Since I work at a rapidly growing company, I am used to switching desks quite regularly. It seems that wherever we move, we outgrow the office space faster than the dust can settle on our screens. In my three years with trivago, my team (and most others) moved seats six or seven times. Actually, the most recent period of not moving was unusually long, with us staying in the same space for 10 full months.
However, since 2015 added several hundred new colleagues to the company, it was time for some rearrangement once again. While I had been casually involved with creating new seating charts before, this time, I took the main responsibility.
Some initial facts about the situation and the challenge:
- Nine teams of sizes ranging from 3 to 12
- About 75 people affected in total
- Floor layout cannot be changed because of power sockets and certain shelves in fixed position.
- Each team should have some expansion space for future hires.
To start out, I sat together with one or two colleagues whose judgement I value, and created a few initial versions with them. We thought pretty hard, and spent two full hours on the problem, and finally I thought: “Yeah, that’s perfect. Finally we made it work.”
Great, right? Except that I had not talked it over with 90% of the affected teams yet. Some of them were happy or at least ok with the suggestion, but some had entirely valid objections that I had not had in mind:
- Team Pink is design-heavy, so they would like a lot of whiteboard wall surface to sketch, and to put up printouts. Speaking of printouts: They would like to be near one of the printers, too.
- The building is large, and some teams have dependencies to teams in other departments. Therefore, they would like to be closer to the elevators, or the respective other teams.
- Certain teams should be located next to each other, because they work on similar topics or affect one another. For example Team Yellow should be located next to Team Blue, and Team Blue should be located near Team Pink.
Ouch! This was painful. I already spent hours on this layout, and now it was torn to pieces. At this point, you can do one of two things:
- You defend your version, block off other people’s claims, say that they only have their particular interests in mind, while you have to think of the situation as a whole, and there will not possibly be a solution that satisfies everybody. You push your decision through.
- You involve the critics in the planning process.
Since going with the first option would create quite a bit of resentment and we still had a day or two until the move was happening, I went with the second option. I listened. We discussed. People added ideas and made suggestions. I tried them out and added them to my sketches. And I did that over and over again, with people from every affected team. We ended up with multiple versions - 10, to be exact. This looked something like this:
With such a task, you tend to think into a certain direction, and after a while, you will not stray very far from it any more. You will only try out minor variations. That is exactly when a second, third, and fourth pair of eyes can work wonders. My team mates have found solutions that I could never have come up with on my own. Even if they were sometimes tinged by their own team’s perspective and preferences, they often brought an improvement to the overall satisfaction.
How do you make it stop?
Ultimately, though, it is impossible to make everybody equally happy. There are faraway corners or noisy crossroads that are not the most popular spots, and somebody has to sit there. At some point, you commute back and forth, in a mission of shuttle diplomacy, between two teams, and notice that only one of the two can get what they want. The clock is ticking, moving is happening on the following day. What do you do?
First of all, bring the teams to discuss together. Make them see that each side has their valid claims and interests, and that no one is trying to shortchange anybody. Make them see that satisfying both parties is impossible. But what then?
In the end, I made a decision. I favoured one team over the other by choosing one particular solution, because that solution, to me, seemed to maximize the overall satisfaction. I talked to the disadvantaged team, told them about my decision, gave them my reasons, and assured them that I had considered their objections. While they did not love the change that was ahead, they had seen me put a lot of effort into finding a working solution, and they knew it was not that easy. They accepted it.
Conclusion: Change management
Creating a new seating chart was, to me, a lesson in change management. Listening to everybody and dismissing a hard-earned solution over and over again is time-consuming and exhausting. But is this time wasted or ill-spent? I do not think so.
When people face change, there is always insecurity, and a lot of change-related resistance - I have heard numbers in the 70-80% region - stems from this insecurity. You can take this insecurity (and, hence, the resistance) away by giving people information and influence. Involve them in your thoughts, involve them in your planning. Listen to their opinions, and use them for your solution. Its acceptance will be much higher than if you prescribe something top-down.