When Ben Brewster received the bizarre e-mail request during his first week at a new job, he had no choice but to comply.
One of his superiors at a Washington lobbying firm said he'd forgotten his gym bag in the office and asked Mr. Brewster, 27, to bring it up to the fitness complex, which was in the same building.
With the bag in tow, Mr. Brewster searched the workout area and the locker room. No dice.
"I call out his name. I hear a reply from the showers: 'You can just drop the bag,' " he recounts.
Then, to Mr. Brewster's horror, his colleague emerged from a stall, butt naked and dripping wet, to thank him.
It wouldn't be the last co-worker he'd see in the buff.
Many companies offer on-site fitness facilities and discounts to nearby gyms as a staff perk, but such conveniences can be both a blessing and a curse for employees. As if figuring out workplace etiquette weren't stressful enough, working out at the office gym can be like navigating a minefield. Grabbing 30 minutes of cardio during a lunch break could lead to uncomfortable work-related conversations with the boss on the next elliptical trainer, or seeing the head of accounting in her birthday suit.
Mr. Brewster now goes to the gym four times a week on his lunch hour and tries to be as speedy and discreet as possible, given the tight quarters in the locker room, when he showers and changes.
Others seem right at home in the space, he says.
Still seared in his memory is the image of one man using a blow dryer on his pubic hair. But even worse was what he saw when he made the mistake of going to the gym a little later than usual.
"I heard a buzzer and a guy was standing over the sink manscaping," he says. The perpetrator had one leg up on the sink.
There's plenty to see in the women's locker room, too.
Jennifer Watters, a 33-year-old marketing manager in Toronto, says she loves the convenience of being able to do cardio and strength training at her office's on-site gym, but the tradeoff is seeing co-workers from new angles.
"I have had someone bend over with their bum in my face before," she says. "I was just sitting on the bench, tying my shoe, and there it was, in my face."
Ms. Watters's strategy is the same as it would be when changing among strangers at an off-site gym, she says.
"I just continue to do my thing, and if somebody's naked I don't look at them. You look at them in the face, but you don't look at the body."
But when you go to a regular gym, naked strangers don't usually try to engage you in conversation, points out Rachael King, a 26-year-old administrative assistant in Washington.
"I see my office manager [at the gym]every time I go," Ms. King says. "I see her change, and she's my supervisor and that's really weird."
When Ms. King enters the locker room and spots someone she works with, she makes a beeline for the next row of lockers to avoid interaction.
But there's no nook or cranny where she can avoid what she calls the worst offenders: the ones who blow dry their hair in the buff.
"I've seen women from my department do this. Stark naked, standing in front of the mirror, which makes it worse," she says. "I know you, so I don't want to see that much of you wiggle."
Julie Jansen, author of You Want Me to Work with Who? Eleven Keys to a Stress-free, Satisfying and Successful Work Life, says there are four steps to follow in such situations to minimize discomfort: "Say very little, look down, be polite and leave."
But the rules change when a superior is involved, the Stamford, Conn.-based career consultant says.
"Your boss or senior person dictates the level of conversation and style, and you actually have to mirror that," she says. "Even if you're uncomfortable making chit-chat when he's standing in front of you in the nude, it'll be even weirder if you're flustered and running off."
Though Lauren Chender, a program manager at a development organization in Toronto, has never seen a colleague in the locker room, she says there are plenty of opportunities for uncomfortable run-ins in the gym itself.
She remembers one morning catching a glimpse of her boss, sweating away on a machine a few rows down from her elliptical trainer.
"Instead of going to talk to him, I ducked down and went the other way and totally avoided him," she says.
Her gym, which isn't connected to her office building, is where she goes for private time and to prepare for the day, she says.
"You're sweaty, you're working with your mind and body," she says. "It's not something I want to share with anyone - especially my colleagues."
She dreaded the prospect of discussing work issues with her supervisor - a fear Ms. Jansen understands.
"I don't think it's acceptable to talk about business unless the other person brings it up," Ms. Jansen says. "It's my downtime."
In Mr. Brewster's case, he's never the one to initiate conversation. And when a towel-less colleague does, those two-minute-long chats can seem like an eternity, he says.
"It's hard to either stop that conversation or to keep talking about politics and taxes when someone's standing over you naked."
If you use the same gym as your colleagues, there are a few ways to make your workouts more comfortable:
1. Change at opposite ends of the locker room
If you and a work buddy make gym trips together and you're uncomfortable seeing each other naked, work out a system of changing on opposite ends of the locker room. Holler, "All clear!" to let your cubicle-mate know you're decent.
2. Work out during off hours
Lunchtime is the most convenient time for a workout, and therefore the busiest. If you want more privacy, pop in before your workday begins.
3. Avoid jokes at your own expense
If you're the type who uses humour to get out of unpleasant situations, make sure it's not the self-effacing kind. Joshing about how you have to lose another 20 pounds will only make your colleague uncomfortable.
4. Don't hide
You might think Nancy-Ann from human resources can't see you cowering behind that StairMaster, but she can. Suck it up, say a quick hello and - if you want to avoid prolonged small talk - tell her you have to speed through your workout to make it back for a meeting.
5. Rinse off
It may be tempting to skip the post-workout shower if you're afraid of exposing yourself to colleagues (or being exposed to them), but you shouldn't. You don't want to be that guy who stinks. Everybody talks about that guy behind his back. It's a cruel world.Report Typo/Error
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