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Getting Un-stuck: Working and Playing Nice with Others

Throughout the world interior designers and their clients are developing “return-to-office” plans and dreaming up spacious new office layouts to address the health and safety concerns of their employees. Project teams are being put together — with a project manager, designer, and construction manager, along with engineers, electricians, plumbers, drywallers and many other design & construction specialists — to get the job done.

It’s fair to say, however, that COVID-19 has frayed our collective nerves when it comes to working and playing nice with others.

Everyone who has ever played a sport will have heard the saying that “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” But someone else in the group may reply “there’s an ‘m’ and ‘e’ and there’s no team without me.” Such are the dynamics when people come together to complete a project. People come at the task at hand from different perspectives, with varying degrees of experience, and it’s natural to believe that our strategy is the best one. Emotion enters the picture and conflict can develop within a team.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been fortunate to be called upon by DPI Construction Management to help office space buildouts run more smoothly for clients like IBM, LinkedIn and Google, among others. Given the need to address health and safety concerns, these projects have had a whole set of new challenges, especially in the face of government mandated shutdowns to protect public health. Nonetheless, despite the stops and starts, we’ve carried on thanks to effective communications.

Teamwork does indeed make the dream work. Office space buildouts of this kind require an incredible amount of coordination, and, of course, communication.

The project stages are as follows:

  1. Understanding Client Needs – the design team works with the client to understand their functional and business needs, as well as their budget and timeline for the project.
  2. Schematic Design – the designer prepares a “floor plan” and collaborates with the client to ensure it includes the physical and operational elements that are needed.
  3. Design Development – it’s at this stage that the designers bring in colour, texture, and specific architectural and furniture elements to create the client’s desired look and feel for their new office environment.
  4. Construction Documents – engineers and specialized consultants work with one another and the rest of the project team to translate the design into precise drawings and specifications that tell the trades (e.g., electricians, plumbers, HVAC specialists) how to build all aspects of what’s needed to make the space work for the client.
  5. Tender / Bidding – the construction manager prepares and sends out a bid package including drawings and specifications to multiple firms for each trade to get quotes for the work.
  6. Construction – the trades, under the guidance of the construction manager, build the space according to the design drawings and specifications, and collaborate in responding to any unexpected events so that the project stays on track for the client.

Anywhere along this path, there’s room for misunderstandings, unexpected problems, and conflict to creep into a project. Any negative emotions that spring up when these kinds of things happen can put us into completely the wrong state of mind to work effectively together as a team.

When we feel negative emotions like anger, frustration or even worry, it’s like being in a hole. We don’t hear very well, we can’t see the big picture, and we lose touch with our ability to generate creative solutions. And when we speak out of a hole of negative emotion, the other person is also going to end up in their own hole of negative emotion. We’ll just keep digging those holes deeper making it harder and harder to create the change we want. So, when working with team members, my first goal is to help both parties get onto a relatively positive emotional level ground.

Easier said than done, right?

The key to helping someone shift their negative emotions into a positive direction is by helping them separate their needs from strategies. Strategies are what they want to happen. Needs are why they want that to happen; the values that are important to them. Conflicts occur between strategies. But needs are never in conflict; it may just take some creativity to find a way to get them all met.

Three things that can be done to help someone get out of that hole of negative emotion are:

  1. Listen without interrupting. Try to understand and empathize with what’s important to them in what they’re saying.
  2. Help them focus on needs they want met (e.g. ‘You’re wanting more clarity about the delivery date? I can understand that.”) versus what they’re not happy about (e.g., “You’re frustrated that you can’t get an answer about the delivery date?”)
  3. Affirm that you want their needs to be met (e.g. ‘I want to find a way for you to get what you need to get this job done.’)

By employing these tactics you’re allowing the other person to be heard. People tend to find it hard to hear a different perspective until they know their point of view has been heard and valued. This approach shows them you’re on the same team.

Once we understand each person’s needs, we then direct our energies toward finding a strategy or a set of strategies that works for everyone; that meets their needs. This is much more effective and efficient than wasting time trying to win an argument or convince someone of something they don’t believe. Because when someone has agreed to a strategy that they think will genuinely work for them, they are much more likely to implement it with energy, enthusiasm, and speed.

Another important aspect of team building is making it easy for people to do what you want them to do. To that end, here are five simple things that can be done to set everyone up for success:

  1. At a project kick-off meeting, ask each person what’s one thing we could do differently on this project to make it easier for you to do your best work?
  2. Use collaborative decision-making to come to agreements that work for everyone.
  3. If you find someone resisting or delaying doing something, ask what makes it difficult? Problem-solve together.
  4. Remind each person of their critical path tasks far enough in advance so they can complete the task on time even if they haven’t started it yet.
  5. As soon as a date has passed without the deliverable, follow up immediately. Focus on confirming shared understanding and identifying an action plan.

My final word of advice is to capture everything in writing, especially when it comes to deadlines. People’s memories fade and shift over time. On top of that, the client may not realize how fast they need to make decisions and the ramifications of those decisions on how the project will play out. Having a common base of facts and decisions to refer to is critical to everyone staying on the same page. Don’t let a simple misunderstanding develop into a very real problem that can cost your project time and money.


Glenda Mattinson, an expert in conflict resolution for over 20 years, has a Master of Applied Science Degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is an internationally Certified Communication Trainer. She is the Communication Facilitator for DPI Construction Management. Glenda’s courses on facilitating change, meeting facilitation and group decision-making are recognized for continuing education credit by ARIDO – the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario. She can be reached at [email protected]

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