Posted by Beejoli Shah on Mar 21st 2018

Navigating Office Politics in the Trump Era

The idea that great workplace design can spark productivity, creativity, and growth isn’t a new one. It isn’t even one that’s hard to justify for most offices, given the plethora of options available at all price points. But somewhere between deciding whether the conference room should be forgone for a ping pong table and if nap pods are too much or not enough, the idea of great workplace design and fun workplace design have become effectively interchangeable.

Much of the problem comes from the reactive nature that surrounds workplace design. Need more meeting space? Let’s re-purpose an office into a breakout room. Company growing rapidly? Turn individual cubes into long bench-like desks and call it an open floor plan. But as the downsides of reactive office design have started to become apparent (turns out not all millennials equate bean bag chairs and ping pong tables with workplace happiness), so have new ways of reinventing the workspace.

The bad news? There are only so many office permutations that can be accomplished given capital, resources, and innovation, and there’s a good chance your company may not reinvent the wheel when it comes to design. But by focusing on both the short-term and long-term needs of employees and clients, and recognizing that addressing those needs falls on a spectrum (rather than finding the unicorn of a solution), companies can create proactive office design that leads to greater productivity, collaboration, and results.

Your Workspace Should Be About More Than Just Efficiency

For growing companies, office real estate can quickly become an exercise in efficiency: what’s the best way to organize teams to be able to work together most quickly. The open floor plan office may seem like a solution to being able to cluster teams together while keeping things collaborative, but focusing on efficiency can actually hold you back. Jon Baksaas, the CEO of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor, was one of the first executives to use hot desking - the idea of unassigned seats - back in 2003. For the company’s latest redesign, Baksaas chose to focus on ways that employees could best communicate with each other.

For Telenor, finding ways that different teams could interact with each other was crucial - Baksaas found that sales did better when members of different teams had spoken with each other. While organizing his teams was important, making sure that building breakout areas where people could bump into each other was just as important. Lounge areas were emphasized throughout the space, rather than simply incorporated into it. Those lounge areas were also purposely kept open, with ambiguous borders, so that collaboration could happen as easily as two co-workers running into each other.

By using their office real estate as a tool to achieve the goal of better communication, Telenor shifted their sights past just efficiency, into an actionable layout to help achieve it. Even if a redesign isn’t in the budget, simple actions to help facilitate a bigger end goal - such as putting fewer coffee machines throughout an office to encourage more extemporaneous conversation - can be an easy step to take, if you elucidate that goal.

Use the Seven Building Blocks of Office Design

Photo from Harvard Business Review

Everyone has different work styles, which is why hewing to office trends can often become problematic - not everyone wants to work in an open floor plan office that emphasizes interoffice chatter, but many do enjoy the flexibility of an office that isn’t shackled to desks and cubes like the days past. Since employee work preferences can range across a spectrum, the design and strategy team at global design firm HLW identified what they refer to as “Seven Attributes of Workspaces.”

The HLW team identified seven core areas of office design that could have an impact on employee productivity and well-being: location, enclosure, exposure, technology, temporality, perspective, and size. By putting each attribute on a spectrum, be it whether employees preferred a high-tech space or a low-tech office, or whether they wanted an office layout that invited coworkers to linger, or one that had less breakout areas to discourage the behavior. Employees were all given a Collaboration and Quiet index, and management was able to rank which areas to emphasize when making layout choices.

The seven building blocks also help companies realize the best way to reach goals. As HLW found, when software company Adobe wanted to increase inter-office collaboration, they didn’t let that become their final goal. In issuing the Collaboration and Quiet Index to employees, the company found that while the team did want greater location accessibility for a more open workplace, they also wanted to be able to limit exposure, so that they were able to work quietly as well.

By using the seven attributes, design becomes less about fixing a pressing problem immediately, and more about anticipating the varying needs of employees over time and finding solutions that accommodate those needs.

To say that the Trump administration has launched to a rocky start would be a severe understatement. While battles over policy issues were to be expected, one source of Oval Office tension has been most unusual: the office politics. As leaks continue to pour out of the White House about President Trump’s shifting alliances within his inner circle, the only constant seems to be the lack of job security. His former national security adviser was forced to resign after just a month in office, despite having been in the President’s inner circle throughout the campaign. The calls for his attorney general’s resignation grow ever louder. Key Department of Justice officials, including the former Attorney General and the District Attorney for New York, have been fired. And within the President’s core group of advisers, loyalties are constantly shifting - with all the gory details being leaked to the press.

While such public workplace dysfunction in the Oval Office may be a new phenomenon, office politics usually occupy a different space within companies: no one wants to acknowledge they exist, but there is no office without politics. Yet as progressive companies and new startups continue to tout the advantages of “flat” organizational structures, offices with full transparency, and workplaces that seem to resemble a college dorm lounge more than they do a place of business, the implications tied to office politics grow increasingly negative. The problem? Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.

When it comes to mitigating office politics that impede the workday, it probably is best to skip this lesson from our Commander in Chief. Creating an office environment where employees compete for the boss’s loyalty and affection, and are openly hostile to one another, will never make for a navigable workplace. In that regard, nipping office politics in the bud, as Harman International CEO Dinesh Paliwal told The New York Times he does, is essential. Whether it’s seemingly benign gossip or a quick complaint about a coworker, or more serious maneuvering, Paliwal is swift to work with the executive in question to squash the politicking instantly, while also using the moment as a teaching opportunity with the executives in question.

Opportunities like Paliwal’s to quickly course-correct don’t often come that easily though - especially if you’re not the boss. Rather than simply discouraging workplace politics, taking steps to ensure that the politicking is in the best interest of both the company and its employees, while putting the kibosh on politics that devolve into a hostile frenzy, is the strongest way to keep teams united and companies productive, even when employees don’t always see eye to eye.

Photo by Third Way Think Tank/Flickr

When You Need to Stamp Out the Politics

Acknowledge Your Biases

Implicit biases - the kind we don’t notice and often write off as harmless - can have a corrosive effect on companies. Whether it’s noticeably preferential treatment from a manager towards male employees, as was the case at Uber when former employee Susan Fowler published a blog about her experiences in sexism and office politics while working as an engineer for the ride-sharing company, or a benign oversight of gregarious managers unconsciously gravitating towards similarly chatty employees, implicit biases affect everything from the way we act, to whom we interact with, to whom we date.

By being cognizant of their existence, forward thinking managers can pay specific attention to their behavior and track their time and mentorship of employees, to ensure that their attention is equally divided. By being invested in employees as people, rather than simply as coworkers, a direct line of communication is opened up between employees and managers, as well as with each other, which can also help mitigate miscommunications, slights, and other forms of politics.

Focus on the End Goal

By making company goals and team goals crystal clear, employees are more apt to see their job function as a contribution to the team, rather than the daily punching of a clock, where each is on their own. Goals give clarity to teams, as well as purpose. By having clear goals, interoffice politics can become easier to manage, because the ultimate goal of the team is, or should be, bettering their performance overall. “To do this, the best managers recognize the psychological underpinnings of office politics and do two things in response: they manage the way they themselves behave, and they are careful about how they motivate others,” says Columbia University professor Tomaso Chamorro-Premuzic.

Highly ethical managers tend to go further as well, says Chamorro-Premuzic; bosses whose actions line up with their intentions, and who reward employees but also hold them accountable for failure, are the ones most often deemed as apolitical. But to hold employees and yourself accountable, clear organizational goals are a necessity.

Have Employees Track Their Progress

A 2010 study found that autonomy was the second-biggest motivator for office employees. Rather than viewing it as a scattered loosening of the reins, allowing employees autonomy to work on their projects, while having them track their progress via regular feedback, can be a smart way to minimize the impacts of implicit bias. Rather than having managers make judgments of progress across the board, they’re able to track progress as data, and see where weak links can be identified. Even better managers use those weak links not to create team competition, but to identify areas where the team can use more coaching to stay focused on the larger goal.

Focus on Personalities, Motivations, and Variables

Office politics are largely unavoidable because people are largely unpredictable. There is no controlled scenario in which to test out models of conflict management in the workplace, and there is no way to know for certain that everyone has their eyes on the same end goal and little else. Instead, consider paying attention to the personalities, motivations, and variables of your team. Managers who can keenly assess the various personalities of team members can plan for how employees might react to a new project or feedback on a current project.

By paying attention to motivations, a more logical assessment can be derived on how an individual employee might perform on a task, and will give you insight into the best way to communicate with that particular employee. And variables allow for all manner of extenuating circumstances: minimizing unavoidable personality clashes, strengthening weak spots on the team, and so on. Collecting a dossier of information on employees in this regard and using it to only reward work by personal agenda would quickly veer into toxic office politics, but if personality, motivation, and variable assessment is used by managers to better understand their employees, it can lead to happier and more engaged teams.

Photo by Nguyen Hung Vu/Flickr

Be an Advocate

Encourage employees to be vocal about their accomplishments, but recognize that many may still be uncomfortable doing so. For employees who are less reticent to make their progress known, having a proxy at the company who can stick up for them when conversations about promotions or well performed work come up for discussion. Often times, a mentor is the best path to finding a sponsor - and that relationship can turn into one that’s productive on both ends. Mentors should be invested in their mentees’ successes, but also willing to step up to the plate to advocate on their behalf and make sure their accomplishments are seen amongst the organization.

Helping employees to recognize and take ownership of their achievements, big and small, is also a way to keep employees motivated and focused on being a team player. One-on-one sit downs and reviews, therefore, should always have an achievements component, and the manager or employer should be proactive in acknowledging such accomplishments if the employee is slow on the draw.

Rely on the Golden Rule

Ultimately, recognizing that politics are an intrinsic part of any workplace is necessary to be able to manage them. Proactive companies are best served by recognizing that early on, and encouraging managers to take steps from day one that prioritize goals and make teams stronger by focusing on employee success. But even in fraternal organizations, don’t wait for an issue to turn political before issuing a platitude - your employees are adults and they’re likely to ignore it, or resent the issue further. Instead, lead by political example: it’s okay to have your own interests in your sights, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of fellow employees, or the company’s overall goal.

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Let Your Space Grow with You by Looking Ahead

While proactive design can address a variety of productivity needs within one company, making sure that your space can grow with your company is just as important. As reported in Harvard Business Review, the HLW team suggests to companies overhauling their office layout to think about more than just the immediate problems. This is more than just making sure a space is adaptable enough to fit a growing company; it’s looking ahead to how employees will want to use that space in five years. It’s also taking into account how clients and visitors might want to use the office space, and how that affects the company’s perception, as well as who gets to use which parts of the office space (such as meeting rooms, or offices), and how that affects accessibility.

By looking at where your company wants to be in the future, offices can help avoid some of the workplace disillusionment that can set in at a time when employees are spending less time at companies before moving around. It also gives companies a variety of data points about how employees feel they’d be most successful, as well as time to implement those processes - and that sort of planning can outlast any office design fad.