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No, you can’t have a favourite spot—and other open-office rules

‘Actually, yes, the sound of your crunchy chips is driving me insane’


Sometime not so long ago, corporate culture moved from closed and crowded cubicles to wide-open collaborative spaces. “An organizational shift moved us away from ‘my office, my desk, my door, etc’ and towards collaboration—the idea being, the more we can collaborate, the more we’ll accomplish,” explains etiquette expert Lisa Orr.

It’s a great idea in theory, but as always, practice is a bit trickier. “Too often we just changed the space and assumed people would know what to do.” Surprise surprise, they absolutely do not, and often disagree about what’s just fine, totally gross, and uber rude. So were she all-powerful, what rules would a professional etiquette expert write for the rest of us? Here, Ten Commandments of open-concept space.

Thou Shall Disregard the Golden Rule

Yes, you read that right, forget that stuff. “Do not treat others as you’d like to be treated,” says Orr. “Treat people the way they want to be treated.” All etiquette is about how other people feel, not you, so read people’s social cues and let them set the standards.

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Thou Shall Assume Privacy (But Nothing Else)

It’s natural when you sit down beside a co-worker to smile and chat, but in open-concept work environments, you’ll make (and keep) more friends by toning it right down. “Start by assuming they want privacy,” advises Orr. Then, even and especially if a co-worker is staring blankly into the air, never assume they’re doing nothing (and available for your distractions).

Thou Shall Not Interrupt

On that note, do not interrupt—even that blank stare. “I do a lot of creative writing and if I’m sitting there apparently doing nothing, that often when I have my most productive thoughts.” Losing your train of thought (or worse, a great idea) can be infuriating.

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Moveth Your Feet, Loseth Your Seat

“Some people hoard their preferred spot—like the one closest to the window or bathroom,” says Orr. No, no, no. “You don’t get to have a favourite spot, and you don’t get to monopolize any space.”

Taketh Short Calls and Keep them Quiet

If your phone is ringing off the hook (also annoying), getting up and down a dozen times can be more annoying than just answering the damn thing. “People are accustomed to talking at normal volumes, so just watch your volume and keep it short.” Anything loud or passionate, however, requires a quick relocation.

Personal Groomers will be Tarred and Feathered

This should go without saying, but it’s so damn gross that Orr always says it anyways: “Everything that’s personal grooming belongs in the bathroom—or at home,” she says. Disgusting habits include nail clipping and filing, teeth flossing, even lipstick and makeup application. Don’t do it!

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Thou May Drink Only Water (and maybe coffee)

Of all angry open-concept co-worker complaints, food and drink dominates Orr’s inbox. Her take (as a self-confessed coffee addict): “I say coffee and water is safe, provided you’ve considered your container.” A top with a lid makes a big difference when someone else’s technology is at risk.

Consume Sustenance only upon Starvation

“Eating anything at all is one of the most high-risk behaviour at a hot desk,” says Orr. Especially tuna fish and egg salad, but even a bag of chips or a measly granola bar. There’s a reason your hippy open office also has a lounge or cafeteria, so be smart and eat there.

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Ask for Forgiveness rather than Permission

If it’s a case of granola bar or diabetic shock, by all means eat up. Here, you might think you’re being conscientious by asking first. You’re not. “Nobody’s going to say, ‘Actually, yes, the sound of your crunchy chips is driving me insane’. You’re backing them into a corner.” If you have to ask, you know it’s a No. Try “I hope you don’t mind, but I need to eat” instead.

Make Like a Campsite 

You know this old rule: Always leave the state of the campsite (in this case, a hot desk) just as good—or slightly better—than you found it. “Make sure you’ve left no coffee cups, crumbs or water marks,” says Orr. “Leave the space exactly the way you found it.”