I think being an Office Manager at an EA office can be a really impactful job, and I would like to share my experience and give some advice. Part of the reason I’m writing this is that I’m the new Head of Property at the CEA Operations Team, but my previous job was being the office manager, and I’m hiring someone to replace me. If you’re interested, please apply here or get in touch with me if you have questions.
How much you should trust me? I’m biased, but I’m trying to be honest and just share my experience.
Why am I writing this?
There has already been a bit of past discussion of ops on the forum. The reason I want to add to this pile of writing about operations is that I want to advocate/give context on the specific role of an EA Office Manager — one that oftentimes people underestimate in its importance. There has been some talk regarding EA Hubs and where we should start new ones. I think that EA Hubs can be very impactful and that a great office manager is a crucial component. An outstanding EA office which makes people more productive and happy needs an outstanding office manager.
- Overall: I had a lot of experience with EA (I ran a local group for over four years, was well-read, and organised a bunch of events), and did a lot of volunteering through which I built operations skills.
- I did a lot of volunteer work for the German EA community such as organizing fellowships, talks and a retreat.
- I co-founded two NGOs (one focused on COVID relief and the other on cellular agriculture)
- I did a bunch of volunteering for GFI, ProVeg, and an internship for www.effektiv-spenden.org
Day in the life
Last year, I started as the Office Manager of the Oxford EA office, Trajan House. Trajan House currently accommodates the Centre for Effective Altruism, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Global Priorities Institute, the Forethought Foundation, the Centre for the Governance of AI, the Global Challenges Project, Our World in Data, and a number of people working at other EA organisations (such as Rethink Priorities, HLI, LEEP, and OpenPhil).
At the moment, around 80 EA professionals work at Trajan House, and this number is growing. If you want to get a better sense of Trajan House (including some photos) you can see the a guide here.
Until very recently, the office team consisted of me (as the office manager), and employees of Oxford University working in the reception area and in facilities management. One month ago two office assistants joined my team, so we now have two additional FTEs helping to run the office. As described above, I’m now transitioning out of the office manager role, but the below outlines my week in the position.
How I spent my time:
- 40% - Expanding, changing and optimising the office set-up (including thinking about how we can further expand and improve the services we provide)
- 20% - Developing the culture and community aspects of the office (e.g. by planning events)
- 20% - Processing direct requests like “Can I get a MacBook charger, please?”, “Do we have spare copies of The Precipice?”
- 15% - managing the Office Assistants and liaising with the Facilities Management team
- 5% - Processing requests of individuals or organisations for office space
For a more tangible sense of what I did, here are some specific things I did in the last couple of months:
- Changing the acoustics (the “soundscape”) of our cafeteria (getting different quotes done, thinking about the interior design of the space, liaising with the contractors implementing it)
- Finding a new caterer (researching different companies, work-trialling them, negotiating a contract in cooperation with our lawyers, having regular check-ins to ensure quality and improve their services)
- Helping the organisers of EAGx Oxford by organising the speakers’ dinner and the volunteers’ dinner
- Thinking about good feedback mechanisms for office users, implementing them, and taking action based on the feedback, including:
- Improving our food orders to fit people's preferences
- Ordering new equipment for the gym
- Running an inventory of retreat and conference materials and supporting retreats and conferences happening in Trajan House and the rest of the UK (EAGx Oxford, EAG London, a retreat by CEA, one by Giving What We Can, one by the CEA Online Team, one by the CEA Groups team)
- Helping new joiners find their way around the building, setting up their desks and purchasing equipment for them
- Coordinating with new organisations and individuals who request office space on whether that’s possible.
Things I wish I did more of
- Planning more social events / encouraging and making it easy for people to organise events
- Thinking about how we can help people save time with their personal life ops (especially for people moving to Oxford)
- Thinking about ways in which we can use Trajan House for community building
- Improving the outside areas of Trajan House (for coworking as well as fun activities)
- Creating more quiet and relaxing spaces for people to recharge
- Thinking about access control and the security of the office
- Doing more user interviews to get a better understanding of people's preferences
Given capacity constraints, we haven’t come close to exhausting all the things we could do to provide value at Trajan House. An exciting part of the role of an office manager role is training your optimising mindset – noticing small details which are sub-optimal and fixing them.
The main paths to impact of a well run office are:
- Saving people time and mental energy.
- Facilitating connections between office users: a great office facilitates high-value conversations.
- Increasing retention and helping recruitment:
- A nice office makes people happier in their job, which is important in itself, and also makes people more productive long-term and likelier to want to keep doing impactful work.
- Moreover, a nice office can be a reason to start working at an organisation and works like any other perk in this respect.
A mediocre office provides space, and perhaps minimal food and supplies. This is already good. But a great office gives people the freedom to not worry about what they need for work, a warm environment in which they feel welcome and more productive, and supports them in ways they did not think were necessary.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation
We ran a feedback survey in Trajan House at the beginning of the year (50 responses). One of the things we asked was “How many additional productive hours do you roughly get from working at Trajan House per week?” (We asked for the 80% confidence interval if people did not want to give a point estimate). The average response was 5.9 hours. Given that there are 50-80 people working at the office on a regular basis, this amounts to over 400 additional hours of productive work per week. Numbers like this need to be taken with a grain of salt, but it is indicative that a good office can free up a lot of time.
In monetary terms: If we assume the value of an hour of productive work to be $50 – which I believe is much too low – this sums up to over $1,000,000 per year.
…and the job can be extremely gratifying
Some of the things I really liked about being the Office Manager at Trajan were:
- Spending time with the people in Oxford and having interesting conversations. In general, the people working at Trajan are very lovely and it is great to have the chance to interact with them a bunch.
- I have a lot of autonomy over what I work on and creative freedom in how to design processes, spaces, etc.
- Very short feedback loops
- It’s possible to make a lot of things happen very quickly and therefore to have a very direct feel for the output of your work.
- I work in the same office as the people who use the things I implement, hence it’s easy to get very direct feedback, and very rewarding to see something I implemented being used and saving people time.
- People are generally extremely appreciative of my work.
Also, I think I’ve learned a lot in this job. Given the wide range of activities an office manager does, it is a great role for dipping your toes into many different areas of ops work. In particular, I feel like I improved the following skills:
- Getting a lot of things done in very little time
- Being good at prioritizing a lot of different tasks and requests by people (+ making lots of judgement calls all the time).
- Doing self-directed work with minimal supervision
- Optimising mindset - proactively noticing all the small (and big) details which are not ideal and finding solutions for them; ideally solving problems for “customers” before they’re aware of them
- Project planning, including staying on top of a large number of different projects running in parallel
- Interacting with people and thinking about their needs (service mindset) + getting better at modelling people, their behaviour, and preferences
- Managing a small team
- Communicating with contractors (this includes negotiating as well as pushing them to deliver excellent service)
Reasons for not doing this
- It is demanding – as mentioned above, one has a lot of tasks and the list of things I wanted to do in Trajan House was always growing steadily longer
- Maybe you are unhappy doing operations work. Additionally, you work very close to the “customer” and have to be happy in a service mindset (i.e. people will ask you to do a lot of things for them - it ideally feels fulfilling to you to help them)
- You might not want to work very self-directed / without being told how to prioritize.
- If you are at the office it’s hard to switch off - in my experience, I have a much harder time relaxing during lunch etc. since I am "sitting in" one of my running projects and I see all the things that are incomplete (I’ve heard of other people who manage better with that though).
- Maybe you have more impactful options…
I would like to thank Will Fenning, Lizka Vaintrob, and Josh Axford for their comments on earlier drafts.
I admit I was a bit sad when Jonathan took this role because I thought he'd do more good in Community Building (my field of work). "Surely an Office Manager couldn't be as impactful!" I bemoaned. But now that I've worked a while in Trajan house my eyes have been opened to the value of an outstanding office manager, and I've had to eat my words (and arrange to move to Oxford so I can work there permanently). So I think this role is surprisingly high value.
As someone who had never been to the UK and moved to Oxford for the first time a month ago, I can testify that Trajan House made me immediately feel at home. Jonathan warmly reached out to me offering help on personal life ops things such as bank accounts, SIM cards, and accommodations. Working in the same office room with Jonathan, I have no doubt that he is a lovely person to work with and a great friend to know. I'd be excited to see the office reaching its next level and lots of impacts to follow!
I work at Trajan House and I wanted to comment on this:
By these metrics, Trajan House is a really great office! I'm so grateful for the work that Jonathan and the other operations staff do. It definitely makes me happier and more productive.
Trajan House in 2022 is a thriving hub of work, conversation, and fun.
Adding another comment testifying to the value of Jonathan's work:
I worked at Trajan House for a few months before he started (but left ~as he was taking on the role). I've had the opportunity to visit a couple times since then, and the impact of Jonathan's work is /extremely/ obvious to me. Every issue I'd had with the office was fixed (as far as I could tell), plus a lot more things that I hadn't even thought could be improved. It's a totally different place!
As another anecdote of the value of a well-run office: After working at Trajan for a few weeks during a visit to the UK, seeing how incredible the office was (thanks to Jonathan) I honestly considered moving countries. I'm now inspired to look into whether it'd one day be possible to setup an office space in Australia (please message if interested!).
Is the "How I spent my time" SE meant to only add up to 95%?
Thanks for pointing that out!