The office workers’ guide to modern manners

Let me being by confessing that I don’t work in an office much any more. These days I’m free to make my own office rules. But I did a quick ask-around to find out what bothers people most about sharing their office space. Everybody I spoke to works in an open-plan office, and unpartitioned desks were the norm (it seems even the cubicle has gone the way of Betamax). ‘Hotdesking’ – where workstations are up for grabs each day ­– seemed to be on the rise.

The most common complaints were about behaviour that should be kept private.  It seems we haven’t yet negotiated the boundaries of privacy and sharing at work. So here, in no particular order, are some pet peeves, and what you can do to make sure you’re not treading on anybody’s toes.

Messy desks. Piles of paper that impinge on others’ desk space (and even floor space), dirty cups and personal stuff left lying around were a big area of complaint. Keep within your boundaries, and keep it neat. Don’t load up your pinboard with personal clutter either – especially if it may be offensive to some.

TIP: Tidy up at the end of the day. Your colleagues will really appreciate the gesture, as well as not being distracted or inconvenienced by your mess.

Loud, private phone conversations. Nobody wants to be distracted from their work by your instructions to the childminder or your catch-up about last night. If you must take private calls, everybody would prefer you to do it in a meeting room, the lobby or outside.

TIP: Set your phone to vibrate, because your amusing ringtone and constantly dinging alert sound annoys others more than you will ever realise.

Eating at your desk (and related transgressions). The number-one complaint was about strong smelling foods. One person’s vindaloo is another person’s durian, as it turns out. Constant snacking and rustling, talking about your vegan superfood snack balls and gum chewing were mentioned too.

TIP: It seems that quietly eating a banana is okay, but in general confine meals and snacks to break times, and have them in the kitchen or lunchroom. You might think eating at your desk makes you look productive, but your colleagues would rather you didn’t.

The kitchen. Which brings us to the most contested space in the building: the office kitchen. Not loading/unloading the dishwasher, leaving a mess, forgetting your lunch in the fridge for a month, leaving the milk out… the list goes on.

TIP: Just clean up after yourself when you make something to eat or drink. Every single time. Then nobody has to put up one of those ‘Your mother doesn’t work here’ notes.

Smoking protocols. When you go out for a smoke break, your colleagues think you are a lazy bludger who takes way too many breaks. They also hate the way you smell when you come back to your desk.

TIP: Everybody would like it if you joined a quitting program, but if you can’t do that, confine it to lunch breaks.

Not ‘knocking’/chipping in. Just because there is no door, it doesn’t mean you should just walk in. Looming up behind somebody and suddenly talking loudly, popping your head over the divider and chiming in to conversations between others is not appreciated.

TIP: Never interrupt somebody who is wearing headphones, unless their desk is on fire. Headphones are the new ‘Do not disturb’ sign.

In my informal survey, a huge issue that is not directly related to sharing space was meeting manners – specifically, should you use phones, tablets or laptops in meetings? Some saw it as ‘the new normal’; others found it distracting and disrespectful. Some workplaces ban it, while others ignore it.

What is the policy in your workplace? Would you allow team members to attend to things on their devices in a meeting you ran? Do you think it is essential in a fast-paced workplace, or just bad manners? Leave your comments (politely) in the comments section below.