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How not to be an asshole in an open office

Full disclosure: I’m a freelance writer who works from a home office so quiet that, most days, I could literally hear a pin drop. I become jarred when the mail carrier snaps the aluminum letterbox shut. I glare at my dog when his sleep-breathing becomes audible from the floor at my feet. After several hours of silence, my own voice answering the phone can feel like a rude interruption.

There’s nobody looking over my shoulder or at my computer screen. I can watch a video on full volume, take a phone call on speaker, and shop online—while on deadline—and there’s no one to bother, notice or care. Any and all distractions, smells, and noises are entirely my own.

So you can imagine my horror when I occasionally stroll through my clients’ open offices. People stationed at sitting and standing desks mere inches apart. Screens exposed for everyone to see (even the gawking gaze of an incredulous visitor). Conversations and collaborations at varying volumes. Tiny, glassed-in rooms filled with frenzied solo workers. Collaborative hubs with funky but uncomfortable-looking couches paired with whiteboards on rollers. And everybody acting like it’s completely natural to behave like they’re alone… but right beside one another.

But, I get it. Offices are expensive. Collaborative space is critical for most modern work. And many people thrive on the hum of activity and easy access to colleagues. Walls can be literal barriers to teamwork, communication, brainstorming, and problem-solving.

There's a lot to love about an open office - but only if everyone agrees to enter into a social contract similar to the ones employed in the office kitchen, on an airplane or on public transit.

There’s a lot to love about an open office—but only if everyone agrees to enter into a social contract similar to the ones employed in the office kitchen, on an airplane or on public transit. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the memo. That’s why I went undercover to sleuth up some of the most egregious offenders of open office etiquette. What I unearthed will be all-too familiar to those who work in the wide open—and certainly sent me fleeing back to my fortress of solitude.

The oblivious noise polluter

Turns out, there are plenty of people who don’t really think about how their actions might affect those around them. The Oblivious Noise Polluter is one such specimen. When taking a break or eating lunch, they like to catch up on their favorite conspiracy theorist’s latest vlog or the final 10 minutes of last season’s Game of Thrones finale. Headphones? Nah, they were on a conference call all morning and their ear canals need a break.

These avid al fresco video watchers are often the same people who speak in an unnaturally loud voice on the phone, talk to themselves under their breath while they’re working, chew like a dog eating peanut butter, play music at a “low” volume on their computer speakers, type as if they’ve got a vendetta against their keyboard, and are prone to shouting a “quick question” to someone five desks away.

If you want to bring the volume down in your work area, you’ve got to give it to the Oblivious Noise Polluter straight. Explain that their noise is distracting, hand them their headphones, or tell them about a nearby coffee shop with free Wifi. You can also ask them to use Slack to communicate with people who aren’t right beside them. Oh, and model the kind of etiquette you wish they’d emulate.

[Also read: The latest wellness trend? The sweet sound of silence.]

The body language illiterate

Eyes trained on computer screen. Fingers flying across the keyboard. Noise-cancelling headphones on. Furious writing or paper shuffling. Lips puckered, chewed or in a thin line of concentration.

The basic postures of an unavailable body is unmistakable. To most of us.

The Body Language Illiterate either doesn’t see the signs or ignores them. They feel free to tap you on the shoulder or wave a hand in front of your face to get your attention. The more subtle offenders just hover uncomfortably close until you warily lift your eyes. No matter how they interrupt your concentration, they may (or may not) ask, “Do you have a minute?” before launching into a social- or work-related issue they’re dying to get your take on.

To avoid the ensuing blind rage, ask your coworker to send you Slack message when they need you and tell them you’ll respond when you’re free. And if you’re a manager whose staff are constantly stymied by intrusive colleagues, consider getting busy lights for everyone to signal when they’re unavailable.

The extreme fidgeter

It seems nitpicky to be annoyed by someone who’s innocently and unconsciously being distracting with small body movements. But foot tapping, knee jiggling, gum-snapping, finger drumming, head scratching, knuckle-cracking, and other fidgets wear on you.

This one’s tricky because most of us are unaware of the tiny tics and twitches that we invariably bring into an open office. Our significant others may not even notice them. But they can quickly become grating when you’re sitting next to them day-in, day-out.

To avoid the ensuing blind rage, ask your coworker to send you Slack message when they need you and tell them you’ll respond when you’re free.

Here’s an easy remedy: Ask your coworkers to give you a signal if you’re engaging in a distracting body movement. You can quickly try to curtail the habit and, even better, they’ll probably tell you to let them know when they’re fidgeting, too. It’s a win-win.

[Also read: With work-life fit, does one size fit all?]

The cold and flu season martyr

Every office has employees who make it their mission in life to never take a sick day. This pathological martyr drags their coughing, sneezing, sniffling, drippy-eyed self into the office and proceeds to do all of the above all over the place. Not only is their obvious suffering irritating to coworkers, but they permeate the very air—not to mention the communal space—with their germs.

“Nobody wants to be sitting next to Sneezy McSnotterson. Nobody thinks they're admirably hardworking. Everybody thinks they're gross and should have stayed home,” said one disgusted colleague.

This is especially grievous in an open office, where more space is shared. You can bring in an industrial-sized tissue box, pop on a protective mask and douse yourself in hand sanitizer every few minutes, but it’s probably more effective to be direct and sympathetic: “I’m sorry you’re so sick. I think you should go home, so you can get better and protect the rest of us from your virus.”

Do they make greeting cards for this?

[Also read: Where we work shapes how we work]

The pigpen and the personal groomer

These two delights may be great people, but they have slovenly habits. Let’s start with Pigpens. They leave rotting fruit and dirty dishes or take-out containers on their desk for days or even weeks at a time. The smell eventually dissipates, but every time you see a small movement out of the corner of your eye, you’re convinced they’ve attracted vermin.

On a slightly more hygienic but equally messy scale, Pigpens often have packages delivered to the office and then let the boxes pile up around their desk—and the desks around them. (I can’t help but feel like packagers enable these folks by delivering micro-items in boxes the size of a small children. Why???)

The Personal Groomer is less of a slob, but doesn’t seem to register that a workplace is not the same as their bathroom. They like to put on their makeup at their desk every morning. Or tweeze their eyebrows or blow their noses or clip their fingernails (this is real!) at their work station. All while sitting less than two feet away from you.

In the case of a Pigpen or a Personal Groomer, it’s best to be respectfully honest: “I find it really distracting when you [insert grossness here] at your desk. Can you [remove your garbage / take it to the bathroom]?”

At the end of my experiment, I can declare with authority that if you work in an open office you are a modern hero. Is there some kind of purple heart for productivity in the face of never-ending distraction? You earn it every single day. I bow down to your adaptability, resilience, and laser focus.

[Also read: Why you need to practice mindfulness]

Now if you wouldn’t mind keeping it down, I’m trying to work. Alone.

Heather Hudson is a freelance journalist and corporate storyteller based in Toronto. She thrives on tackling a huge range of topics, from insurance to cars to small business to home renovations. Just please don’t ask her to write about spiders. That would be gross.

In a time when we're all inundated with self-improvement advice on how to go from good to better, maybe what we need is some help being… less annoying. For more where this came from, read our tips for how not to be an asshole in the office kitchen, at a conference, while commuting on public transit, in a meeting, while taking a selfie, or when you've got a flexible schedule and your colleagues are trudging in for the 9-to-5.