Working in an office with other people can be pretty rough – especially if you’re prone to pet peeves.
The rise of open offices hasn’t helped matters, notes internationalbusiness speakerand author of “The Humor Advantage” Michael Kerr. Instead of hiding in the relative safety of your cubicle every day, you’re now more likely to sit out in the open, forced to contend with your colleagues’ annoying quirks.
On the other hand, you’ve also got to deal with your more persnickety coworkers constantly bugging you about your own innocuous habits.
“Working with other live human beings in an open office setting can be challenging – especially when those other human beings behave in ways that drive you batty,” Kerr tells Business Insider. “With commonplace office etiquette situations there are several things you can do to be proactive so you don’t end up in a situation where you need to have an awkward conversation with a colleague.”
In order to avoid confrontation, Kerr recommends getting proactive. Share lists of common office pet peeves (like this one!), go over behaviors to avoid at meetings, and post a few humorous, good-natured signs around your workplace.
Ryan Kahn, a career coach, founder of The Hired Group, star of MTV’s “Hired” and author of “How To Get Hired,” agrees that it’s good to come across as non-judgmental if you’re forced to speak with someone about their annoying office habits.
“It’s important not to draw attention to this issue in-front of others as you wouldn’t want to embarrass them ormake it into a bigger issue than it already is,” Kahn tells Business Insider. “Pull them aside and tactfully let them know of the issue and present ideas to help resolve the issue moving forward.”
And of course, it’s important to strategize about how to proceed when you plan to talk to someone about their workplace behavior. Business Insider spoke with several career experts to get their take on how to grapple with seven particularly awkward work situations
Your coworker eats too loudly at their desk
- Adam Dachis/Flickr
As Business Insider’s Ashley Lutz noted when she covered the topic of noisy coworkers, dealing with loud eating in the office can be pretty awkward.
Some people cannot stand the sound of others munching. At the same time, no one wants to sound like a jerk by telling their colleague to quiet down.
Kerr says that it’s important to be sensitive to the fact that eating loudly is perfectly acceptable in some cultures.
“If it’s a persistent issue with someone you feel comfortable having the conversation with then deal with it head on before it escalates into an outburst,” Kerr says. “Use ‘I statement’ phrasing to reduce the risk of it feeling like a personal attack: ‘I hate to bring this up, but I’m very sensitive when it comes to people eating loudly, and although I try my best to ignore it, I’m always aware when you are eating and I find it distracting – is there any way you could help?'”
Aaron Michel, CEO of career exploration and education tool PathSource, says if you find it hard to focus when this coworker is snacking – but aren’t comfortable enough to confront them – try using headphones. “Pop those in and listen to music or some white noise while they eat and you won’t get distracted.”
If you’re lucky, your coworker will connect the dots and figure out the problem on their own.
Your desk/cubicle neighbor is messy
- Flickr/Alan Cleaver
Jamie Hodari, the CEO of luxury coworking space company Industrious, notes that it’s unreasonable to gripe about your coworkers’ space.
“Your office or desk is your private space and I’m a firm believer that messy people should have the right to a messy desk,” Hodari says. “In fact, there’s some evidence that a cluttered desk is often an essential part of keeping a messy person productive. So if your office doesn’t have cubicles, set up an obstruction so that you don’t have to look at their messy desk when you’re sitting at your computer. If you try to force them to be neater, be prepared for an eight month struggle that ends in the same arrangement of used coffee cups and useless papers everywhere.”
Kerr says that if your workplace is truly gross, you can make clean up fun by asking your manager to set up brief cleaning times and offering a prize for whoever unearths the most bizarre, long lost “artifact.”
Your coworker brushes their hair at their desk
Are your colleague’s hair-raising escapades causing you grief?
Kerr notes that while public hair brushing definitely bothers people, it’s not as sensitive as loud eating or bad breath.
“You might try some humor with this one, since it’s not as sensitive a topic as others, for example, you could compliment on how fabulous their hair always looks and now you understand why!” Kerr says.
Michel suggests a taking direct approach instead of splitting hairs.
“The discussion is also a good time to ask them if there’s anything you do they find annoying,” Michel says. “That way, you can both address your quirks to create a better work environment.”
Your coworker smells bad
It’s hard to address this difficult topic and come out smelling like a rose.
Kerr admits that he once drew straws with a coworker to determine who would have to be the person to tell a third coworker that their excessive body odor was unbearable.
“Take them somewhere private, and put the discussion into context by reminding them that when a group of people work together day in and day out in a closed office odors can become a sensitive topic for many people, whether it’s the excessive use of perfume or overly smelly foods,” Kerr says. “Then, segue into what you want to discuss with them specifically and stress how difficult it is for you to broach this subject, and that you hope they won’t take it personally or that it won’t affect your relationship.”
TINYinstitute employee engagement researcher and managing editor Dora Wang notes that approaching your manager might be the best solution. You’re not trying to get anyone in trouble, but calling in the superiors might minimize discomfort.
“A manager can have a private conversation that’s directed at coaching the employee to be more successful without personal judgment,” Wang says. “It’s still something to be approached carefully, and managers should be careful to put their advice in the context of general office policy and not individual preferences, but it’s better and more comfortable for everyone involved.”
Your coworker is constantly fidgeting
- Mark Spearman/Flickr
If your coworker’s inability to sit still is bothering you, you probably just need to take a chill pill. Wang says that it’s important to remember that people usually can’t help the fact that they fidget.
“Have a polite, direct conversation,” Wang says. “‘Hey, were you aware that you drum your fingers a lot when you’re focusing?’ Then be clear about what you need – namely, quiet – instead of making any judgmental comments about them being annoying.”
Michel recommends that people who are irritated by fidgeting move themselves to avoid being distracted.
Kerr agrees and notes that sometimes, fidgeting might occur due to a neurological condition.
“If it’s simply a habit, bringing it to their attention might be all it takes to reduce the incidence of it,” Kerr says. “You might even be able to devise a signal to bring it to their attention when it arises: a funny hand gesture or tossing a Nerf ball their way might be a simple way to remind them in the future.”
Your coworker does not have an inside voice
- Dan Zen/flickr
Some people take the idea of thinking out loud way too far. Still, before you ask your neighbors to turn down the volume, Wang says to make sure you’re not about to stifle your office’s good vibes.
“Banning chatter and creating an atmosphere of sepulchral silence can kill the energy in an office,” Wang says. “It’s up to leadership to establish good habits for the office community and remind people to be respectful and mindful of the people around them.”
Meanwhile, Hodari admits that he is that loud coworker that can be heard across the workplace.
“I have some bad news: resistance is futile,” Hodari says. “If a coworker is being loud you can politely ask them to quiet down, which is a legitimate, fair request, and unless the person is a sociopath, it will work. At least for 15 minutes. But then, in much the same way as water seeks its own level, their voice will creep back to its obnoxious, disruptive level. All I can recommend is earphones. Most offices have an unspoken rule: headphones in equal do not disturb. I also recommend that you ask them out for a drink, since loud people, while annoying to work next to, often make the best friends.”
Your coworker never shuts up/won’t stop talking to you, even when you’re busy
- Alex Holyoake/Flickr
Do you feel plagued by the office chatter bug? Michel says that this issue may arise when colleagues have different working styles.
“If you need quiet or are easily distracted by people talking, it’s up to you to take control of your situation so you can focus,” Michel says. “Listening to music or wearing noise cancelling headphones gives you the peace you need.”
Wang says that at TINYPulse, they use pirate flags to signal when they need to hunker down and focus.
“It’s a quick, nonverbal way to communicate your needs that we all understand, so no one has to get interrupted just to explain that they can’t be interrupted,” Wang says. “What’s even better is that it keeps the message from feeling too personal. No one is saying, ‘I don’t want to talk to you’; we’re saying, ‘I need to block out distractions from my work.'”