Office Space

August 26, 2009

Dear Survival Guide,

I took my present job because I was promised a nice office. I only recently moved into that office, with a great view over the campus lake, and now the person who has taken over the department wants to move me again. I have just finished arranging my furniture and getting my pictures hung the way I like them. Now I have to move to a smaller office with less privacy. I have a naturally loud voice that carries; I am sure that my voice is disturbing my colleagues, and think that they, too, would like me to stay in a more private office. What is more, this new office does not have the same view and I do not like change. Because I spend so much of my time in my office, it is important to me that I have space that is conducive to my own productivity and where I feel comfortable working. I've been in large offices, as well as in what one might almost consider a closet, during my time here at Big U and know the kind of environment in which I am most productive. What should I do?

--Displaced Associate Program Director

Dear Displaced:

You’ve made how you feel about the situation clear. What is a little less clear is how this looks from other perspectives. To assess your chances of getting the new person to reconsider and let you stay in the office you’re in, those perspectives should be understood. It will also be important to identify the true decision-maker(s).

Let’s start with the other possible perspectives. First and foremost, what has the new person said about why s/he proposes to move you? Is it to group people with similar responsibilities? Put someone more senior into your space? Take over the space him- or herself? While it’s always possible that the stated reason is not the real reason, it’s a good place to start to be able to respond effectively and appropriately.

In general, when preparing to try to persuade another, or to negotiate, it’s critical to understand that person’s interests and to make sure that your arguments are framed in such a way that they explain how what you’re seeking meets their interests. In your case, not only must you understand those interests, you must make sure that they are the interests of the person making the decision. If your new department head, for example, didn’t personally make the decision, that’s an important piece of information. Was it made by an administrative aide or facilities manager? The business manager? If someone other than the incoming boss made the decision, it’s always possible there will be some daylight between the two of them, and your requests/arguments should be constructed to take that into account.

If it’s the simplest case, and the incoming person him- or herself is proposing the change, your productivity should be among that person’s interests. What weight that carries in light of the overall ability of the department to move forward on its mission and goals is another matter. For example, if it is the judgment of the decision-maker that co-locating an entire working group is a high priority, and your office is in the middle of the block of offices that would make that possible, then likely that person will place a higher priority upon getting a whole group to improve its productivity than to the loss of productivity you might face when deprived of a settled, comfortable-for-you space.

Another interest of the new department leader might be getting people closer that he or she wants to have on hand for any number of reasons: improved supervision, mentoring, accessibility, etc. Or, your office could be such a desirable commodity that your leader sees it as a reward for someone who has done outstanding work in a time when there’s little in the way of money or other tangible rewards to provide. This is a long way of saying that another person might be more valuable/important to the new administrator than you are.

How does your work fit into the new person’s goals for your department? Is it central? Peripheral? Have a high cost-to-benefit ratio, or a low one? If you had to anticipate what others say about working with you, do they think it’s smooth and easy, or are there aspects to interacting with you that might be difficult for some in the group? As you think about these issues, it might be valuable to bounce your thoughts off someone else less directly invested in the outcome: what seems persuasive to you, given how personal your goal is, might not have the same power with someone more removed.

How much will it cost to move you? Will your unit be obliged to call in workers from another unit that works on a charge-back basis? How much does your privacy benefit the organization? Is there any reason you can’t train yourself to modulate the volume of your speaking voice? Threatening to be less productive and disruptive to the work of the department is not a winning argument.

Finally, was the promise of the nice office a written part of the offer of your new position, or something more informal? If it was included in a written offer, or widely known as part of the offer, then another factor here is institutional integrity. A new leader should give serious weight to documented promises made properly within your university’s regulations, for violating those could have ramifications far past your office situation.

Until you understand the thinking of the person who is making the decision, it will be hard to make a persuasive case that you should be able to stay where you are. Thus, start by trying to build a clear-sighted view of the facts and interests in your situation from the decision-maker’s perspective. Then, marshal arguments that speak to those interests. Pick your time for raising the matter carefully, and make your best arguments — that is, the ones most likely to be important to the other person — as calmly as you can. That doesn’t mean you cannot emphasize how much the outcome means to you, it just means that you must stay professional and focused on the work of the unit as the central topic.

And if the author’s boss or other supervisors are reading this, consider sharing the basis for your space decisions, as well as others that affect large numbers of people in your unit. Even when your staff does not agree with or like the outcome, they are far more likely to accept it when your criteria are known and shared. If you are making office allocations by seniority, job function, by work group, or to make space for some other project, explaining this at an appropriate time will go a long way towards keeping the office focused on its goals and missions. And good luck: People tend to feel as strongly about space issues as they do with those other hot-button issues in administrative life, like titles, salary and parking.

--Survival Guide

Have a question for Survival Guide? E-mail her.


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