Problems With Shared Work Space

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about shared work space: My role as a supervisor requires I fix this problem.

Two of my employees share a desk (common in our work place). Each one of them has different standards to what “clean” is. Employee “A” thinks the desk should be wiped down to perfection, everything put away neatly and no remnants of a person’s day should be viewable. Employee “B” is more relaxed and maybe to a fault. She’ll leave a small pile of papers on her side of the desk, leave her salt/pepper shaker there and will move the phone to better suit what’s more comfortable to her. Employee “A” does the same with the phone. Employee “A” has become hyper-sensitive and scours her desk when she comes in. If she finds a crumb, she gets mad, vents to other co-workers and sends an email to employee “B”. Employee “B” feels constantly picked on.

My role as a supervisor requires I fix this problem. I’ve tried speaking to both of them, placing a file organizer on the desk for employee “B” to put her papers in and have been privy enough to another co-workers observations and conversations. Both employee “A” and “B” have retreated into their “corners” and are unable to see the others side. How do I resolve this?

Signed, Feeling Like Mom

Dear Feeling Like Mom:

Shared work spaces require good citizenship, courtesy and good judgment by those who are sharing. However, it is much easier for employees to share when there are guidelines and requirements from the very beginning, and when problems are corrected immediately. I’m going to respond to your question in two parts. Part One is about guidelines for shared work spaces. Part Two is about discussing this issue with the employees, since it goes past shared work space and deals with work effectiveness in general.

PART ONE:In your situation, although the essential problem is between two employees you will also want to prevent similar situations in the future. On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t want to respond with a big list of rules!There is one school of thought that this would be the time for all employees to gather and talk about shared work spaces. My view is that most employees would find that to be a waste of time and irritating to them. In your office situation, the contention that has developed would make that very difficult anyway. The far easier way is to make a reasonable decision about guidelines in your role as a supervisor and have employees start implementing the reasonable guidelines. Done.

Consider just a brief, two to five point list of guidelines for shared work spaces. Within those guidelines there is still breathing room, but having requirements establishes that the space does not belong to the employee personally, it is working area provided to them and for which they have some responsibility. (That sounds old school, but is a needed reminder in some cases!) If some sharing employees insist that they aren’t having problems and they don’t want to change, you may feel you have created a monster! But many employees will tolerate a lot to avoid a hassle and may welcome having someone take care of the problem for them, no matter what they say. Do everyone a favor and gain some consistency about the space for which you and they are responsible.The bottom line is that few could complain by saying, “My supervisor is so unreasonable. She wants us to start work in a clean space.”

Here are the most obvious guidelines for shared work spaces (and can be adapted to all work spaces.) Goal: Each employee will begin the work shift in a space that is clean, neat and odor-free and that contains only required equipment and work items, shared work, and provided organizers that are maintained neatly. To achieve this goal each outgoing sharing employee must leave the work space ready for the oncoming sharing employee. Through this courtesy and respect, each employee can start the work shift in a work-ready environment. (a) At the end of shift the space will be cleared of personal work and personal items. Those items will be stored in provided organizers, drawers or files and should not be distracting visually or because of odors or for other reasons.(b) The work top and work area will be cleaned of debris or obvious soiling.(c)Shared equipment or materials will be left on the desktop or in appropriate locations as established by sharing employees and supervisors.(d) During the work shift employees may make adjustments to chair height, keyboard and phone locations and the location of other equipment, according to their personal work needs. At the end of the shift equipment and items should be replaced in an easily accessed location and extreme furniture adjustments should be changed to a neutral position. (e) Any other issues about the maintenance of shared space should be discussed and resolved between employees when possible or supervisors may be asked for assistance. *************** Those guidelines have worked successfully in other offices and I think they would be a good start in your situation.

There are always jokes about how back “in the old days” supervisors went around inspecting work areas and making sure everything was kept neat. Even though that degree of inspection isn’t needed most of the time, it’s appropriate for supervisors to walk through a work space several times a day or shift to make sure there are no obvious problems with the work space and the way work is being done. It also allows the supervisor to communicate with employees personally, rather than only by email or phone.So, if you aren’t doing so now, consider that walk-about or some sort of workplace inspection, as part of your communication process as well as your overall supervision. You may need to inspect briefly before and after those specific employees are at work, as well.

PART TWO: Your two contentious employees have shown a lack of effectiveness in the way they have handled this. (To be fair, both may feel they had to take matters into their own hands because there was no supervisory intervention about it when it first started developing. That may not be the case, but it might be!) When the employees begin complying with established guidelines–and they should start immediately and never deviate from it–you can talk to them about how disappointing this has been from the viewpoint of work effectiveness and dealing with conflict. They could have handled this in the beginning by having one say to the other, “Would you do me a favor and leave the desk clean and neat, without anything of yours on it?” Or, “Do you mind if I leave a few items on the desk, so I don’t have to put everything away?” And both should have felt able to ask for something different, then discuss why.

After that, if they couldn’t agree, they should have come to a supervisor and asked for clear guidelines they could both live with. And, the office situation should be such that they would have felt it was OK to do that–and it sounds as though it would have been.Instead they’ve picked and prodded back and forth and created a disruption. Keep this in mind and remind them too: If they would treat each other this way, with you knowing about it, how do you think they sometimes treat internal and external customers when you don’t know about it?Instead of trying to resolve the issue or even making a formal complaint and asking for supervisory resolution, each has been disruptive to others in her own way, just to prove a point.

From a corrective viewpoint, this should be reflected in their next performance evaluation under a section that involves teamwork or courtesy or a similar area. However, if they show their good faith by sharing the space more effectively and doing it in a way that is not disruptive, that can be noted as well.If you don’t have performance reports or know you won’t enter this in it, you can simply talk about your personal evaluation of them and their work and behavior. (I do think it should be noted though.)

You know these employees and know if the rest of their work is effective or not. If either or both have had other issues, this should be taken even more seriously, as a reflection of their overall fit for the workplace.As you can tell, I don’t treat these situations lightly! They may seem minor to some on the outside, but, as you have found, they can create big problems for an office. They take up your time, they distract other employees and they strike at the heart of a team trying to get the work done effectively. They often are indicative of other problems that also need to be addressed. They require supervisory attention as well as an ongoing level of good teamwork. Good luck with this! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe