Q: Our department's physical layout has created a lot of problems. My employees work in a completely open area without cubicles or dividers. There are no enclosed spaces where we can talk privately about confidential matters, such as personal problems or performance issues. The staff frequently complains that it's difficult to concentrate with so many people around.
I have suggested wearing headphones, but no one seems to like that idea. Instead, I get a lot of requests to work from home, which creates its own set of problems. We're about to move to a new building, which gives me an opportunity to reconfigure our space. What would you suggest?
A: Fortunately, the completely open work environment was a fad that now seems to be dying. A little privacy should improve both productivity and morale, so install cubicles or dividers to reduce noise and other distractions. Although some people can focus in a hurricane, most employees find that constant movement and conversation make it difficult to concentrate.
Do not assume, however, that a revised floor plan will automatically eliminate those work-at-home requests. Apart from escaping office chaos, people may also enjoy working in their pajamas and avoiding traffic snarls. So unless you plan to eliminate this privilege altogether, you need to develop a clear telecommuting policy.
To encourage collaboration, the new layout should include a small conference room or meeting area where colleagues can gather to discuss plans and projects. And since every manager must be able to have private conversations, be sure to give yourself an office with a door.
Wife who's co-owner gets cold shoulder
Q: My husband and I own a business that has seen some difficult economic times. For the past two years, we have had to reduce staff and cut salaries just to stay afloat. Now that our children are older, we have decided that I should start working in the office, especially since I have previous administrative experience.
Unfortunately, the secretary who has been with us for 12 years apparently resents my presence. "Ellen" treats me disrespectfully and seems reluctant to show me the ropes, despite the fact that I am an owner. How should I handle this?
A: Tough times tend to focus people on self-preservation. Although Ellen may be a bit out of line, her unwelcoming attitude probably reflects a concern that your arrival may signal her impending departure. After two years of layoffs, she undoubtedly fears she might be next, especially if you have assumed some of her duties.
The way you were introduced into the office might also be a factor. Bringing the boss' wife on board is not a minor event, even when she's an owner. If you just showed up one day and began doing stuff, that would be a surefire recipe for confusion and conflict.
Before you began work, your husband should have explained your new role to everyone, then met individually with those who would be directly affected. If he failed to take these steps earlier, he needs to do so now. With Ellen, he should honestly address any concerns about job security and establish clear expectations for her relationship with you.
As you continue to increase your active participation in the business, remember that you are going through a learning curve. Although you have been an owner for many years, you are now becoming more involved in management, and that requires an entirely different set of skills.
Don't worry about co-worker's clout
Q: I recently learned that a co-worker said some disparaging things about me to our new boss. "Vicki" is a know-it-all drama queen who likes to get people in trouble. Our previous manager said that she seems to have a lot of issues with me.
Vicki used to work for our new manager, so I'm afraid he'll believe whatever she says. She also has a higher position than mine, which might give her more credibility. So far, the new manager and I seem to be getting along fine, but I'm concerned that Vicki might stir things up.
A: Since managers usually compare notes, the odds are good that your old boss provided a heads-up about Vicki's negative feelings towards you. If Vicki has a history of adversarial relationships, the new manager's previous experience with her might actually work in your favor.
In reality, managers typically form their own opinions based on firsthand observations of employee performance and attitude. If you do outstanding work and get along with everyone, your boss is sure to notice. He will be especially appreciative if you try to work well with Vicki, since employee squabbles drive all managers crazy.