Each week, Inc. staff writer Nadine Heintz will help you tackle office etiquette problems both big and small.
Q. I am the founder and CEO of a small commercial general contracting and land development firm. Because we are a small company, our environment tends to be less structured than most (family like). But it has caused us to lose a few employees who needed that structure. These losses have caused us to rethink our corporate culture and seems to be pushing us toward a highly structured environment. This is not my vision for this company. Why can not employees handle the idea that a relaxed environment requires greater discipline than the alternative of manuals and structured working programs? What can be done to secure this environment for those who thrive in a self-disciplined work environment and thwart off the typical pitfalls that have ranged from habitual tardiness to a sense of entitlement in a few employees?
A. Don't beat yourself up too much. Figuring out how to create an unstructured yet productive office environment is a big challenge for most company founders. I even wrote an article on the topic, called Why Can't We Be Friends? for Inc.'s January, 2004 issue. The good news is that you can introduce more rules and structure into your office without sacrificing your vision for a family-like company. One of the business owners I wrote about in the story had a similar experience to yours: a relaxed environment worked well during his company's start-up phase, but got out of control as the business grew. You might want to take a page from his book: he hired a COO to establish some more structure, while maintaining a friendly vibe. The COO now handles all HR issues like hiring, firing, and employee reviews, freeing up the founder to focus on his company's strategy. While they still have, say, office pizza parties to celebrate milestones, gone are the days when the whole office, including the CEO, had dinner and drinks together a few nights a week.
If you can't afford to hire someone to perform HR functions or delegate those duties to someone else, there are still things you can do on your own. First off, you may want to distance yourself a bit from your employees. Not many employees can handle being pals with the boss, so don't be too quick to make friends with them. The friendship will only work if both of you are able to separate your personal relationship from your professional one, which is something easier said than done. That doesn't mean you can't chat with your staff about their weekend plans or look at their baby pictures. But listening to the nitty-gritty details of say, their marital problems, blurs the line between boss and pal. That, in turn, may foster a sense of entitlement. Also, semi-annual employee reviews might be a good way to remind staffers about getting in on time and what's expected of them. When you're hiring employees, you may want to get a sense of what kind of environment they've worked in before, and whether or not they're self-disciplined. If you hire someone who's not a good fit, it will probably become clear pretty quickly. Give them a chance to adjust, but don't wait so long that they start poisoning the rest of the staff.
Above all, keep in mind that it's not easy to change an office environment, so don't expect a complete turnaround in just one week. Unfortunately, being the boss isn't always fun. But, in the long run, your employees will probably appreciate an environment that's a little more structured, but still family-like. They'll be able to concentrate more on work and less on office drama. And you'll be able to focus on your top priority: the success of the company.
Have a dilemma for Nadine? Send her an e-mail and check back here Tuesdays for the answer.