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Business Etiquette – Personal Space and Common Areas

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Business Etiquette – Personal Space and Common Areas," in The Business Professor, updated December 13, 2019, last accessed April 8, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/business-etiquette-personal-space-and-common-areas/.

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This article covers some important aspects of business etiquette that are routinely overlooked – the personal workspace, common areas, and water cooler.

Work Space

Your workspace is a representation of yourself. Below are some tips for using your workspace to enhance your professional brand – rather than detract from it.

  • Keep it Clean and Tidy – You may have read random articles on how being messy is associated with intelligence or creativity. But, for every article that makes this claim, there is an equal number of articles that explain why not keeping workspace tidy is a very negative thing.
  • Eating at Your Desk – Eating at your desk is a common practice. If, however, your food leave a lingering smell, then it is a bad idea. There is little that will cause a negative impression like a bad smell. So, if you are going to eat at your desk, make certain that you do everything possible to eliminate any lingering odor. This means disposing of your waste outside of your workspace, cleaning up thoroughly any food spills, and using an air freshener to mask any difficult odors.
  • Decorations – Having office decorations can be highly professional. It shows that you care about your work environment. Just like dressing nicely for work, adorning your office with appropriate decorations can have a positive impact. There is no single way to decorate your office. Simply ask yourself, what do you want your office to say about you. Whatever the answer, you can achieve this objective through your decorations. Aside from quality furniture and technology, the most common decor include: Diplomas, Awards, Certificates, Books (general educational or professional subject-matter), family pictures, limited paraphernalia from a personal hobby or interest (ex. Signed baseball from a major league game), etc. Some of the decorations that can harm more than help your professional brand include: juvenile, overly masculine, or inappropriate screensavers computer backgrounds, posters (particularly funny, sports, or music-related), games (think plastic basketball hoops), too much sports paraphernalia, etc.
  • Entering the Work Space of Others – A person’s workspace is somewhat like their homes. They feel a sense of security and privacy in their space (whether it is an open desk, cubicle, or office). As such, you should respect that space and not intrude announced or without permission. With that in mind, you should always knock on a door or cubicle wall before entering someone’s workspace. With cubicles, never just look over into another person’s workspace (commonly called, prairie dogging). If you visit someone’s workspace, do not take a seat unless invited. If a person is on the telephone, do not disturb them by entering their workspace.
  • Phone Calls – If you are in your workspace, make certain to show etiquette when making calls. That is, don’t be too loud. If you think the call will be disturbing to others, find an alternative space – such as a conference room or empty office. Also, keep personal calls to a minimum. These can be highly distracting to anyone who can overhear the call.

Office Equipment & Common Areas

Office etiquette includes how you treat office equipment and common areas. Below are some tips to avoid creating a negative perception in others.

  • Cleanliness – Clean any common area that you use, especially the kitchen.
  • Respect Other People’s Property – Don’t treat personal equipment like office equipment. Also, don’t take other people’s food or drink from the office kitchen. I know this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at what people do.
  • Printer – Replace the paper, ink carton, or toner in the printer when necessary. If the printer malfunctions, do not leave the equipment broken. Follow up with the appropriate folks to see about getting it fixed. Don’t leave things printing on the printer or fail to pick up printed material. It creates a garbage pile that others are reluctant to disturb.
  • Conference Rooms/Meeting Space – If you use a conference room, make certain that you restore it to its original condition (or better if it was not appropriate arranged or clean beforehand). This means rearranging chairs and equipment in the room after meetings, wipe the table, close down the A/V system, and reset accouterments.

The Water Cooler

The office water cooler is the symbol for inter-office banter and gossip (the modern-day “grapevine”. The old advice is to not spend time by the water cooler. It paints you as someone who is avoiding work just to be entertained by unprofessional matters. The modern-day advice is to not spend time (whether in person, over the telephone, through an electronic message, or on social media sites) at work concerned with office gossip or scuttlebutt. Your time at work should be related to your responsibilities to the company. Other matters should be taken up (if at all) outside of office hours. Even then, be careful engaging in this type of activity. People who are considered to by gossips or busybodies are almost uniformly negatively perceived in personal and professional circles.

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