By Chelse Benham
“When working toward the solution of a problem, it always helps if you know the
answer. Corollary: Provided, of course, that you know there is a problem.”
- Rule of Accuracy
According the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there are currently 139 million
employed people in the United States. Among these people in the workforce,
employment in professional and technical services increased by 23,000. Unlike
manual labor, many professionals work indoors, but where to put all these people
is a problem many growing companies face. The most immediate solution is to
partition off areas into cubicles or have co-workers share office space. However,
either situation creates a need for the formation of “rules of engagement”
between co-workers in close quarters.
“We advise students entering the workplace to get to know the people they will
work with and learn what might annoy their co-workers. It is always a good policy
to respect people’s personal space and idiosyncrasies,” said Lourdes Servantes,
placement specialist at The University of Texas-Pan American’s Career
Placement Services Office. “It is best to go into a new work environment trying to
learn how to fit in. To do that you have to observe and ask questions about how
the office operates. It is especially important to reach out and form good working
relationships with the people you will be in close contact with on a daily basis. If
you do that up-front you can avoid many problems later.”
Many people may be confronting “cubicle closeness” or sharing an office for the
first time and they may not be aware that they are conducting themselves
inappropriately within this new situation. Ignorance isn’t an excuse, but it can be
remedied. Learning what situations to avoid can make all the difference in the
Pagewise Web site’s article, “Cube and Cubicle Etiquette,” offers scenario
specific conditions to steer clear of when sharing office space or enduring cubicle
closeness. Here are a few suggestions when living in a “fish bowl:”
Speak softly: Be aware that your voice projects. A loud voice is
distracting and makes concentrating on the task at hand very difficult. Do
not use a speaker phone. This makes things even worse, because the
person next door is not only distracted by your voice, but your party’s
Confidential matters: Do not discuss confidential matters in your cubicle.
Cubicles offer very little privacy, so you should not discuss confidential
Take your cellular phone to lunch: When you go to lunch, take your
cellular phone with you. This is to ensure that should your phone ring, you
are at hand to answer it. Leaving it behind is unfair, especially if it’s on, as
the noise may prove distracting.
Turn your answering machine on: When you leave your desk, set your
answering machine on. Your neighbor should not have to field your calls,
or try to work while you telephone rings constantly, unattended.
Keep your personal calls to a minimum: It’s best if you receive personal
calls at lunch or during your breaks, and no more. Your private life is your
own, and you should not inflict it on your neighbors.
Use your conference room for meetings: Space is at premium in an
open plan office arrangement, so it’s best that you meet your clients at a
conference room, rather than at your desk. Your neighbor is in fact, in her
office, and should have the privacy to conduct business without worrying
about a non-employee listening in on what she says.
Do not use screen savers which make noise: One man’s music is
another man’s noise, so it’s very important that you allow others to work in
a quiet area.
Avoid interruptions: The cubicle next to yours is someone’s office. The
cubicle is your colleague’s office space, so respect it. Respect other
people’s space when they look busy. On the other hand, don’t make eye
contact with someone when you don't want to be interrupted.
Be careful of the impression you make: Your cubicle gives your
colleagues and people around you an impression of the person you are.
Recognize that, and make sure that it does present a good impression.
That means that it should be keep tidy and clean, with documents filed in
their proper places. Keep the half nude pop icons and risqué cartoons to a
minimum. Others may be offended on moral, religious, cultural or sexual
grounds. And who needs a complaint filed against them?
Gary M. Smith, a senior publications specialist at Information Technology
Center’s Research and Technology Park in New Orleans, lists tactful tactics to
create advantageous adjacent atmospheres. In his presentation, called “Cubicle
Etiquette” found at www.stc.org, he suggests the following:
Eavesdrop inconspicuously. Although you don’t mean to eavesdrop,
often you simply can’t help it. When someone adjacent to you asks
someone a question for which you know the correct answer, resist the
urge to volunteer this information. This action will only confirm that you
were eavesdropping, even if it was unintentional.
Suffer alone. If you are ill, stay home. No one likes a martyr and neither
does anyone appreciate taking your cold or flu home to his or her loved
ones. Understand that the first few days of an illness are the most
dangerous in terms of contagion, and work from home during this time if
Kick others out gracefully. Walk toward the entrance of your cubicle
when you would like to keep an impromptu meeting short. You can stand
up and say you need to go to the restroom or make a copy. Be creative.
Prevent distractions. If possible, arrange your desk to face away from
your cubicle opening. Less eye contact could mean fewer interruptions.
Also, avoid eye contact with others walking by if you do not want to be
Do not sneak up on others. Not everyone has a cute rear-view mirror
mounted on his or her monitor. Follow the practice of knocking on a cube
wall, saying “Excuse me,” or otherwise letting your presence be known
before launching a discourse.
Be cautious with foliage. Although serving as good noise buffers, plants
tend to drop leaves and leak water—and not only in your cubicle. Don’t
overdo it; a conservative approach usually is better than cultivating a
jungle. Remember that others may have allergies to certain plants, so you
may want to discuss ornamental horticulture with your work mates before
bringing in the landscapers.
Plan construction projects for after hours. Rearrange your filing bins
and reconfigure your shelving after most people have left for the day. Or
do it on a weekend. Others may be trying to work during your renovation.
Get some exercise. Resist the urge to ask your cube neighbor a question
“over the wall.” Get up and stick your head around the corner, send an
e-mail or instant message, or call on the phone to ask if your colleagues
are available. Besides disturbing them, you will be disturbing everyone
else by blurting out your query or comment.
Plan for day care. Working parents should plan for appropriate childcare.
No matter how cute your little angels are, your co-workers probably will
not appreciate having a nursery next door.
Jill Bremer, owner of Bremer Communications, a training and consulting firm in
professional image development, communication and presentation skills, at
www.bremercommunications.com outlines additional areas of tension between
people who work in close proximity with each other. She advises the following:
• Post a sign or flag at your cube entrance to signal when you can
be interrupted. Avoid making eye contact with people if you don’t
want to be interrupted.
• Don’t loiter outside someone’s cube while you wait for him or her
to finish a phone call. Come back at another time.
• Never read someone’s computer screen or comment on
conversations you’ve overheard. Resist answering a question you
overheard asked in the cube next to you!
• Keep your hands off a cube dweller’s desk.
• Use e-mail or instant messaging to communicate silently with your
• Play radios at low volumes or use a headset.
• Eat quietly. Avoid gum-popping, humming, slurping and pen
• A good rule of thumb is to never eat hot food at your desk.
• Perfume and cologne should be avoided.
• Keep an air freshener handy.
• Keep your shoes on!
Although your office space is yours, it is ultimately a business work environment
that you share with others. That does not give you “carte blanche” to do as you
want in your space without considering the needs of those around you and what
is best for the work environment as a whole. If you are committing the fore-
mentioned infractions stop immediately. Doing so will show your willingness to
commit to improving your working relationship and environment.
“Some people change when they see the light, others when they feel the heat.” –
Caroline Schoeder, author