I'm starting to get more questions in my inbox, and more of the question-writers are saying I can post the question and answer on my blog. Some question writers are even requesting I post the question and answer, no doubt because they realize that my readers are all super smart and will have great ideas. So I've decided to start an occasional "Ask Cloud" series. I considered calling it "Ask the Cloud" since the questions are as much for you as for me... but then I decided that sounded pretty egotistical, like I'm not just Cloud, but the Cloud.
The first in the series was actually my Having it All: The Logistics post, and my recent Advice for a Grad Student post fits the category, too, so I've gone back and tagged those two posts with the "ask cloud" label.
And here is the next installment, from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. I've made a few tweaks to the email to protect her anonymity, but I promise I have not changed the meaning.
I have a co-worker, who I share an office with, whose behavior I find
more and more grating. She's good at her job, it's more of some of her
personal behavior that really gets to me. She eats at her desk
(which I'm fine with), but she chews VERY loudly to the point where it's
a distraction and it's all I can hear. She also…um…burps and farts
throughout the day, which can get a bit disgusting. She also has a habit
of talking very loudly to herself a lot, so half the time I don't know
if she's trying to engage me in conversation. She also intrudes on my
conversations, adding peanut gallery-type comments, when I'm on the
phone or am meeting with someone in our office, and likes to make
comments and/or laughs about what's on my computer (especially if I'm
having lunch and am therefore just surfing the net or whatever).
I might rip my hair out if I
keep having to deal with of this. But, I have no idea what to do. She
does NOT take any sort of confrontation well. Once, she left our door
open over night, and I told her (not even…I just said I noticed our door
was left open, and did she remember closing it, and maybe it was the
cleaners or something), and she got instantly defensive and saying stuff
like "oh, who cares anyway?" (well, I care!). I've seen her in other
confrontations as well, and she takes it horribly. So, I don't think I
can talk to her directly…but it would be really weird going over her
head and talking to our supervisor about this.
I try to leave
the office when she's eating, but she eats at such random times, and
throughout the day, that I can't manage that. I also no longer have
meetings in our office, which can get annoying since I have to book
I don't know what else to do. Help!
Ah, the joys of the shared office/open plan office! Management talks about their supposed benefits for collaboration, but never about how these arrangements can make you despise your colleagues....
I'm going to answer this more from a "what I would do" standpoint than a "how to get management to solve this" standpoint, because I wouldn't take this problem to your management, at least not yet.
Realistically, there is very little a supervisor can do about these problems that you could not do yourself, so if you go directly to management, you would risk coming off as someone who wants to avoid tough conversations, which is not a good impression to make on your boss. If you have a specific solution in mind, and you don't have the authority to implement it, then it makes sense to go to your supervisor. Otherwise, I'd try to solve it on my own.
I would also think carefully about which problems I wanted to bring up, and what I could reasonably expect my colleague to change. Sometimes, there are crappy situations in a shared office arrangement that are just part of the overall crappiness of the shared office, and trying to change them will just bring about new and even crappier problems.
I certainly feel your pain. Before I was moved to my current
location at work, I had the misfortune of sitting in a cubicle near two guys who
were doing a cleansing diet. I learned far more than I wanted to know
about the state of their bowels, but they weren't really doing anything wrong, and if I'd tried to ask them to stop, it would probably have had a negative impact on my working relationship with them.
I think you are facing three distinct problems: the noise problem, the smell problem, and the interrupting of conversations problem.
I would use headphones to deal with the noise problem. You might be able to have a graceful conversation about your coworker about trying to curb her habit of talking to herself, but I cannot think of a graceful way to have a conversation about the noise she makes while eating. Ask yourself: what would you be asking her to do? Is this something she is likely to be able to control? I don't think she can control the noise she makes while eating- at least not without a huge effort. So I'd set up a Pandora account or bring in some music or just get
some noise cancelling headphones, and block out the noise from her eating
and also from the almost-conversations.
It is unfortunate that you have to block the noise instead of stopping it, but that does seem to be the expectation these days. For better or for worse, headphones are the standard answer to noise in modern workplaces. I've asked for a nice wireless pair for my birthday, in preparation for my upcoming move back into a cubicle. You can experiment with different types of music and find the type that is best for work. During the Great Cleansing Diet of 2011, I discovered that female singer/songwriters work well for me, and I currently have a nice Pandora station built around Sinead Lohan, Vienna Teng, and Tristan Prettyman that is my go to mix for at work.
The burping and farting is tougher. I don't think I'd want to confront someone on this, either- I mean, what would I be suggesting the person do? Bolt up and dash out to the bathroom whenever gas strikes? I think this is another conversation that has almost no hope of going well. If the smell was too bad to just ignore, I think I'd take a page from medieval times and douse a handkerchief in a smell I like or bring in a little ball of potpourri, and keep that on hand to discretely breath through when the smell in the office got to me. Perhaps this is one benefit of a cubicle farm over shared offices- smells dissipate pretty quickly.
The final issue, though, I think I'd try to discuss with her. I know you said she deals poorly with confrontation, but that's just tough, because she's a grown up at work not a two year old at day care, so she'll have to deal with a conversation. You can (and probably should) continue to book a room for meetings, as a good will gesture. I think a short, impromptu conversation in your office is OK, but for anything longer, and certainly for anything planned, I'd book a meeting room. I know it is a pain, but perhaps she finds your meetings as disruptive as you find her talking to her computer. And, more importantly, you can use this to tactfully bring up the topic of interruptions.
I'd say something like this: "I've noticed that it disrupts your work when I have meetings in the office, so I'll schedule meeting rooms whenever I can. However, I cannot avoid taking the occasional phone call in the office, and I have a hard time concentrating on the call when you interject into it. I know you can't help but hear what I'm saying, but could you please wait until the call is over to talk to me about it?"
Hopefully, that would open up a conversation about boundaries and you guys could then negotiate a work environment that works for both of you. If it doesn't work out, you could ask your manager about the possibility of moving, but that is only likely to be an option if there is an equivalent or less-desirable location to move to. As a manager, I would definitely try to find you a work location that works better for you- but I might not have much latitude to do so. There are often strict rules about who gets first choice on office assignments, and in my experience, making exceptions to those rules causes more problems than it solves.
That's all I have. I don't think there is any easy way to deal with any of these problems-
and problems like this are unfortunately a fact of life in workplaces
that are moving away from offices to cubicles or even completely open
Readers- anyone out there have other suggestions?