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Office etiquette 101: How to keep the peace in close quarters

Personal offices and even cubicles are increasingly a thing of the past. With colleagues working closer together than ever, often at unassigned desks, there’s a new emphasis on etiquette.

In years past, Kristie Brown-Galer worked in a "palatial office" with a desk she could call her own.

Her space was adorned with photos of her family and stacks of files, and she always worked near the same people every day.

Moving to professional services firm Deloitte last year, she became part of what her employer is calling the Deloitte Journey. Its offices across Canada are replacing assigned desks with shared work spaces that employees have to clear out after they've finished their day's work. Because employees can sit anywhere they want, on many days she's parked next to people she's never met before.

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It has meant learning a whole new office etiquette, says Ms. Brown-Galer, a director based in Toronto who frequently travels to other Deloitte offices across the country. No more piles of files; they're stored digitally along with the family snapshots in her laptop.

Deloitte gave her and her office mates an orientation session and online training about topics ranging from the importance of introducing yourself to desk mates to how to swab desktops and phones with a sanitizing wipe when you leave.

Sharing space is an unfamiliar concept for both employees and their managers, but it's going to be common in the future, says Linda Allan, president and managing practitioner of Linda Allan Inc. She says she's increasingly getting called by employers for etiquette advice as more companies move to open-concept offices to save on real estate costs.

"There's an adjustment people have to make when the cast of people sitting around them changes from day to day and everyone can see what everyone else is doing." Persistent problems are noise, work habits and eating habits, the business behaviour expert says.

She recommends companies set up a written code of conduct and an orientation process when they move to open concept. Without it, an office's productivity and morale can be affected, she says. "There are many people who are too polite or too shy to confront someone they don't know well, so they grin and bear things that affect their ability to work effectively."

Or they take their concerns to their managers to mediate.

Among her code suggestions: Voice and laughter should be moderated to lower levels than normal speech. "This should come naturally, but some people forget they're near so many others in open office environments," Ms. Allan says.

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Snacking or eating is the source of many complaints, and the code should include a reminder about how crumpling foil bags, chewing loudly or bringing strong-smelling foods to a work station can affect others, she adds.

Providing phone headsets is a good idea because they require a lower speaking voice than a receiver on a phone or a microphone on a computer. On top of that, conversations are less likely to be overheard if people talk while facing down or toward their desks and computers rather than leaning back in their chairs, Ms. Allan says.

Employees should also address issues that are affecting them without having to escalate the situation into something where a manager has to intervene. Most people will understand, for instance, if you say, "I'd appreciate if you'd take your conversation elsewhere, because I'm having a hard time concentrating."

To make sure everyone understands the etiquette, Deloitte has developed a combination of orientation, coaching and updating as the open office concept has moved mainstream in the company, says Sheila Botting, partner and national leader for real estate at Deloitte.

In addition to booklets setting out the etiquette standards, orientation sessions and lunch and learn sessions are held. Online training modules cover such things as how to reserve a desk and log in when setting up, keeping desks clean, the importance of noise modulation and electronic file storage.

It can take a few months for employees to get used to requirements that they print documents only when necessary or that equipment be logged off and locked when not in use, Ms. Botting says.

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But making the adjustment can actually make life easier, Ms. Brown-Galer has found.

"In the past, because I had dedicated space I tended to keep a lot of documents that I didn't really need. I had an in-box and files and stacks of things I was meaning to file," she says.

Often that meant lugging loads of paper files from meeting to meeting. "Now, I can travel across Canada and carry everything stored in my computer. It's making me very organized."

She's also finding the experience of sitting down next to strangers a positive.

"I've met more people than I would have if I had a dedicated seat. When I sit next to them, I introduce myself and tell them what I do for the firm and it's led to some collaborations. So it's been a great networking experience."

Ms. Brown-Galer believes people are going to look at their office in a different way in the future.

"In the past people came in to get their work done, but in the future even if employees can work remotely, I see them coming in to the office for the collaboration and the experiences they can get."

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More


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