When an organization undergoes a space transition project / open office project, there’s a lot of discussion about workstations, shared spaces, collaborative and team areas, and employee mobility. But what if you’re an employee wondering how you’re going to work in the new spaces, or how you’ll work remotely if you are transitioning to telework? More to the point, how do you fit your preferred work and communications style into the new environment and new way of doing business?
Square Pegs - Space Transition Project
During the early 1980s, there was a short-lived television sitcom called Square Pegs, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. The series was about two awkward teenagers trying desperately to fit in with the cool kids in their high school. I know it’s hard to imagine Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame playing the part of an acned, bespectacled, and gawky teenager with a few equally misfit friends, but it worked. I enjoyed the show at the time (partly because I was one of those uncool kids in high school), but it occurs to me that there’s a similar connection in today’s modern workforce.
I’ve teleworked for over 15 years so I’m very comfortable working remotely and communicating with my co-workers through ways that don’t involve in-person contact. But this wasn’t always the case. When I started teleworking, I happily embraced all the perceived benefits – the lack of a stressful commute, the opportunity to work in comfortable clothes all day long (and yes, I mean the occasional fuzzy slippers). But at the same time, I was a little worried about what it would mean to me, an extrovert who thrived on regular face-to-face communication with others, who has been considered the life of the office, and who sometimes spent as much time in the breakroom as in my actual office, to go for days sometimes without seeing any of my coworkers in person.
It took me some time to adapt to my new remote environment and to find new ways of communicating. Here’s how I did it and how others in the position of transitioning to either a new open office environment or to teleworking can make it work for their individual style.
Know Your Style – What Kind of Peg Are You?
One of the most basic suggestions is to recognize and understand how you prefer to interact with others and accomplish your work. There are a couple of ways to do this, starting with assessing your preferences. One of the most well-known assessments is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory that identifies basic preferences, including focus, information processing, decision-making, and structure. The theory behind the Myers-Briggs assessment and others like it is that an individual’s behavior is consistent and predictable based upon specific ways of processing information and interacting with other people. (The full Myers-Briggs assessment must be administered by a qualified assessor but there are abbreviated versions available online. In addition, many other personality and style preference tests are widely available, although the methodologies and rigor will vary.)
Another way to determine your preferred working style is to consider the times when you’re most productive. I had always considered myself to be extremely extroverted. I enjoy the company of others and as I noted earlier, I was quite the breakroom devotee in my old office. I assumed that a large part of my workplace success was due to these relationships and my collaboration with others. But to my surprise, when I started teleworking, in a quiet space with no one else around and no one just down the hall who I could pop in and visit whenever I decided I needed a break, my work productivity flourished. It turned out that although I enjoyed the camaraderie of being part of a group, I worked best when I was left alone without interruptions and could focus on the tasks in front of me.
As a side note, I had the opportunity to take the Myers-Briggs assessment several years ago, and it turns out that I’m only moderately extroverted. In fact, the test indicated that I often prefer an internal focus, something that I’d confirmed on my own years earlier.
Adjusting the Hole to Your Peg
Once you’ve identified, or confirmed, your preferred working style, the next step is to identify how to accommodate those needs in the workplace. If you are embarking on a space transition project from a traditional office environment to an open office layout, you have likely heard about the new work spaces that will be available (small and large-group collaborative areas, concentrative work areas, etc.) and perhaps even new ways of doing things in the office (reserving workspaces, conducting phone calls in a “phone booth room”, etc.).
In an open office environment, it’s critical to remember that you’ll be sharing most or all of the work spaces with others. Therefore, you’ll want to find your personal balance between heads-down concentrative work in a quiet space and collaborative work in open or collaborative areas.
If, like me, you need a quiet, dedicated space to focus on your work and keep distractions at bay, you will want to identify both the locations where you can achieve this level of concentration and the times when you need to work like this.
If you are in an open office environment, these locations may include touchdown desks that are in quiet areas, getaway booths that typically offer more of a physical barrier to the rest of the office, or even a small conference room where you can shut the door and limit visual distractions.
As far as the times when you need heads-down focus time, these are typically tasks that you accomplish on your own and can be more productive with little or no external distractions. However, you don’t want to be viewed as the employee who always claims a conference room as his/her own “private office.” You also want to ensure that you can accommodate those times when you need a higher level of interpersonal interaction, so it’s important to balance your dedicated work with tasks that you can accomplish in the more open or collaborative areas within the office.
As a teleworker, you have already learned (or soon will, if you are transitioning to remote work) that you have complete control over your work environment, but the same principles apply. I usually have some background music playing and my web browser is open to my email and online company communication system so that I’m immediately notified of new communications and can easily reach out to others. But for those times when I need quiet, concentrative work time, I can easily shut off those external distractions and change my status in our online system to alert others that I’m not available at the moment.
There’s no specific formula for striking this balance, and more than likely, it will vary on a daily or even hourly basis. There are plenty of times when I need quiet, concentrative times for up to several hours at a time or longer. I’m also very aware of the fact that I need breaks from this heads-down work to connect with others and to recharge my energy. The key is to identify the opportunities within your workplace to accommodate your work style preference and to adjust your environment as needed, not the other way around (which is a recipe for disaster and never ends well).
The Other Pegs in the Office
Once you have a good sense for your preferred working style and how you can adjust your office environment to accommodate your needs, the next important step is to recognize how best to interact with others. And just as understanding your personal preferences is important, understanding the preferences of others around you and within your organization is critical. After all, you may have a great sense for when you need to be left alone and when you need to reach out to others, but if you’re ignoring the signals that others are sending, especially when they need quiet focus time, you may be creating more havoc for others. (I’m sure we all have anecdotes about doing everything possible to avoid the stereotypical employee who walks around the office with a coffee mug in his hand, looking for anyone to listen to his commentary on last night’s game and why that decision to go for the extra point in the fourth quarter when the team was down by seven was completely misguided.)
Short of administering Myers-Briggs assessments to everyone you work with to confirm their individual style preferences, how can you tell how others prefer to interact and work? There are a couple of easy ways to do this. First, just ask! Since we use an online communication system, we can quickly and easily send an instant message to other individuals or groups. Sometimes that’s all the interaction I need, especially if I just needed a quick break from heads-down work to check on how someone’s feeling or to ask a quick question. But there are times when I need in-person contact and for me, that’s either a phone call or more often in our virtual environment, it’s a video conference. However, before taking that step, the first thing we all do is to simply ask if it’s a good time for the other person.
In an open office environment, there are likely to be similar electronic ways to communicate, even if it’s only a phone call or email (but with all the technology options that are available now, many organizations have some form of instant messaging in addition to email). Of course, the more traditional way to check in with someone in an office is to simply walk down the hall and pop into their work space to ask if they are available for a quick discussion or meeting. The key is to ask first if an individual is available and ready for an interaction.
The second way to understand the work preferences of others is to observe how they prefer to communicate in the office. When I started working at my company, I learned very quickly that some employees preferred to pick up the phone first to communicate while others used a phone call as a last resort and instead were the most productive when they could simply email others. Observing these individual practices helped me to learn how to adjust my working style to accommodate the needs of others as much as possible.
Flourishing Regardless of the Shape of Your Peg
Just as Sarah Jessica Parker as Patty learned to enjoy high school and even thrive with her best friend and equally awkward Lauren and their group of similarly misfit teens, I firmly believe that anyone can adapt a new office environment or a new way of working to his or her individual style preferences and needs.
I’d love to hear from you on this. Please leave a comment if you have participated in a space transition project and have any tips for accommodating your work style preferences to a new open office or remote work environment. Bonus points for anyone who also remembers the Square Pegs show (I’m hoping I’m not the only 80s sitcom geek out there!).