Leader, step out of the ivory tower

Many offices are built out of combination of rooms and cubicles in an open-space. My guess is that the resident of the room is the manager, while the rest of the team sits in an open space. I encourage and challenge all managers to step out of their rooms and sit at the open-space, side by side with their teams.

I’m aware that holding confidential and personal meetings are part of the weekly schedule of a manager, and those meetings require a room with closed doors. However, the other part of the week doesn’t require closed doors or private rooms. If this statement is false (meaning the manager’s schedule contains 100% confidential/personal meeting), then this is another problem to solve.

I have been managing teams while sitting in a room and I have been managing teams while sitting in a cubicle. I had managers that set in rooms and I had managers that set in cubicles. I would like to share my insights on this.

When I have received my first room, it felt good, it felt like what I was deserved as a manager, it felt like the right thing for me. Sitting in the room was like sitting at the ivory tower — people came in and out of the room on needed basis. I thought that the people who needed my assistance (or I needed theirs) came to my office and the ones that didn’t came, probably didn’t need my attention (and I surely didn’t need theirs).

Well, I was dead wrong about this. It took me couple of years to start noticing that something is not right and then couple more to be convinced it is deadly wrong. I must admit that I didn’t take any proactive action to make things better. Eventually, I stepped out of my room, but it only because I had more luck then brains. Fortunately, my office changed locations and I have moved from a room-based office to an open-space-based office. I was “forced” to sit in a cubicle. I’m so happy that it turned out that way.

It wasn’t the first time I set in a cubicle. I set in cubicles in the past couple of times, in different companies. However, back then I wasn’t serving in a management role, and my managers set in cubicles like all the others. All sitting at cubicles felt good. I didn’t have any experience with managers sitting in rooms while the teams were sitting in an open space. When I moved to the new offices (open-space based offices), I have realized there is a big difference when managers sit in rooms while the rest of the team sits in open space.

When I set in my cubicle, along with my teams, I felt a whole different level of engagement:

  1. Accessibility: I was there for the team and the team was there for me. I know managers always say “my door is always open”, but unfortunately that statement doesn’t bring you the engagement level you are looking for. Room has completely different barrier compared to an open space cubicle. When you are in the open space, people will walk by you and stop to discuss about issues that bother them. It might happen when you sit at a room, but much less likely to happen. I rather handle over disruptions then having my team not approaching me frequent enough. The most important conversations I has with my team members were (and still as) a result of such walk-by discussions.
  2. Feeling the mood: when sitting side by side with your teams, you feel the working atmosphere. When people are frustrated (e.g. bad network conditions that slows down their work), you know it and can handle it in a timely manner. When people are excited by a new breakthrough, you are there to walk by and experience it yourself, and to celebrate it with them.
  3. Experiencing first hand: when you work in the same work space as your teams, you can understand better the impediments and the annoying issues, first hand. For example, when there is a problem with the air conditioning, you feel it as well and can handle it. Experiencing the problems yourself is different then hearing about those problems from someone else.

I am familiar with managers that do just fine while sitting in their room. Sitting in a room doesn’t make you a bad manager or a bad leader. However, if you are seeking for a way to serve your teams better and be a true servant leader, you should seriously consider stepping out of the ivory tower and put your feet on the ground, side by side with your teams.



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