear and even hate the unknown.

Since East Coasters aren’t familiar with earthquakes, the feeling of the office building swaying caused an unprecedented sensation. Of course we freaked out. It was all new to us. And new is scary.

It’s the same sort of discomfort we feel when an advertisement we were counting on falls through at the last minute or a co-worker snaps at you in front of the entire boardroom. We’re not used to these situations, and we don’t like encountering the unknown.

Unless, that is, you condition yourself to deal well with the unknown. To avoid getting that pit in your stomach, try doing one thing that challenges you every week — at the office. Tackle an existing problem, go to a networking event alone or pitch a new and gutsy idea to your boss. Step out of your comfort zone, so when you’re pushed (or literally shaken) out of it, you’ll be ready to respond.

There’s more than one way to get ahead at work

We all want to get ahead, but you won’t get there by pushing others out of the way. Or will you? “Nice guys” earn less money, ABC News reports. Others say you should be likable but not nice at work.

Yet being generous and respectful in the workplace is just as important as being innovative and dedicated. How would you rather be remembered — as the customer service rep who bolted or the humble manager who held the door for all of her direct reports?

Whether you’re polite to master office politics or simply because it’s the right thing to do, helping others and paying it forward is good karma — when you’re in the office, running down the stairwell and standing around on the street.

And since we now know you can get caught in an earthquake even on the East Coast, a little karma might not be such a bad idea.

Alyssa Martino is a writer and editor who loves digging for stories that connect people, place and possibility. Click your way over to her website to learn more.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • raymond brazen member

    Brazan, brazen,brazen, I honor and “love” what you guys do each and everyday. Only y’all and maybe a few others can put a positive spin on an earthquake and make it job/business/career related. I actually started laughing when reading the article and thought to myself, if they can do it,so can I. Ironically I did do the unexspected I went to several job interviews yesterday for some well known companies. It was a hotel setting in suites. Supervisors called us from a list. It seemed like I was the only young person in the group. I look young for my age anyway. But I put my best foot forward. It was interviews for sales positions. Some were B2B, business to business while others were inside sales or qualifying leads. There is more to what happened, but in short I went solo to the job interview to take that jump as well networked for business cards. So I took to the challenge. My next challenge is following up with them and seeing what’s in store.

    • Anonymous

      Ramond, this comment made my day! I’m SO glad to hear that you challenged yourself because of Brazen. Great job interviewing and I’m sure your persistence in following up will make a huge difference.

      Happy to hear you enjoyed seeing a ‘positive spin’ put on the earthquake as related to workplace dynamics.

  • Anonymous

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences here, especially for those of us who didn’t feel the slightest tremor.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks — it was quite the afternoon!

  • Jrandom42

    What a bunch of wussies! You want real lessons learned from an earthquake? Just ask anyone who lived through the Northridge Quake of 1994, where there was real damage, real lives lost and real disruption.

    • doTell

      So, then what did that teach you about work place dynamics? Obviously the east coast is not custom to many earthquakes and so has little idea what they feel like, what to do, or what to expect. So, please do tell…

  • http://www.taitegallery.net Steve Taite

    After being here in Japan for 7 months it is strange to hear about U.S. earthquake experiences. I was away for the big one on business, but after a few days back a 7.5 hit. I work at a Japanese firm so they all looked for a second at the TV screens to see if there was a tsunami and then went back to work as if nothing had happened. They even used the elevators. I can’t say you ever really get used to earthquakes but you do learn to deal with them calmly. One of the hardest things to get used to is when your body feels as if it is turning over again when there is no earthquake in sight. For more insights you can look at the posts I write under the category of “An Englishman in Japan” (small plug!) in my blog. The main concern in Tokyo at the moment is not another earthquake but a heatwave as the offices now have their air-conditioners tuned to 28 degrees Centigrate to conserve energy

    • Anonymous

      Wow, Steve. That’s amazing that people can act calm in a 7.5 magnitude earthquake — no matter how many they’ve experienced. I’ll definitely check out your blog and thanks for sharing these insights.

  • http://flamecard.com/ Credit Cards

    now worse – hurricane irene

  • http://entryleveldilemma.blogspot.com Edward – Entry Level Dilemma

    “Because the phone lines were jammed, employees without an Internet connection looked, well, a little lost. Having a WiFi connection at all times is becoming a necessity, not a luxury.”

    So nobody knows how to text anymore? That’s how my family communicated with me after the earthquake.

    • Anonymous

      The networks were down, including text messaging. I couldn’t get a message to go through! Pretty crazy.

      • http://entryleveldilemma.blogspot.com Edward – Entry Level Dilemma

        While phone lines were down in NJ, text messaging was still up there. If the network was down, you wouldn’t have access to mobile web either.

        • Anonymous

          Good point – I think it depended on your service provider. I saw folks on the web but they may have had AT&T while I have Verizon. But good catch!

  • http://www.getmyexboyfriendbackfast.com/ Steff @ ex back

    Hi Alyssa,

    Great article! Tackling something “uncomfortable” to do once in a while. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks :)