I can see a coworker doing work for me incorrectly over her shoulder — can I step in?

A reader writes:

I wonder if you could help me with a bit of office etiquette.

There is a designer who works for my company. She is not my direct report and I don’t manage her in any way, but she does split her time between doing design work for me (she does two days of work for me a week) and the rest of the company. So I delegate, prioritize, give feedback, etc. over those two days.

Because of the way our desks are positioned — I am behind her and slightly to the side and we are facing the same direction — I can often see her work over her shoulder. On multiple occasions now, I have seen her doing something incorrectly, or working on something I didn’t want to prioritize while the priority work hasn’t been finished, or just designing something in such a way that I know I will want to change, even if it isn’t necessarily incorrect.

How can I address this — and should I? If it was just once, I’d shoot her a quick message and laugh it off as “Oh, just spotted this in the corner of my eye, actually it should be X…” but if it’s multiple occasions, that just seems like weird and creepy micromanaging to me! On the other hand, it would save us both time and her a lot of work if I did step in instead of waiting for her to send me the work at the end. There also must be a different level of appropriateness dependent on whether it’s actually doing something wrong, or just not my design preference.

If it gives any context, i’m only 23 and new to this company, and she has been here for a few years. I am not her manager at all and have never managed anyone before. I am having some other issues with her at times as well, in terms of meeting deadlines — I always give her a deadline of one to two weeks before I need to use something to leave time for revisions, but she often just goes by the final, final date and doesn’t leave any time for changes so I end up having to chase up on work all the time or risk pushing back deadlines. Addressing these issues earlier would help greatly with that.

Oooh, that’s tricky.

You definitely don’t want her to feel like you’re watching all her work as she does it, even though the reality is that you can see it. People need space to work and make mistakes and fix them, and no one wants to feel like everything on their screen is being scrutinized. On the other hand, though, if you can see her putting time into something she doesn’t realize she’ll need to change later, it feels weird not telling her that.

I think you can intervene a few times, but not on a regular basis. It’s fine to occasionally say, “Hey, I think you’re working on X, and I might not have been clear enough — can you actually take care of Y first? That one’s more time-sensitive.” Or, “Sorry to intervene while you’re right in the middle of it, but I’m hoping it might save you some time — I saw you’re doing this in blue but it’s got to match the green and gold color scheme for the event.”

Occasionally.

If it’s something you’re doing regularly, it’s going to drive her batty, and understandably so.

I’d actually look at this from a different angle: Take this as a flag that something is keeping the two of you from being aligned on projects from the start. Think about the sorts of things that you’ve seen her getting wrong, and think about what kind of info you could have given her earlier on that would have prevented that.

It’s really, really common in any kind of delegation (and especially with design work) for the person delegating the work to have all sorts of info in their head about what they want the final product to look like … but not to give that info to the person doing the work until later on, when the work comes back to them and they have something concrete to react to. The trick in delegating well is to learn to articulate much of that info as possible at the start — so that the person doing the work has all the same info you do about what you want. Right now it sounds like you might not be doing that, so she’s making decisions on her own — and they’re not lining up with what you want. (If I’m wrong and the mistakes she’s making are things you explicitly talked about earlier, that’s a different situation, but since you didn’t mention that, I’m going to assume that’s not the case here.)

The same need for clarity is true with deadlines, in a way. If she’s not meeting your interim deadline because she knows the “real” deadline, have a clear conversation with her where you explain that you’re setting interim deadlines to allow for revisions, and that you need her to use the deadlines you give her. If you have that conversation and the problem keeps happening, then you get more serious about it: “I need things back to me by the deadlines I give you, and it’s causing problems like X and Y when that doesn’t happen. Do you need me doing something differently so that you’re clear on those interim deadlines, so that I’m not having to chase it down after the deadline I give you passed?” (And if it still continues, that’s a performance issue to bring her boss in on.)

So for now, I’d focus on your pieces of this — on how you can be more clear. And when you see her screen and she’s doing something you know you’re going to want to change later, instead of saying something immediately, I’d use that as an exercise for yourself — a chance to figure out what you should have told her up-front but (apparently) didn’t. And then use those insights as a way to get better and better at the info you’re giving her on the front-end when you first delegate something. Over time, this should cut down on how often you’re spotting her screen and realizing she’s way off-base. (Of course, keep in mind that the goal here isn’t for you to have zero edits/tweaks when the first iteration of work comes back to you. It’s normal to still need to give input and you don’t want to try dictating every tiny detail — you just want to make sure that you’re setting her up to get reasonably close to what you want on the first try.)

Also, changing the amount of constant visibility you have into her work will help too. Can you move the angle of your desk or put up a small barrier that would keep you from seeing everything she does? That’ll force you to handle this the way you would if she were off in her own office, and it’ll be healthier for both of you not to have her right in your line of sight at all times.

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