By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
Mr. Rogers sang “Won’t you be my neighbor?” with optimism and delight. But his tune wouldn’t have been half as gleeful, and he might have even conducted personal interviews and mandatory background checks before allowing others to take up residence next to him, if he had envisioned they would be his neighbors within the confines of cubicles and open environment offices.
The design of these work areas strips away privacy and holds us captive next to coworkers who too often unknowingly drive us to distraction or worse by borrowing things off our desk, crunching away at snacks, constantly checking their chirping, buzzing, and ring-tone-rousing smartphones, and doing other things that can hinder our productivity or up our stress levels.
We can’t change the habits of everyone we work with, but we can set the standard for being the best neighbor in our cubicle-hood and hope that our example eventually will spread through the office as we live out these seven savvy, smart, and sensitive dos and don’ts.
The 7 Manners of Being a Good Cubicle Neighbor
1. Stop the music and remove your headphones or earbuds as others approach.
If earphones or earbuds are allowed at work, it’s OK to wear them occasionally. (I advise my coaching clients not to.)
When you wear headphones you’re sending a strong non-verbal signal to leave you alone within the confines of the world that’s being broadcast between your ears.
Others will be less likely to disturb you, which is great if you need to get something done in a hurry or need to concentrate with every ounce of your being.
But being closed off like that puts you at or near the bottom of the list when anyone is thinking of someone to be part of a team, get input for new ideas, or move up the ranks for their ability to communicate well.
If you’re going to wear them, take them off as you see someone approaching, even if that person isn’t going to be stopping at your desk. You can simply smile and say, “Good afternoon, Heather.” This way people see that you’re always open to others even when you look like you’ve shut yourself off from the outside world.
By the way, turn off the device/smartphone and remove both earbuds or place the earphones on your desk whenever you talk to someone. Leaving the music, audio book, podcast or whatever you’re listening to on, or taking out only one earbud, shouts, “You have half my attention. Hurry so I can get back to doing what I really want to be doing: listening to this instead of you.”
I understand you might not feel this way at all. You’re just being practical because it’s a pain to turn the device off and then bring the app back up again after the conversation is over.
I like being practical, but in this case…
People can’t read your heart or your mind. Even if they know you, they’re subconsciously summing you up by what they see in front of them. What they observe is you being only half interested in what they have to say and in a hurry to get back to what you were doing before they “disturbed” you.
And no one likes to feel like they’re little more than a disturbance. No one.
2. Keep in mind that your food and gum can make others glum.
You’re busy and conscientious, so you eat lunch at your desk so that you can devote every minute at work to work. Seems like that would be a good thing. In actuality, it’s not moving you forward like you might think.
The problem is that eating involves: crackling-sounding wrappers, food aromas, smacking, chewing, crunching, gulping and lots of other sounds.
While you’re eating, the people next to you might be in the middle of something needing their full attention. Now, all they can think about is their own hunger, or how they can’t wait until you’re done eating so they can get back to concentrating.
They could use earphones, but see number 1 above; and besides, do you really want your eating to make others have to shut themselves off from you?
Eating at your desk doesn’t make you appear hyper-dedicated. It looks like it’s hard for you to finish your work in the course of an average day.
So take advantage of a break. You’ll actually work smarter after it.
If the weather is nice, go outside and take in a little vitamin D via sunshine. Or go sit in your car and enjoy a little solitude, your favorite music, maybe call a friend, or send a few “thinking of you” texts.
Another option, in fact the best one, is to find others who are eating and join them. It’s a great way to fortify office relationships.
3. Just because you can see it doesn’t make it community property.
Perfectly law-abiding coworkers who would never think of breaking and entering walk into momentarily vacant cubicles snatching everything from Tic Tacs to staplers. Sometimes, the item is out in the open sitting right on top of the person’s desk, and sometimes, a little digging is necessary.
People do it without thinking of it as an invasion of privacy. After all, the cubicle dweller doesn’t actually own the stapler — the company does — so that makes it community property, right?
It’s on loan to that person. If Brad has a stapler, then until he releases it, it’s as much his as the snow globe he brought back from his ski trip to Colorado, or the dancing hula bobblehead doll from his honeymoon in Hawaii that adorns his desk.
Ask first, and then wait for his reply before borrowing anything. Let him know when he can expect it back, and then get it back to him sooner than you said you would.
“Brad, I’m out of staples and can’t bear the thought of going all the way up to the twelfth floor for supplies right now. I need to finish putting these reports together quickly. May I borrow your stapler for twenty minutes?”
Fifteen minutes later, bring it back and say, “Brad, here’s your stapler back as promised. Thanks for helping me out. I’m going to the supply locker later this afternoon. Is there anything I can bring you?”
Not only did you thank him, you offered to repay his kindness by picking up supplies. Brad is probably going to be happy to loan you whatever you may need in the future because he’s confident in your trustworthiness and because you made him feel appreciated when you said thank you.
It’s a lovely by-product of authentic good manners that it’s really hard not to like someone who uses them!
4. Pretend every cubicle has a door.
It’s not only the people in the corner offices who should have the dignity of a door. Everyone should. Even if the door is an imaginary one.
When you approach someone’s cubicle, stand at the entrance and “knock” gently on the side wall, even if your knock is you saying, “Excuse the interruption, Chris. Do you have a moment for me to ask you about…?”
Doing this makes it clear that you’re not the type of person who assumes that, just because people are visible, they are available.
5. Be smart about your smart phone.
Our phones can be hard to ignore. They connect us to our friends and family and offer us distractions from the humdrum of work in the palms of our hands.
However, the sound coming from you playing Angry Birds(R) or CandyCrush(R) at your desk during break isn’t going to endear you to anyone, and it’s a serious image deflator. If something on your phone helps you unwind, great! Just go someplace private to disengage.
Also, keep the phone on “off” or “silent vibrate” and let your personal phone calls go to voice mail. When you get a chance, listen to your messages, then return your calls in private.
Our brains haven’t developed to the point that, when we overhear a one-sided phone conversation, we can tune it out the way we can tune out a two-way conversation. The brain, not knowing how to process the sounds, places them in the same location as it does stress.
In other words, listening to one-sided phone calls raises stress levels. There’s already enough stress in the world. You don’t want to be the source of any for your co-workers.
6. A library isn’t the only place for a library voice.
While we all know it’s rude to whisper (it makes everyone within earshot or eyeshot quite certain that we’re talking about them), it’s OK to speak in a low, library voice in a cubicle or open office environment.
The guy from accounting doesn’t need to know about the brand development department’s social media rollout set for next month in order to do his job any better. Why disturb him or anyone else not involved with the rollout with the details?
Everyone usually needs to pay full attention to the task in front of them to perform at their best level.
7. No prairie dogging!
What’s prairie dogging?
It’s when people stand up and toss something to others a few desks or cubes over, or begin talking to them from where they are. The actions resemble prairie dogs poking their heads out of their holes to survey the environment.
Prairie dogs are cute in the wild!
In the office, they’re what Yosemite Sam would call annoying varmints!
When you want to talk to people or hand them something, instead of getting the attention of the whole office, simply stand up, walk to where they are, and talk from a distance of the North American norm of about 36 inches.
Mr. Rogers would be proud!
Follow the seven manners of being a good cubicle neighbor and you’ll be welcome in any office.
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