Erfolgreich durchgeführte Einzelcoachings
people I have been supporting as a coach

Questions of a newly appointed leader: Where do I put the future employee, when I actually don't have the space? #1

Just recently I met my dear friend Hannah. Hannah has been working for a large company for several years, is considered an established expert in her field, and was so far assigned to her Executive Board with an administrative role. As her expertise has grown, so has the scope of her duties, new priorities have been set, the amount of tasks has become more and more in recent years, and the workload has increased immensely. With a change in the Executive Board, a new direction has now been taken - and Hannah's area of responsibility is being successively expanded. For my friend, this means that she will become a manager, and soon her first new employee will be on board. 

This is a wonderful event, leading to a lot of relief on the one hand - and definitely to stress on the other hand. Hannah becomes a leader for the first time, and questions arise that are challenging and should be answered to enable a good start together with the new colleague. Some of these questions we have and will answer together, and I may also highlight and share them here again. When you've been a leader for a long time, it's often hard to grasp where the pitfalls are when someone first comes into such a role, and we hope that the ideas we bring together on this will be helpful to many readers - both for new or future managers/leaders as inspiration on how to approach it, and also for experienced managers as a spotlight on issues that can easily arise when someone first faces the challenge of taking on a role with HR responsibility. 

The current desk situation

In about 5 weeks the new employee is coming into the office for the first time - and there is in fact no workstation for her at all. 

How is the current situation in the office? 

Currently there are 2 rooms, a smaller one where Hannah sits with a colleague of the same rank (we call her Kerstin) who already leads a team of 8 employees. In the larger office are the 8 team members of the other department head (Kerstin). 

The larger office does not allow to put another desk in there, and the smaller office would have that option, but with significant limitations - the third desk would have the door right behind it, and it would be quite cramped and probably rather uncomfortable to sit there when the office is reasonably busy. 

Both department heads, Hannah and her colleague Kerstin, have appointments and meetings, many of which take place virtually. So far, the two of them have made arrangements so that - if one of them has a lot of video calls one after the other or on the same day - the other stays in home office if necessary. They also make sure that they are in the office together 1-2 days a week so that they can coordinate their work well - Hannah and Kerstin like each other and work very closely together in related functions. This should not change in the future. 

In the office of the heads of department, there is occasionally a desk free when Hannah or Kerstin are working from home, but not always. In the larger office, where Kerstin's colleagues sit, there is actually always at least one desk free. Since the pandemic, the 8 colleagues have been working from home more and more, and organize their office days very freely. 3 of these employees have been with the company for many years, and have "furnished" their desks very personally, with accessories, photos, and objects that mean something to them. The other team members follow more of a clean desk policy, so they leave a pretty tidy, empty desk in the evening, with no personal items. 

So, what to given this background? 
  • Set up the uncomfortable workstation in the small office? Where the other head of department hears everything you have to discuss in the team, and is perhaps sometimes disturbed by it? And where the new employee is constantly affected by the door? Can you expect her to do this because she only works part-time anyway? 
  • Or introduce a new rule in the other team that no one has a fixed workstation/desk any more, but all desks have to be cleared in the evening and then occupied the next day by those who want to work from the office? 
  • Asking the colleague if the future office division should be by team, and moving her to join her team in the other room? 
  • Put the new colleague in a completely different room, relatively far away, at the end of the corridor? Where she then works alone and as the only one without a direct connection? 
  • Try to solve the situation alone?
  • With the colleague Kerstin? 
  • With the entire team? 
A credo against equal treatment as a seemingly "fair" solution

My personal experience is that solutions that are supposed to be "fair" are often experienced as exactly the opposite of "fair". So if you try to treat everyone equally, you often don't treat everyone "fairly", but create resistance and maybe even anger. 

Here's an example: 

Let's say I don't like eating cake at all. My dear friend Claudia, on the other hand, loves cake very much. If we were treated equally, then a whole cake would be divided between the two of us in such a way that each of us gets half a cake - after all, we are both supposed to be provided with the same thing. In truth, this equal treatment does not do either of us justice at all. For me, half a cake is impossible to manage, I have a guilty conscience when I probably leave a quarter of the cake or even more and would have to dispose of it in the end. The bad conscience, in any case, puts me in a bad mood. 

For Claudia, on the other hand, half a cake is no pleasure either, because she would easily eat three quarters of a cake with great pleasure. 

So, in the case of the cake, it would be much better for both of us, Claudia and me, if we were clearly treated unequally - because we would both be seen and respected in our different needs, and would not have to resort to emotional compensation mechanisms to make up for the situation. 

What does this mean for the desk situation in the office? 

From my perspective, the attempt to treat everyone equally, assuming that this then results in being "fair" to the employees, is bound to fail from the outset. Deciding for everyone that no one is allowed to have their own desk anymore because someone is joining the other team - a very bad start for the new colleague who, in the worst case, will be blamed for this (subconsciously), even though she actually has the least to do with it or can even be held responsible for it. So how can I, as a leader/manager, find out what would be a solution that accommodates everyone as much as possible, even if I may not treat everyone equally in the end? 

My recommendation as a coach... split up in steps: 

1) Inform the existing employees that a new colleague will soon join the parallel team. 

2) Clearly state the desk situation known to all. Nobody who regularly works in one of the two rooms will be surprised that there is actually no free desk for an addition to the team, and yet it makes a significant difference if this fact is actively and openly stated. 

3) Requesting the team to express their wishes within a specific, clearly defined period, on how they can work well AND how the new colleague can be provided with an appropriate workplace at the same time. Personally, I would keep this period short. If everyone is present at this meeting, then I would limit the period for feedback, wishes, suggestions to 48 hours. The team will probably talk about the issue directly anyway, and a time delay in this case does not bring new solutions, but rather leads to procrastination. 

4) Sort the wishes according to which possible solutions arise from them. Share this info and overview of possibilities with the team. Personally, at this point I would only "censor" what is not legally possible. That means, I would also name solutions that I do not prefer as possibilities - this is very much in line with my personal leading style, which is characterized by a great deal of transparency, and of course you can also solve this for yourself in a completely different way. 

5) Now I would do a resistance query: When we ask about resistance, we don't ask about who specifically wants something, but we make the space much bigger for us by asking who can't live with a particular solution at all, that is, who is either fully, or partially, or not in resistance at all. For example, I can not be in resistance at all, and still actually want something else. Every team member is invited to communicate very openly where there is massive resistance, and also name what it is about for her / him. I would also participate in this resistance measurement as a supervisor, and likewise name what resistance I feel, and what is behind it. (If I felt that I could not name them openly, then my recommendation would be to question myself there again, in order to feel clarity for myself in case of confrontation). 

6) Based on the resistance queries, a solution will emerge, out of all the possible variations, that overall triggers the least resistance in both teams. This could be a successful first attempt at designing the new seating and office arrangement, with the option to readjust at any time if it proves not to be convenient. 

Why I would always involve the employees in a desk-decision

Now I'll go even further. 

If we as people want to move in a "healthy" area, for example if we want to live and work in a way that we can stay psychosomatically healthy, then we need some freedom to act. I could now name the so-called triangle of the salutogenesis, which is the interplay of 

- Understandability (=facts are named, the situation is clearly communicated, and not just indirectly assumed to be understood), 

- Meaningfulness (=I can see a meaning in why a new colleague also needs a good workplace, just as I need a workplace that is good for me), and

- Manageability (=I have possibilities not only to make it manageable for me, but also to actually co-design and contribute with my needs). 

In companies, especially in large organizations such as corporations, the perceived room for maneuver that employees can claim for themselves is sometimes small. I am not evaluating here whether it is actually a matter of small room for action - I am concerned solely with the feeling that sometimes the way in which we ourselves can shape things in the direct context of our work is perceived as little, regardless of whether this is also perceived objectively / in comparison / in the external view. 

If I want to link this with the prospect to keep myself and my team healthy, it means that I, as a supervisor must use every possibility to let my employees design. And what is more direct and has a similar impact than designing the actual workspace. The work desk to which I come back daily or regularly? Or the flexibility to sit somewhere else if required. 

Maybe the situation for the team mentioned above will look like this, that for the start of the new colleague the senior employees will keep their fixed work desks. And others, who don't feel so much attachment or it is not as important to them, can maybe arrange themselves with the new team member in a way, that there are flexible workspaces for them. 

And perhaps this transitional model allows new experiences to emerge in the team - perhaps sometimes the department head of the 8 team members takes a seat in the team office when there are flexible workplaces because it fits in well with the topics on these days. Maybe one of the colleagues suddenly feels the need to sit somewhere else after all, for whom their own, fixed workplace was initially a major concern. With new experiences that develop for us, new ideas and solution spaces emerge in us that sometimes cannot even be imagined in dull theory. For me, this correlates with the indication that readjustments can be made at any time - or even after a fixed period in which something is tried out anew. That we don't always have to know everything in advance, that we don't have to make decisions for the rest of the office days, but that we can always act and shape based on experiences that we have allowed ourselves to have and that we have sometimes had to have without being able to choose. 

To include the team to co-design something as important as the design of the workplace, is to me what I call leading quality. If I as a leader have to "stake a claim" or show that I am willing to make decisions, then this is also a good opportunity to question myself and to have a look at how I come up with questioning if I don't make enough decisions... but this is another, important topic 🙂