Can You Train Painless Sharing of Office Space?

At my last company, I sat over the cubicle wall from a nice, intelligent man I generally liked—except from one thing—he smacked his lips whenever he ate. It drove me crazy! What especially drove me crazy was there didn’t seem to be any nice way of asking him to eat with his mouth closed. That’s the kind of commentary I only heard when I was a little girl at the dinner table with my parents, so I couldn’t imagine saying that kind of thing to an adult co-worker.

Ford R. Myers, career coach, speaker, and author of “Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring,” notes the difficulty of working in tight quarters with people you might like well enough as neighbors or friends, but who become unbearable when operating nearly on top of you. “When you’re working eight hours a day in close quarters—or even in cubicles—some would say it’s only a matter of time before some of your colleagues will really start to get on your nerves. This problem is much more common than you might think,” Myers writes. “It’s hard to believe that some individuals can be so unaware of how their behaviors are affecting others in the workplace.”

What is the trainer’s solution to this challenge? At first it may seem merely funny, but if a co-worker’s nearly constant lip smacking is enough of a distraction that another co-worker isn’t able to focus fully on her assignments, it’s an issue. My own solution was, first, to bring earplugs to the office, and then, ear buds and an iPod. In my current job, the ear buds and iPod are still life (or at least work) savers. I don’t have any lip smackers around me, but something potentially even more distracting: I’m seated just over the cubicle wall from a mini call center. It isn’t the overwhelming number of calls coming in that’s a distraction (there aren’t that many, actually), but, rather, the staff members who chat loudly with each other nearly all day. I feel like I’m working next door to a women’s coffee klatch. I’ve thought of saying something, but consistently decide not to because, unlike a person on a train who’s bothering you, you have to keep running into the people in your office whose behavior you’ve tried to alter. Some of these co-workers probably will be gracious and comply, but others, even if they comply, may feel resentment toward you, creating an awkward situation.

During an onboarding program, is there any kind of schooling necessary in co-habitation? Is the answer to have elaborate employee guidelines restricting irritating behavior, and specifically pointing out loud eating of any kind (soup slurping would be bad, too) and loud chitchat? Or is the better answer to train employees to diplomatically confront fellow workers about behaviors that get on their nerves? What kinds of office co-habitation workshops or exercises do you think could work? Have you tried any at your company?

Here’s another office co-habitation issue that might require a trainer’s help: What do you do when two candidates at your company, who competed against each other for the same job, then have to run into each other—or even work together—on a regular basis after one is chosen over the other? I’m currently dealing with this one. In September, I narrowly lost out to a candidate, formerly with the company, who wanted—and got—her old job back. This was nearly a dream job for me, so bumping into her causes me discomfort and pain. I would think, as the victor, seeing me wouldn’t cause this woman any discomfort, but that’s not the case. Just today, she turned around and left the kitchen when she saw I was there, and she has trouble looking at me. Is there any kind of training or support that can prepare people for this kind of challenging situation? On my end, I always smile and say hello, and even tried one time making idle chitchat, but our interactions are still very uncomfortable.

I’ve heard that meditation works to block out irritating things (and people) in our environments, and that it does wonders for people on noisy airplanes or trains, but it’s hard to meditate while doing your work. Has anyone discovered a way for me to empty my brain and focus on peaceful feelings, all the while getting my assignments done?

What kinds of support or training can you offer employees so they share tight office space more effectively and painlessly?