Norah was stunned. She found herself on the receiving end of candid feedback from Anusha, her best friend at work. And The conversation was still underway:
Anusha: So yeah, Norah. I’m sorry, but I just wanted to voice my thoughts to you. I couldn’t keep quiet any longer, and I couldn’t bear to hear others gossip about it.
Norah (unsure of what to say) – I…er…thanks, Anusha. I had no idea I…
Anusha: Don’t thank me yet. Just remember what I said. First, get rid of that political party flag on your soft board. No one like politics at work (laughs nervously). And, go easy on your perfume –please. And for heaven’s sake, step outside when you feel like you talk to your boyfriend over the phone. Your conversations can sometimes be quite…interesting, if distracting(teases with a smile). Lastly, try not to startle people when they’re working – you have a way of materializing behind someone like a ninja.
(Both of them laugh, Anusha nods and leaves – I hope we’re good. Norah nods too.
Later that day, Norah was thinking to herself – “Phew! Anusha – she’s a good friend. So, others gossip about me…interesting! But what’s wrong with letting people know I support a particular political party? That’s just me. And this is MY cubicle. What I put up in my space is none of anyone else’s business, is it? I don’t remember seeing any company policies on cubicle do’s and don’ts. My perfume? – it’s a premium brand – not the cheap kind that most people use around here. And okay, maybe I might have been a little vocal with the BF on occasion, but what was that about ‘startling’ people? Can’t I talk to people now and then? What the hell do people expect? What kind of backward morons am I working with?
If you can relate to what Norah is thinking, that’s understandable. It’s just her defensiveness kicking in, and that’s natural too. Nobody likes unnecessary banter concerning them to ruin their reputation.
Truth is, though, that while at work, it is important to follow basic cubicle etiquette in the interest of civic sense and your own reputation. Because even though it’s YOUR cubicle, and even though there may be no explicit company policies that cover cubicle mannerisms, if the content and conduct in your cubicle makes your workmates cringe or raise eyebrows, civic sense demands that YOU address it.
Fine. But how does one stay on everyone’s good side, at the workplace, of all places? Isn’t that a super broad and wide spectrum?
As it turns out, imbibing cubicle etiquette is actually simpler than it appears. It’s simply a matter of sense and sensibility.
Let’s start with sense, or rather senses, shall we?
Decorating your cubicle can make indeed brighten up your workday. Motivational quotes, a photo of your family and friends offer instant inspiration and perspective. It is best, however, to stay clear from adding an entire tapestry of your life, elements of religion, political slogans, distasteful photos, sharing of social beliefs and other such issues of sensitivity. You’ll just offend people or get them to look at you askance – neither of which bode well for you. Why unnecessarily make yourself a target for comments and put-downs? As a general rule of thumb, small pictures, plants, and colorful desk accessories are a tasteful way of representing yourself in the workplace.
Avoid popovers (which is startling a coworker by popping over the cube wall without warning). Walk over to them if you have to talk. Next, etiquette demands that you don’t look at others’ computer screens as you walk by their cubicles. Not unless you want ‘social engineer’ added to your list of accolades.
And finally, cleanliness speaks volumes about you. Keep your cubicle tidy and organised at all times.
Let’s move on to…
There is nothing more disturbing or distracting than the stench of body odour at work, whoever be the culprit. So, having a small and light scented perfume tucked away in your drawer is advisable, in case of emergencies. On the other hand, perfumes and colognes shouldn’t be an all-out assault on people’s olfactory senses. Save strong scents for parties. Use milder aromas at work and limit the application.
Lastly, especially if you’ve had an active day, keep your shoes on. No one begrudges you from getting comfortable at your cubicle, but no one likes having to endure that distinct odour of feet being aired while at work either. If you use air fresheners, follow the same rules as perfumes. Best not to be the cause of someone else’s respiratory distress, eh?
Now, let’s talk about what cubicle etiquette demands when it comes to…
We’re not, for one minute, going to ask to keep your voice down to a whisper. That’ll just make you look dodgy. That said, speaking too loud will make you look like an attention seeker. It’s thoroughly okay to speak in a low, library voice in a cubicle or open office environment. With long conversations, step out of your cubicle into the hallway or an empty conference room.
If you like to listen to music, keep the volume low or use headphones. Your neighbors may not work best with background music (or noise) and may not share your music preferences. If you like your music loud, you should know that sometimes, people can hear an annoying, continuous buzzing, even if you’re on earphones. Watch it.
Avoid speakerphones – they typically project sound beyond your cubicle and hold music is notoriously hideous for most people. If you must go hands-free, use a headset.
Pretend every cubicle has a door.
Everyone should be accorded the dignity of a door. Even if, as in the case of a cubicle, the door is a make-believe one. Avoid popping into others’ cubicles and plonking on an available chair.
When you approach someone’s cubicle, stand at the entrance, knock gently on the side wall, and say something like, “Excuse me. Just a moment, please. I need to talk to you about…”
Don’t linger around or circle someone’s cubicle if they are busy with another colleague or on a phone call. Come back later, if you will.
These are fantastic ways to show that you’re not someone who takes liberties with people, assuming that just because people are visible, they’re available too.
Just because you can see it doesn’t make it public property.
People in offices sometimes ‘borrow’ items from other’s cubicles. Sometimes the item is out in the open sitting right on top of the person’s desk. Like staplers. For some obscure reason, this ‘borrowing’ is not perceived by most as an invasion of privacy. After all, the cubicle dweller doesn’t actually own the stapler — the company does — so that’s fine, no?
The company loans stationery to its employees. That makes the employees the de facto custodians of the company’s stationery. The stationery is as much theirs, as is the family photo on their desk. So, ask first, and then wait for a reply before borrowing anything. Tell the lender of the item when to expect it back, and then get it back to them sooner than you said you would. And don’t forget your ‘please’s and thank you’s.
Stop all media and remove your headphones or earbuds when others approach.
When you wear headphones, you’re sending a strong non-verbal signal to leave you alone within your media. And no one likes to feel like they’re a disturbance. This can adversely affect teamworking and communication.
If you’re going to wear headphones, take them off as you see someone approaching, even if that person doesn’t ultimately stop at your cubicle.
Don’t expect others to keep track of their neighbours.
If you’re looking for Ram, but can’t find him at his cubicle, don’t expect Krishna to know where Ram is because he’s Ram’s neigbour. Also, Krishna may not want to have a chat with you while you wait for Ram. So, don’t bother Krishna any more than is strictly necessary. If you’ve been waiting for a while, leave a note for Ram and move on.
You really want to be that person that people love having next door, or cubicle, to them. Impeccable cubicle etiquette will go a long way in building your own professional brand. Get it wrong, and you become the office weirdo who gets spoken about in hushed whispers at water coolers.
The next time you patrol your cubicle aisles in the office, remember that good cubicle etiquette is all about exercising a little grace and a lot of good sense.
Good luck with it!