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Life in the Cubicle: Etiquette in the Open Office

by Aviva Shiff

Building and maintaining strong business relationships is the key to success. While keys are designed to unlock doors, in the modern workplace, doors are about as scarce as good manners.

It is estimated that over 40 million North Americans work in open office environments. That is, of course, a nice way of saying cubicles.

And while cubicles may not have doors, they can act as barriers to strong working relationships.

Corporations have embraced cubicles because saving space saves money. And in these times of constant restructuring, it is also useful to have workspaces that are easy, fast and relatively inexpensive to reconfigure.

This also comes in handy when projects and teams are fluid. Another touted benefit of cubicles is the ease of collaboration between colleagues, but where there is ease of collaboration it is also easy to have confrontation and complaints.

This anger and grumbling is primarily a result of the more frequent interruptions and lack of privacy that go with the open territory. Interruptions are not only caused by a co-worker speaking directly to you, they can also be a result of visual or auditory distractions. Even a noxious smell, such as burnt popcorn wafting from your neighbors' cubicle can cause you to look up and even grab a handful.

Interruptions, aside from being an annoyance, also reduce productivity. A study conducted by Basex determined that office distractions take up 2.1 hours of the average day - 28% - with workers taking an average of five minutes to recover from each interruption and return to their original tasks

Where there is ease of collaboration, it is also easy to have confrontation and complaints

When workers are out in the open, their personal habits and relationships are on display as well. This lack of privacy can feel invasive and offensive.

It's true that the close quarters of office cubicles in companies are a breeding ground for hot tempers, resentments and damaged relations. It's also true that most of our complaints about our co-workers are valid and should not be ignored.

The challenge is to devise and employ strategies to create goodwill in the office so that minor annoyances do not explode into a toxic work environment that no one will benefit from.

While it may seem obvious that extending cubicle courtesies will go a long way to create goodwill in the office, little is written about etiquette. A quick Google search yielded 247,000 results for "cubicle anger" 180,000 results for "cubicle complaints" and a mere 894 results for "cubicle courtesies."

Let's face it, we cube dwellers are all in this together. Follow these fundamental cubicle courtesies and your work environment will be much more enjoyable and productive for everyone. Lead by example and thoughtfully and sensitively speak up when others are discourteous to you.

Spark the quiet riot

Mute your volume, and reduce your number of sound-activated keystrokes or messages ("You've got mail", etc) to avoid bothering those around you. Avoid using the speakerphone function of your telephone. Instead, use the handset or a headset.

Try not to pop your gum, slurp your coffee or make loud exclamations or noises that show displeasure over a task or interaction. If you have a condition that causes you to make noises that might be annoying to others (coughs, nose blowing, etc.) consider making frequent trips to the restroom to avoid distracting or grossing out your associates.

Do not shout over cubicles. Keep your voice down when speaking to others in the office or by telephone. People do work better when it's quiet.

Odor beaters

We become immune to our own smells. It's possible that your perfume is too strong or your body has built up a resistance to your favorite deodorant. Every once in a while, ask someone you trust for their feedback and offer to do the same for them. Nothing is worse than being secretly known as the "stink bomb."

Do not polish your nails or use nail polish remover at your desk. If you have food in your cubicle, keep it sealed and if there is a lunchroom available, use it rather than eating at your desk. The curry doesn't smell so good second time round and no one is impressed by someone working through their lunch and leaving grease marks on file folders and crumbs at their desk.

Eye candy

Free expression is a need best met at home. Consider the image you wish to project before decorating your office cubicle.

What does a stuffed animal collection or Star Trek memorabilia say about a person? Take down out of date greeting cards. Keep your medications and vitamins out of sight.

Do not display anything that may be perceived as offensive or degrading to any individual or group. This includes religious or political material. Don't take silly chances, it's not worth it.

Respect their space

A person's workstation becomes an extension of themselves and it's natural to feel territorial. Respect a person's space and do not lean on their dividers or sit on their desk when conversing or waiting for others. If you have to use someone's workstation, leave everything exactly as you found it and do not take anything with you.

Privacy "Shimavacy"

Avoid lengthy personal calls in your cubicle of any kind, including calls to or from your children, squabbles with your spouse, calls to your bank, etc. Most offices have dedicated meeting rooms for such purposes or you can take your cell phone to a more private place.

If you are collaborating or having a discussion with your colleagues, ensure that no one in the vicinity is being disturbed or hearing confidential matters. Be prepared to take your meeting elsewhere.

Even though you may innocently overhear things from your neighbors, assume that anything that is not said directly to you is none of your business. You may even mention to the loud talker that they may not want you to know them THAT well! Keep it light, but get the message across.


Open office environments and cubicles are here to stay. Ensure that your business relationships enjoy that same longevity by employing strategies of cubicle courtesies that will open the door to a more productive and enjoyable workplace.

2008 Spark Training & Coaching Associates Inc. All rights reserved.

Aviva Shiff is the co-founder of Spark Training and Coaching Associates Inc. (SparkTac). SparkTaC is a multidisciplinary firm that helps organizations and individuals discover and amplify their talent through revealing assessments, innovative training and inspirational coaching. For more information on their varied services and for useful resources visit the company website.



Some Related Articles:

What Does Your Office Say About You?
Managing Politics at Work: Office Communication Etiquette
Are You a Cell Phone Sinner?



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