Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Question of Cubicle Manners: Crossing the Divider Between Cubicles

Last week a young person asked me a question: When you work in a cubicle that only has a waist-high divider, when is it appropriate to respond to something you’ve overheard?

It’s a very interesting question and the answer probably has several components.

When I started out as a journalist at college in the late 60s and then on a weekly Philadelphia newspaper in the early 70s, all our desks were crammed together. I would never have thought twice about saying something in response to what I heard the reporter at the next desk say to someone else.

Nowadays there are these dividers between desks. Does it matter if the divider is waist-high or taller? Does it matter what kind of business is being conducted? Does it matter whether the other person is having a personal conversation as opposed to a business conversation?

Or does it all come down to something much more basic – considerate manners in the workplace?

Scenario 1:

If you overhear your next-door-desk neighbor trying to find something and you know the answer, wouldn’t it be appropriate to offer the answer in a polite manner? (In other words, not shouted for everyone to hear.) It would probably be best to get up and poke your head around the entrance to the neighbor’s desk as opposed to standing up and speaking over a waist-high divider. When someone speaks from above your head when you’re seated, that can feel somewhat intimidating. If someone pokes his/her head in from the entrance to your cubicle, that’s a different feeling.

Scenario 2:

If there’s someone else in the next-door-desk cubicle and the two people are discussing their weekend plans, it’s probably not a good idea to join in about your plans. If for some reason you’d like to be included, it would be more polite to send an IM or email asking whether it would be possible to be included. Rather than putting the person on the spot by popping up or around the divider, you’ve given the other person time to consider before replying.

In fact, perhaps even in the first scenario above it would be better to IM or email the person. Yes, you’re sitting next to that person. Still, there are boundaries that should not be arbitrarily crossed.

As in many things in the workplace, it comes down to thinking about the most considerate way to do something. Just like you should give negative feedback in a positive way (no, this is not contradictory), you should join in your desk-neighbor’s business and personal life in the most civilized way possible.

Next time you’re tempted to jump up and scream “I loved that movie also!” – remember that those cubicle dividers are there for a purpose: to set up boundaries between individuals. Cross these dividers at your own risk. If you’re not careful to be considerate, the reputation you get as a meddler will be of your own doing.

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