01/04/2012 11:04 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Sticky Situations: My Noisy Colleague Interrupts my Work

Sticky situation:

Since last September, as a result of a decrease in sales caused by the ripple effects of the recession, our office has downsized and moved from spacious downtown offices to a cubicle environment in the outskirts of town. I miss my window, my privacy, and to boot my left cube dweller takes personal calls on her cell, uses her speaker phone for conversations, and talks to herself while working. I know I could put on my headphones, but there are times when I need to concentrate and would prefer a quieter neighbour. Overall she is pretty decent, but how can I gain peace and quiet from her side when I need it?


Over the last few decades, for many businesses, reducing costs has meant going from enclosed to open-plan offices. Office cubicles come with a variety of pet peeves and 21 per cent of employees list loud noises as part of that list.

With walls shorter than the average person, your neighbour's sounds find their way into your workspace and distract you. It is a fact that your cube dweller's ring tone, sweet nothings to her loved one, speaker phone negotiations, and even gum chewing can hinder your productivity. So what is one to do when confronted with this daily cube farm Sticky Situation?

If you are on good terms with your colleague, the solution is simple: Approach her one-on-one and mention that because of the minimal insulation between your two work stations, you are having difficulty concentrating and focusing on business. Notice that you are not pointing fingers at her or her behaviours, but that you are blaming the lack of soundproof barriers between your work worlds.

Chances are that she is unaware of the interruptions that she is creating in your work flow. Give examples of what you are hearing: ''I am pretty discreet but I can't help but overhear some of your personal calls. Perhaps you would like to make those away from your desk?" When addressing her self-talking, you should preface with caution: "I don't know if you realize it, but you talk to yourself. It can be distracting at times." Under normal circumstances, your candid yet considerate talk should solve the situation.

If you are not sure about personally approaching your left-side office mate, you could also speak with your superior or HR. Complaining about a colleague is not email material, so make sure to request a meeting. Prepare by documenting concrete examples and possible solutions.

Often times, if similar complaints have been received from other employees, the solution is getting together as a team to define guidelines for the three S's; Sights, smells, and sounds of a productive work environment . Another option is a Cubicle Courtesies workshop so a civil workplace may be enjoyed by all.

Last, at critical times, for all open-office workers in need of peace and quiet, I suggest signaling your needs with a sign like the ones that hang on hotel door knobs. This quick-fix is a simple reversible card or paper that displays something like Do not disturb on one side and Welcome on the opposite side. Your requests for quiet time can also be made on a dry/erase or chalk board.

This posting will also have the added benefit of reducing uninvited colleagues that have a tendency of popping in when you are in the zone. There are a variety of symbols, pictures, and words that you can use to politely announce your worker's needs. Once you have made up a sign, simply flip it as needed.

Because we are all creatures of habit, be prepared to give your colleague a gentle reminder by saying: "You know the conversation we had about the lack of sound insulation between us? Your voice is getting a little loud again."

Have a Sticky Situation yourself? Email and she will reply promptly.