In Langford’s experience, most complaints from people working in open offices are about either noise or smells.
“Either people are too loud, and you’re forced to listen to sometimes intimate conversations, or people wear too much cologne or aftershave, or in break rooms people fire up the microwave and cook something that may not smell exceedingly good to everybody else,” she reports (politely).
The responsibility for minimizing such annoyances rests with each team member, who should stop and think about his or her impact on colleagues. For example, if you’re planning to make a call and need to be at your desk, give your neighbors a heads up about it, so they can be prepared for potential interruption.
But managers also have a role to play, Langford believes, stating, “It shouldn’t always be up to the employee to have to do the policing.” There should be guidelines on certain activities that might disturb others. For example, people who sometimes need to talk loudly or privately should have a place to do so.
“If companies are going to have open space, the architecture ought to include some private rooms where people can take conference calls, and can have conversations that they don’t want everyone to hear,” Langford says.
When the issue is a bit more personal, involving distracting smells for example, should managers also intervene? Let’s say a few people have complained about the strong perfume of a particular team member.
“The way I would position that… is that, when you function in a group, you may not be able to do things individually quite the way that you would like to do them, and to the extent that you would like to do them,” she says.
“There’s always that tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the group, and, in my opinion, if you explain it effectively and come at it very compassionately… most people are going to respond [well]. And if that person does not respond effectively, if that person gets very adversarial about it, then that tells you something about that employee’s attitudes about other things as well.“
How to behave around co-workers is one aspect of business life where manners make a difference. Another is written communication, and particularly emails. In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Langford offers several tips on doing it right.