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Sharing a cubicle? Follow these rules of etiquette

Last updated on: August 5, 2010 09:49 IST

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh

Let's face it, getting along with colleagues can be quite a tough task particularly if you are sharing a cubicle. Limited to a confined space with someone you don't always get a long with can often leave you feeling trapped and if you happen to be stuck with the colleague from hell, can push you close to the brink.

So how do you make sure both you and your cubicle-mate peacefully co-exist without the constant rolling of the eyes, gritting of the teeth and general unhappiness that comes whenever they return to their workstation?

Here are some rules of cubicle etiquette...

'Leave me alone!'

"When I first started out in PR, I had to share a cubicle with this gregarious chap who was just larger than life. Everybody in the office loved him and it being my first job, I was only too glad to have a friendly face around. Little did I realise that this would spell disaster," shares Minal Shah, who works at a PR agency in Mumbai.

"All day long he would regale me with crazy stories of clients he'd worked for and when he was not talking to me, he'd be on the phone loudly chatting up a prospective client. During a break, colleagues would happily come over for a chat and even then I would have no peace. It was torture!" she says.

Rule #1: Respect your colleague's privacy and space

This may seem simple enough but there are a million and one small things that can annoy a co-worker and effectively destroy your working relationship. Things like...

  • Not asking to use their PC before promptly plonking yourself in their seat
  • Reading IM messages, e-mail over their shoulder
  • Blurting out questions or starting a conversation without checking if they are busy
  • Calling impromptu meetings in your cubicle without clearing it first
  • Eavesdropping on their conversations and worse, asking for the details

...are some examples of how you can bring out a murderous streak in your usually easy-going co-worker.

'What's that smell?'

An over-friendly sort might seem like a better alternative to say a co-worker who comes in to work and promptly sheds his shoes, merrily fumigating the cubicle you share with that all-too-familiar, not-so-pleasant musty sock odour.

And while it is always a pleasure to be in the company of someone who smells good, splashing enough Old Spice on to let the whole office know you have arrived, will have your colleague wishing they had the sense to bring an oxygen cylinder on their way in to work.

"At my previous office, I had to share a cubicle with another marketing executive," says Priyesh Shah. "Eager to make a good impression on prospective clients, we would make sure we looked and smelled good. My cubicle buddy however was extra generous when it came to splashing on aftershave. The office (it was quite a small one) would reek of the scent, so you can imagine what it was like to have to sit next to him for hours in an air-conditioned office!"

Whether good or bad, too much of anything can get annoying. And when it comes to olfactory stimulation (we mean aromas and odours), it's best to play it safe.

Rule #2: Keep possibly offensive odours at bay
You must avoid:

  • Using too much cologne, perfume, aftershave.
  • Eating food at your desk (particularly oily, hot food).
  • Taking off your shoes (or rinse your feet if you must).
  • Going straight to your cubicle if you're coming in from the heat. Freshen up first.

'What's that sticky stuff in the corner?'

Keeping your workspace clean is very important, particularly if you share a cubicle," says HR trainer Saumil More.

"Co-workers should keep their desks, keyboards clean. Printouts should not just be flapping around and piles of newspapers and magazines should not be stacked to the ceiling. Not only is it an eyesore, all the dust that accumulates is unhygienic as well," he says.

Preeti Kaul agrees. "One of my former colleagues loved his coffee. He'd have about 5-6 cups a day. He would religiously go to the coffee machine and get himself a cup. But once they were brought to our cubicle they would never leave! There would just be these paper cups lying all over his desk and dangerously close to mine too. There would be remnants that would turn awful colours after a day or two of just sitting there. And the worst thing is, the trash bin was right under his desk."

Rule #3: Keep clean
Keeping your workstation clean and tidy is good for not just your cubicle-mate but you as well. Apart from the obvious hygiene factors, there are other benefits too.

Sharing a space can often lead to important papers getting mixed, getting misplaced or just getting thrown out if you are not careful. Missing belongings, lost files, important documents are quite avoidable if you take the time to ensure that your things are in order.

Some pointers:

  • At the end of the day, settle your desk and make sure everything is in its place.
  • Do not leave important documents, valuables lying around. No one likes to be questioned about or blamed for something that goes missing.
  • Get rid off wrappers, paper cups, scrap paper and other unnecessary items. Do this for yourself, NOT for your co-worker; do not risk throwing away something that they might need later.
  • Do not reorganise your desk during work hours. And if you must, wait till it's almost leaving time.
  • Do not take the liberty of placing your papers, files on your co-workers desk. If you have to, ask their permission.
  • Limited space means limited storage space too. Split the drawers and desk space so that you know where your things can go and don't infringe on your colleague's space.


The mobile phone is a wonderful invention, but one that constantly beeps, chimes or breaks into the latest Bollywood song can tempt your cubicle-mate to reach for the nearest hammer.

"Having loud conversations on the phone can get real irritating if it happens all the time," says Mohit Verma, a software professional in Mumbai. "My colleague would carry on these long, crazy fights with her boyfriend and I had to sit through it. She would yell and cry and whine for 20-30 minutes at a time or if they were in a good place, laugh and chatter on. And I could not find a polite way to tell her to, basically, shut-up!"

And how did he get out of a bad situation? "I just asked the boss to shift me to another cubicle. I could hear her from my new workstation too, but it was easier to ignore."

Rule #4: Do not be disruptive

  • Do not talk loudly on the phone, monopolise the phone.
  • Step outside the office for personal calls or calls that will require you to raise your voice.
  • If you happen to get a lot of calls or SMSes, put your phone on silent or pager or maker your ringer tone as subtle as possible.
  • Do not play music without checking with your co-worker first. Opt for headphones whenever you can.
  • Put your PC speaker on mute or turn off your IM mesage alert.
  • Do not constantly tap your shoes, pen, pencil and do not chew bubblegum and pop the bubble loudly.

Have you shared a cubicle with an annoying colleague? Have you suffered headaches and unnecessary stress because of their infuriating habits? Share your story with us! Simply write in to us at with the subject 'The colleague from hell' and we'll publish the funniest stories right here on!