Updated: Mar 7, 2020
My first major leadership challenge was Managing Director of Nokia in New Zealand in 1993, still the early days of mobility. I was permanent employee number five in NZ, a start-up phase in which we doubled turnover and staff numbers in three years. Exciting times - I had the best job in the world.
Then in 1996 I was asked by Nokia to become an “expat” in Europe, joining the European executive board of Nokia Telecommunications as Sales and Marketing Director, part of the Nokia Networks Group in the UK and Ireland markets. I suddenly had a budget more than twice the size and 26 direct reports, not eight.
Another change was losing my cosy corner office back in NZ, to working with the UK team all around me in a large open-plan corporate office. No partitions, just the odd funky but strange break-out space. That said, I actually really liked being in with the team, could hear the office buzz and was dialled into problems early. On the other hand the team hadn’t had a manager for 18 months, had no performance reviews in that time and had pretty low morale. And in the first quarter or so, I wasn’t helping.
Being a Kiwi made me different and a little cool which was great, though I was no longer The Boss, rather a manager in a much bigger subsidiary. Somehow though, I wasn’t quite connecting with my direct reports in the way I was used to. It wasn’t until we started the annual performance review round that I started to get feedback and with 26 reports, I felt more like a doctor than a manager! Staff thought I had some fresh ideas and was received well by the customers, but they didn’t feel connected to me, or that they could come to me for help.
This was quite a shock to someone used to the team breezing into my office all day, challenging and expectant. As a team, I felt we were connecting well. And the atmosphere in the office was good, the energy levels high, this after more than a year of previous lowered team morale and performance…but was I even a leader? Were these Brits and Finns so different?
Then as it happens, the universe delivered. I read an article in a business journal (I don’t recall which sorry, it was a long time ago) about managing in "modern" office environments. As with many such articles, a long read with one dazzling “take-away”: in open-plan offices, managers feel more connected to their staff, but conversely staff feel more disconnected from their managers. Boy was that a lightbulb moment for me!
The article explained how staff were often afraid to approach busy managers because they might disturb them. It also explained how your office door acts as a sign post - an open door signals “come in, chew the fat, tell me about your issue, how can I help, great job, da, de, da...” A closed door signals “don’t disturb me, I’m busy, I’m on the phone, I have a deadline, I need some thinking time...”
For an “open door” style leader I was missing my signpost, and I needed one fast. For me this came in the form of ear-pieces around at the time. I let the staff know if I had them in, to disturb me only if they'd just signed a very large order, or if a then famously attractive actress was in reception and asking for me… or words to that effect. The change was pretty immediate and soon staff were coming to me for feedback and advice just like before, even some who didn’t report to me!
So all you open-plan office managers or wannabes, what’s your signpost? When you move into a modern co-working and shared office space like Hastings HIVE, you’re going to need one. And one your staff can spot and interpret from across the office. It could be a headset, a particular hat or even a flag on your divider, up or down. Whatever works most naturally for you.
Next time in this blog series, I share two more things I learned about how to engage staff in open-plan offices, so they feel ready to engage with you.