Updated 11 September 2015

Are you an open-plan office pest?

In our downsized, open-plan, multitasked, working world, you’re likely to share workspace.

It should be a basic human right – your own office. But in our downsized, open-plan, multitasked, working world, you’re likely to share workspace. You can hate it or thrive.

Work with someone long enough and there’s a chance you’ll either develop a crush on them or wish they’d leave the company. Most people fantasise about some of their colleagues and for many people working in close proximity to one another, those fantasies may involve buckets of wet cement and deep rivers.

That’s because people who work together tend to get on each other’s nerves. It’s partly because we’re all human and fallible, but also a matter of not taking some basic steps in office etiquette.

How bad can it get? If you’ve ever had a colleague who coughed incessantly for months on end, without getting better, or dying, you’ll know. Or a colleague who makes long and loud personal phone calls when you’re trying to negotiate some international deal with a hard-of-hearing Albanian who’s on a cell phone in a subway a thousand miles away.

Main irritants at work
A survey conducted by one UK recruitment agency found that nearly 40% of office workers polled had considered changing jobs because of a colleague’s irritating habits. The magazine ComputerWeekly report on the survey by Office Angels listed the top five irritants as:

  • Being e-mailed by people who sit a few feet away (85%)
  • People who listen to voicemails on speaker phone (75%)
  • People who swear at their computers (68%)
  • Colleagues’ choice of radio station (68%)
  • Colleagues who don’t share tea-making duties (60%).

One problem with working close to others is that once you’re sensitised to their irritating idiosyncrasies, things that wouldn’t normally irk you become unbearable. Is so-and-so talking to himself or actually soliciting a reply? Nobody will begrudge you a muttered tirade at Bill Gates if you lose valuable work due to some sudden technological malfunction. It’s when a pattern of disruptive behaviour develops that people begin to harbour malicious thoughts.

Something that affects everyone – your computer network collapsing or the Sheriff of the court arriving to take away all the furniture – warrants some justified, even therapeutic exclamation of dismay. Hitting the wrong key on your keyboard doesn’t.

Habits that drive colleagues round the bend

  • Talking loudly on the phone;
  • Asking a colleague how to spell a word – and thereby disrupting their concentration - when every computer on the planet now has a spellchecker;
  • Talking to yourself or singing to yourself;
  • Interrupting others' work telephone conversations to make some further suggestions regarding the conversation they're having;
  • Chipping in to a discussion that strictly speaking has nothing to do with you;
  • When you’re stressed, assuming everyone else is, and when you’re not, assuming nobody else is either. Perhaps your workload only builds on Monday afternoons, while you have a colleague who has to file a report by midday. Ambling over to chat about the All Blacks and the Springboks can wait. Offering to bring over a cup of tea or to shoulder some of the workload might be better.
  • Breaking wind. Fumes travel. If your nether regions are noxious, pop some charcoal tablets. Just do it:
  • Use of resources: if you print out a 60-page document, make sure the printer tray is still at least half-full;
  • Commenting on private calls or conversations. if you have a colleague who’s fighting with his girlfriend over the phone, commiserating with him after the call means you were listening in. Even if you overheard it unintentionally, pretend to be elsewhere. Saying “Ah, chicks! Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em!” might not get you punched on the snout or even told to mind your own business, but it might rankle, not just him, but the other chicks in the office. If your colleague wants to talk about it, he will. Similarly, if you’re in someone’s workspace and they have a phone call, at least offer to leave. It affords them the option of telling the caller “I’m in a meeting, can I call you back?”
  • Cleanliness. If your office has a communal kitchen, leave it cleaner than you found it. The same applies to meeting rooms or boardroom tables, which may be strewn with cups and sugar packets after meetings. Gathering up the detritus together will probably take about 20 seconds.
  • Respect privacy. Some people wear headphones to mask off the noise around them. Some of the headphones are even switched off a lot of the time, but the fact that the wearer has them on may at least stop people from asking them how to spell “pharmacopoeia” every four minutes.

Is all this tiptoeing around your colleagues a waste of time? Surely people must just learn to deal with lack of privacy and personal space? Surely all this pickiness warrants a retort like, “Oh, deal with it”?

Well, perhaps. But the Office Angels survey yielded some surprising results about people who behave badly in the office. Nearly 70% of those polled said they were more likely to gossip about people who indulged in loud personal phone calls. Around the same percentage felt that considerate colleagues deserved promotion and supported their advancement.

Perhaps the strongest advice is honesty. Rather than developing a tension headache and plotting to burn your colleague’s car because he punctuates his day with bursts of, “Oh chuck-a-chunk, break-it-down…” maybe it’s time for a one-on-one chat about honing his talents as a rapper at the office. (William Smook)


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