It's not often that the antics of elephants and the gamboling of giraffes inspire work insights for me, but that's what happened a couple of weeks ago.
I was at Hogle Zoo with my family for my employer's summer party. Starting at about 5 p.m., the zoo was reserved for me and my co-workers and our families.
While watching a baby elephant play with her ball, I saw a couple of co-workers I knew. Later, while watching two giraffes mix it up (I'm not sure whether they were fighting or flirting), I saw another familiar face.
But other than that, we spent the evening surrounded by people I didn't know. And the zoo was pretty full.
I know my company has about 3,000 employees, but I had not really considered what it would look like to be in one place with a bunch of those people and their families. It really brought home for me how different my current company is from those for which I have worked in the past.
All of the places I worked earlier in my career were much smaller. The first, the Brookings (S.D.) Daily Register, had just a few dozen employees. My wife and I both worked there, and we knew pretty much all of our co-workers, whether they were in the news department, production, advertising or on the business side of the operation.
When we moved to Utah for jobs at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, we became part of a much bigger operation. There, we were not as familiar with all of the people in the production and business areas, but we still knew a good portion of the staff.
It was the same for me during my years at the Deseret News and deseretnews.com. Especially because I was there for more than 13 years, I got to know a lot of people throughout the business.
Because those companies were relatively small, they often felt less like corporations and more like I imagine a family business to be. That brought both advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of an average worker.
For instance, in a smaller company, you're more likely to run into and casually chat with the people who make up the paychecks or manage the budget, which can make it easier to get answers to financial questions. It's always a good idea to have friends in the accounting department, right?
Working for a smaller company also means you probably don't have much of a corporate bureaucracy. As a result, you can move faster in some areas, like hiring new employees.
I enjoyed all of the smaller companies for which I worked. Most of my fellow employees there were talented, dedicated and hard-working, and I still count many of them as friends. Also, because we knew each other so well, it was natural to feel like we were all "in it" together. We had each other's backs, for better or for worse.
It's harder to have that same feeling when you have several thousand co-workers, many of whom you may never meet. And any large company is likely to have more bureaucracy, which tends to slow down some processes that you'd like to move quickly.
However, I'm finding that while there are more rules at my current workplace — for a variety of reasons, both internal and external — there is some comfort in knowing that issues are handled in a consistent manner companywide. In addition, it is much easier for bigger companies to, say, reserve a zoo for a private party, or to implement healthy lifestyle and work/life balance initiatives like the ones my current company offers.
As for finding a friend or two in the accounting department, well, that's really up to me. Just because there are many, many more people on the financial side of this company doesn't mean I can't be friendly with them. In fact, I've already had the opportunity to interact with several of those co-workers while preparing my department's budget for the new fiscal year, and they were all helpful.
But what about all of those unfamiliar faces at the zoo? It was strange to think that I had worked at the same company with them for more than nine months and still knew so few, even by sight.
However, the more I think about it, the more I see this as a strength. Just like me, the vast majority of those people are working hard in their departments to help the company succeed, even as they try to improve their own skills and abilities. Instead of working with a few dozen talented, dedicated and hard-working people, I'm working with a few thousand.
I don't know all of them by name, but I realize that I have a responsibility to do the best I can in my corner of the company. Assuming my co-workers do the same, we will all continue to have the chance to excel at our jobs. I still feel like I've got their backs, and I hope they feel the same about me, even if we've never met.
And I'm confident that, as the years go by, I'll meet more and more people from various departments, which will make this large company feel smaller.
In fact, while watching swinging spider monkeys and roaming rhinoceroses at another company party a few years from now, I think I'll run into many more people who I consider to be not only co-workers but also friends.