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[Quick and Dirty Tips] Office Sharing Etiquette

Office sharing is a great way for a company to save money, but it’s not always a recipe for success. Modern Manners Guy on what to do if you share a workspace with a slob.

By
Richie Frieman,
Modern Manners Guy

These days, many workplaces are embracing a more communal approach, with lots of open, shared workspaces. On paper, office or cubicle sharing seems like a fine idea. We’re all adults. It’s just work. How bad can it be?

Bad, actually. Very bad.

Take Aaron and Mike, for example. They are colleagues at a tech firm, spending their days hammering away at a computer. Aaron was assigned to share an office space with Mike. Their workdays are staggered so they are never using the cubicle at the same time. Sounds fine, right? Well not exactly. Shortly after the beginning of this arrangement, Mike learned that Aaron is the grossest employee on the planet. Mike just about has to wear a hazmat suit to work!

So how do you handle sharing a cubicle or office with Captain Disgusting? Well, check out my top 3 quick and dirty tips for surviving this situation:

Tip #1: The Clean Plate Club

As parents, we tell our kids to become members of the Clean Plate Club, leaving not even a single crumb to be wasted. I like to think that same mentality should apply for coworkers, especially when they share a workspace.

Let’s look at the Aaron and Mike scenario. Since they spend their days staring at computer screens and only leave their desks to use the restroom or grab a sandwich, they wind up eating their meals at their desks. Mike dutifully throws his leftovers and wrappers in the garbage after every meal, while Aaron tends to leave remnants of Taco Bell or Five Guys all over their shared space.

Now, the optimist in you may say, “Eh, what’s the big deal about a burger wrapper, Mike?” Well, Mike isn’t just cleaning a lone wrapper. He’s also having to contend with open containers of sauce and salsa, bits of meat, random chunks of wilted lettuce, and day-old lukewarm soda…or six. So every time he comes in to use the space, Mike gets a buffet of food, flies, and smells that would offend even the dirtiest of frat houses .

Let me get one thing straight here: There is no excuse for turning your workstation into a pig sty. It’s unsanitary to leave food remnants lying around and shows a complete lack of respect for your colleagues. I can understand leaving loose papers, pens strewn about, or even a cup of coffee on your desk – but food left overnight? Ugh!!! That’s just laziness.

The next time Mike comes to work to find a disgusting stinky mess on his desk, he should send Aaron a stern email. There’s no need to pick a fight, but don’t beat around the bush either. Write something like, “Aaron, when I came into work today the cubicle was covered in food and wrappers. I know we work like crazy and time is scarce, but I had a client coming in for a meeting first thing this morning and the state of the office was a big distraction. And since time is always tight, I can’t spend too much time cleaning up. Would you mind just dropping everything into the trash can before you leave for the day? I don’t want the client to rat us out.”

Here you are stating that the issue is more than just peer-to-peer and is in fact an embarrassment for the company. This way, Aaron understands it’s not just his place to do as he pleases.

Tip #2: Try a Little Humor

Granted Mike has a tough time holding back his gag reflex when he comes to work every week, but despite Aaron’s unmannerly ways, they’re friends. Being friends at work, can make it difficult to be straight-up with how annoyed you are with someone. Had Mike’s officemate been a stranger, he could simply leave a stern note or contact management about the unsanitary conditions. Both of which are proper approaches.

However, Mike wanted to spare his friend’s feelings. It’s a nice idea, but leaving day-old Taco Bell “meat” (I use the term loosely) does not require compassion. So if you want to confront your colleague about their bad habits, but don’t want to rock the friendship boat in the process, inject some humor into the conversation.

A picture says a thousand words, but with a dirty cubicle, many of those words aren’t pretty. I recommend you flip the script on the situation. Let’s say Mike finds a colony of ants snacking away at Aaron’s most recent lunch. Mike can snap a photo of their desk and text the picture to his friend along with, “Hey bud, it looks like we have some new cube mates sharing our desk! Next time, I’d advise throwing your trash away. #ourdesksmells!” Make a joke and show how nasty it really is. Do this as a daily routine to make sure he gets the picture.

Another humorous approach is to send a how-to video playfully mocking your officemate’s lack of hygiene. The video starts out with you showing the dirty desk, then holding a bottle of Lysol. Then you say, “What we have here is the remains of your lunch, still here days later, and this is a bottle of Lysol. In case you haven’t seen how this works before, we throw all the trash away, like this [swipe trash into bin] then we spray around the bacteria -infested area. Wait 10 seconds – all done and back to work. Click replay to watch again if you need a refresher course.”

Yes, teaching an adult how to clean up after themselves is rather elementary, but sometimes adults need things explained to them like they’re a child. Be relentless if they don’t get the point. Send more. Eventually they’ll get annoyed by you and hopefully change their ways. The fact that you’re friends can actually allow more leway for sarcasm and gentle mocking.

Tip#3: Dole Out Some Tough Love

Some people argue that tough love is not the most mannerly approach. To that, I say (politely), “Grow up!”

When it comes to little kids, you have to tread more sensitively than you would with adults. But with grown-up coworkers, you can be blunt when it comes to ensuring a proper level of hygiene in the office. After all, who is really being rude here: You for speaking up about a nauseating working environment or someone who creates an amusement park for vermin?

If you’ve tried being nice and you’ve tried making light of the situation – and nothing works – then you have to lay down the law. Friends or not, the proper thing to do is make sure the problem doesn’t spiral out of control. You don’t want your cubicle turning into an episode of The Walking Dead.

Confront the messy person. Show them the desk as evidence A through Z and ask them how any of this makes any sense? Is there any room for debate? If they claim, “Oh, it’s not that bad…” then be ready to fire back with your secret weapon – a third party. Bring another coworker to your desk and ask if they think this situation is OK.

The truth hurts, but the truth works.

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