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How to behave in a cubicle society

Recently, a reader wrote in asking for guidance on the rules of etiquette for life in cubicles. It can be easy to irritate others in those close spaces, and coworkers who disregard office protocol and commit cubicle faux pas can affect productivity and stress levels.

The cubicle evolved from the Action Office furniture system, invented by Robert Propst of Herman Miller in the 1960s, with the intention of giving employees flexible space and saving companies money. A 2010 study by the International Facility Management Association found that the typical cubicle size for office employees has shrunk by almost 20 percent over the past 17 years — from an average of 90 square feet in 1994 to about 75 square feet now.

Some say today's younger, tech-savvy employees aren't as concerned with having their own office and instead prefer an open environment of creativity and collaboration — as long as they have reliable wireless infrastructure and lighter laptops (or iPads). This may be true for some, but in other places, workers may need more privacy or quiet time for thinking and reflection.

I conducted an informal survey asking people what most annoys them regarding their workspace. What I found may sound familiar. With an eye toward your organization's corporate culture, here are some rules of thumb for coexisting in a cubicle culture.

Be respectful. Knock (on their cubicle wall) and ask first if your neighbor has time before you start talking. I know they may not "look busy," but sometimes they could just be thinking. Your interruption could set them back in their work.

Don't "take" or "borrow" things from a co-worker's desk just because the area is open (unless they have already told you it is okay). Staff who have desks in a common area often run into the problem of people taking their staplers, tape dispensers, scissors or rifling through their desks in search of paper and pens, etc.

Avoid trying to talk to someone who is on the phone or sending an e-mail. By waving your hands, using sign language, or talking louder, you are interrupting them.

If someone is out, don't hang out at their cubicle reading what's on their desk (e.g., memos, faxes, letters).

Don't yell across the room. Walk over to someone to have a conversation.

Don't peer over the top of your cubicle wall (called prairie-dogging) to see what the next person is doing. Respect their privacy.

Avoid the speakerphone and don't discuss personal or confidential issues at your desk, even on the phone. Remember, your conversations travel.

Make sure your cell phone is set on "silent," or at least set to a low volume ring tone that won't disturb others.

Watch out for strong smells. Don't leave "old food" in your space or bring in food with really strong odors. Avoid wearing strong perfume or cologne, which impacts the breathing of those near them, especially those with allergies.

Eat in the lunchroom. Eating at the desk is one area that seems to highly upset co-workers — all the sounds people make when chewing ice or gum or eating seeds, carrots, nuts and other loud and crunchy foods.

Don't use your cubicle as a dressing room or a place to put on makeup, floss your teeth, cut your nails, etc. The restroom can't be that far away.

Avoid loud music. Use headphones and make sure you are not singing or humming out loud.

Keep your cubicle clean, neat and organized — it sends a message about your professional brand. You can personalize it, but be careful not to decorate with so much stuff that no one can find any of your work.

Watch out for offensive pictures, posters, slogans, etc. Check out your company's code and use common sense so that your workspace is not a place that others might find offensive.

When in doubt, think about whether you would be comfortable having the president of the company see in your cubicle.

Your primary objective in the office is work. Sure, you should have fun while you are working, but your cubicle is part of the office, and others around you still need to get their work done. Respect for your co-workers and enhancing the harmony of the workplace will go a long way toward making sure you succeed in your career.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

How to behave in a cubicle society 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 4:31am]
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