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What Does the Ideal Work Environment Look Like?

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In the Young Leaders Panel, Government Executive editors pose a question about an issue affecting the federal workforce to a group of emergent leaders outside the federal community. The Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs is an intensive, nine-month, full-time program that combines exposure to various industries with rigorous, hands-on training. The following responses come from four of the Fellows that make up the Coro Fellows 2013 class in St. Louis:

Question: Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator of the General Services Administration and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have something in common: They’re both proponents of “bullpen” office arrangements. In a bullpen, the chief executive and his/her deputies all sit in an open office space together, without walls, meant to facilitate rapid communication and collaboration. But it turns out this style isn’t for everyone. The candidates running to succeed Bloomberg want to do away with the system, saying not having individual offices makes it hard to focus on work. Clearly, there is no “right” way to arrange an office space, or a team, to facilitate collaboration. Whether it’s physical arrangements, alterations to organizational charts or flexible work schedules, managers are constantly fine-tuning the office paradigm to get the most out of their organizations. How should leaders find and implement a workplace model that satisfies individual needs for autonomy while ensuring increased collaboration and communication within the organization?

The following responses come from four fellows that make up the Coro St. Louis 2013 class.

Know Your Employees

As a leader in any organization, your first role in creating a productive workplace is to know your employees. A conversation needs to be had to find out individuals’ and departments’ needs and ticks.  Once this chain of communication has been started, develop a means of sharing the responses you received anonymously so that everyone in the organization is aware of their fellow co-workers’ needs.  After the information is shared, consider implementing some of the suggestions and create open areas for teamwork to occur comfortably when collaboration is necessary.  Because productive and collaborative environments are important to every organization, plan to fine-tune the structure and workspace you have created later.  Keep an eye toward the effects that atmosphere has on the organization and make yourself available to hear the concerns of those around you.  Finally, always provide a system for feedback to be given by all--be sure it is received by those in position to act on responses. 

-- Meghan Jendusa (St. Louis, Mo.)

Play to Your Strengths

The balance between supporting individual workplace autonomy and facilitating employee collaboration and communication depends primarily on office culture, something that is generally management driven.  In my experience, employees will be more productive and collaborative in an office environment that fosters confidence. How you foster that confidence depends on your leadership style--there is certainly no "best" model. Instead, management should implement a model that is compatible with their leadership strengths.  Calls for increased collaboration or autonomy based on specific employee or project needs can be supported through office programming and performance expectations.  For example, management can foster employee autonomy by demanding high quality work and allowing employees to design a system for themselves that allows them to meet their performance commitments. Where autonomy detracts from face-to-face communication, managers can encourage regular meetings and social events that support and further collaborative communications. 

-- Susan DiSario (Carmel, Calif.)

Leadership as a Conversation

Leadership is about meeting the needs of the people who work for you and your organization. Leadership requires those in charge to make decisions--and not all decisions are going to accommodate the desires of everyone. Yet, it is essential that decisions meet the fundamental need of everyone to be heard. Implicit in this approach is the constant incorporation of questioning and feedback from management. While they ultimately make decisions alone, effective leaders cannot lead without successful incorporation of the input of those around them. Organizational structures and staffs change over time, so it is imperative to keep the lines of communication open. What works for staff during one year might not work for the collaborative efforts of a different group of people in another year. In making choices about where and how other people are going to work, the conversation should not be static and the decision cannot preempt talking to the actual people who will be affected. An organizational structure that values accountability and transparency in this way will ensure that employees have ownership in decisions, which in turn fosters good will.

-- Yaa Sarpong (Kumasi, Ghana)

Creating Adaptive Office Cultures

Flexibility is key to promoting office cultures that are receptive to diverse styles of work. Nurturing an environment that is responsive to different work habits allows communication and collaboration models to be tailored specifically to those doing the work. As a leader, it's important to be open to working with different styles and communicating in such a way that is clear and sufficient for each individual on your team. It is important that an employee understand the communication method you have set up and understands what flexibility exists for them within your office environment. Being a supportive leader helps open the line of communication, which in turn allows you to understand your team better. Underpinning the successful implementation of flexible work environments are measures to ensure trust and accountability.

-- Amanda Kosty (King City, Calif.)

Read the panel's previous response:

The Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs is an intensive, nine-month, full-time program that combines exposure to various industries with rigorous, hands-on training. The program uses experiential learning; interviews with private, public and nonprofit decision-makers; and training in critical thinking, communication and project management. These 16 Fellows are participating in the program in St. Louis, where it is operated by FOCUS St. Louis. The program is also offered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh. 

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