A reader asks:
I feel like I'm missing something obvious: How do I deal with needing to have negative conversations in an open office plan? There is no acoustical privacy. We have no walls, just lots and lots of desks (no cubes) and effectively no conference rooms (must be reserved in advance, often full, or, the most fun, available but not soundproof). Everyone can see and hear everyone else all the time.
My specific issue is with delivering comments asking for improvements to reports like "Here's an error I've noticed a lot and we need to make sure it stops happening" or "I was expecting more progress than this" and so on. Just the small day-to-day types of things that are ideally addressed directly and immediately, but are somewhat negative in tone.
One option is that I can just do it where everyone can hear--which I'm uncomfortable with personally and I'm sure my reports are uncomfortable with as well. On the other hand, specifically seeking out a room would be extremely weird culturally and just reads as way too formal for the conversation I'm intending to have.
I've taken to letting my reports know where I'd like improvements by email so the conversation can be private, but I don't like this either, as it feels like a cop-out when I should be able to have a face-to-face conversation, plus there's never any actual conversation, just me dropping a bomb and running away. It doesn't feel like a good solution, but at least it's a private communication.
How do others deal with this and do you have any suggestions?
Yeah, there's no perfect answer to this. It's one of the many problems with open offices.
The best thing you could do is to start having regularly scheduled one-on-one check-ins with each of your staff members, which you'd hold somewhere else. Ideally that would be a conference room (which might be more possible if you're reserving them in advance on a regular schedule), but if that's truly not possible, you can even do them outside or walking to a coffee shop or whatever's feasible in your context.
Do it weekly or every two weeks, whichever makes sense for their work. The idea here is to have a regular, structured time where you can give feedback and--this is the key part--to normalize the practice of meeting with people in private so that it doesn't come across as a big deal when you do it.
Frankly, having regular one-on-ones is a smart practice for tons of other reasons anyway. It gives you a regular place to do the work of managing people: checking in on how projects are coming, giving feedback, serving as a resource, agreeing on prioritization, and giving people a place where they can easily raise any issues of their own. But in an open office like the one you're in, they're even more important, because you need to be able to have regular conversations with the people you manage without essentially being on a stage in front of others.
That won't be a perfect solution because there are going to be things that come up that you need to address immediately rather than waiting for your check-in that's four days away. But if you've normalized the practice of meeting with people privately, you'll be able to say "Hey, do you have five minutes to talk in the conference room/over coffee downstairs?" (and can even say it privately over IM or email) without everyone else assuming something scandalous is happening.
And not everything needs to happen in private. If you create a trusting, supportive culture on your team, you should be able to do minor corrections in front of others without it feeling like a big deal. Of course, tone matters a ton here, and the bigger picture "I was expecting more progress than this" type conversations should still happen in private. But it's generally OK to say, "Hey, I noticed that some of the numbers on this sheet are off. I fixed them, but can you double check in the future?" in earshot of others.
Add this to the long list of problems with open offices.
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