The workplace chatterbox. The lunch thief. All those pointless meetings. We’ve all dealt with annoying workplaces and coworkers at some point. Here’s how to actually confront those problems and make your workplace better for everyone.
Title image remixed from Leremy (Shutterstock).
Earlier this week we asked you for your biggest workplace annoyances, and you shared an abundance of horror stories. We’ve tallied a few of the most common themes and suggested ways you might deal with them. Let’s take care of those annoying coworkers.
Problem: The Lunch Thief
Office kitchens are great when you don’t want to spend money going out to eat every day, but it seems like every office has a thief who pops in and steals someone’s lunch. It sucks when it happens to you.
Solution: Camouflage & Concealment
One of the best ways to counter an office lunch thief is to make their job harder. Cooking blog The Kitchn shares their strategy that’s likely to be more effective than a note left on your lunch:
Swiping an already-made sandwich is one thing, but stealing all the fixings is another. Try keeping the components and ingredients for your lunch separate and then assembling on the spot.
If you’re still having problems, you might also consider an anti-theft lunch bag that makes your sandwich look mouldy at a glance. If passive-aggressive is more your approach , food blog, Chow suggests leaving a tear-jerking note.
Problem: The Hoverer
If you’ve ever had to deal with a desk-hoverer you know the true pain of this complaint. It’s the person who stops by to ask a question, and then sticks around for no reason. That’s bad enough as it is, but the heavyweight version is even worse: they also look over your shoulder as you work.
Solution: Hint Hint
If for some reason you can’t tell a coworker directly that you you need to get back to work, then offer a few subtle cues that the conversation is over. We’ve outlined a a few of these before, including: ask your chatty coworker to pick up some of your slack, talk about topics they don’t know, or being as uninteresting as possible.
If your coworker is just standing around staring at you while you work, NPR offers up one more subtle sign that the conversation is over in the form of humming a song:
You can hum the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police whenever your boss stands too close to you. This is obviously more likely to be effective with a boss who knows the song, gets the reference and takes the hint. However, even a boss who doesn’t know the song could potentially be conditioned to keep a bit more distance if you’re humming is a direct function of his or her proximity.
If none of the above work, change your body posture significantly, make your cubicle uninviting by covering any extra chairs, and when all else fails, politely tell them you have work to do. Photo by John.
Problem: Endless Meetings
Nobody really likes meetings anyway. When they drag on and devolve into chit-chat they’re even worse. Perhaps the cause is the person who comes in eating their lunch. Or the coworker who insists on going over everything with a fine tooth comb for a second time because they weren’t paying attention the first time. A lot of time gets wasted in meetings, and that makes your day unproductive.
Solution: Stand Up And Schedule For Brevity
Unless you’re running the meeting yourself you can’t start imposing all sorts of rules and limits. However, you can suggest a few changes to your boss if you’re not in charge. One easy fix is to implement standing meetings. Not only are they good for your health, they also speed things up because people don’t want to stand around for an hour.
Another trick is to make your meetings short by default. The 22-minute limit is handy to keep meetings short. If even that’s too long, 10 minutes might be enough, provided everyone prepares ahead of time. The idea is that when you set a short time limit you force everyone to show up on time and stay on task throughout the meeting. To do this, send out meeting materials ahead of time, get rid of phones, and focus on the topic at hand.
If nothing else, focus on tackling problems directly in meetings. As Signals vs. Noise points out, when you begin with a specific problem, meetings flow more smoothly:
Meetings are wild horses that always try to run off course. Yoke the meeting to a specific problem. “Improve the flow on the New Entry page” is better than “Talk about New Entry page.”
The point with all of these tips is to make meetings efficient by actually tackling a problem in a short amount of time. Some meetings will have to go on longer, but if you focus the purpose of the meeting they move smoothly. Photo by Audin Malmin.
Problem: The Obnoxious, Noisy Coworker
We’ve all had to sit next to the loud person at work. Maybe they’re as subtle as chewing gum with their mouth open, or they’re as obnoxious as always using their speakerphone even when nobody else is on the call. Regardless, it’s disruptive to your work and your focus.
Solution: Tackle it Head On (or with Headphones)
Sometimes the best solution is the most direct. In this case, start by simply talking with your coworker about their volume. The New York Times talked with career coach J.T. O’Donnell about dealing with a loud coworker:
“Saying something like, ‘I have real trouble focusing when there are loud voices,’ goes a lot further than coming out and saying, ‘You talk too loudly,’ ” Ms. Callis said. “If you make it a personal issue, you’ll come off as more of an assistant than an adversary, which is always a better way to go.”
If that doesn’t do the trick, your next best option is to block the noise. Headphones or earplugs work in a pinch. You can also take NPR’s advice and use a pink noise generator like Simply Noise to drown out the noise. Photo by flattop341.
Problem: The Chronically Late Coworker
Whether coworkers are late for meetings, back late from lunch, or they’re simply 20 minutes late every day, chronically late people disrupt everyone’s schedule. The problem, of course, is that you’re not always their boss so you can’t tell them what to do directly.
Solution: Enforce the Whisky Rule
One excellent solution is the the Whisky Rule: if someone is late to a meeting, they have to buy their counterpart a bottle of whisky. The idea is that you punish tardiness in a way that also holds you accountable in the long run.
For other situations, your best bet is to remain silent if tardiness doesn’t affect you directly. If it does (say, them being late means you take lunch later in the day), contact them and talk about it. If you don’t know how to handle the conversation, approach it in three parts: take them aside privately, put yourself in their shoes, and offer to help (this also works for stinky coworkers). Photo by Evan.
Problem: You’re Always-On Call
You accepted that work smartphone and put your work email on it. Now, your bosses and coworkers expect immediate responses to email. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left for the day, you’re out for the weekend, or you’re on vacation.
Solution: Cut Yourself Off
We’ve tackled this problem before, and your best bet is to approach your boss directly. Tell them you can’t be expected to answer questions on your days off, and that you should only be contacted in an emergency. Occasional overtime is expected, but if it’s happening all the time you’re going to end up unproductive. Turn off your email and enjoy your weekend.
If being disconnected really isn’t an option, try and create a system where you and your coworkers take turns being available. The New York times suggests one way to do this is to make one team member available one evening a week. If something is an emergency, they will get in touch with you. If not, you’re clear until you return to work. Photo by Leo Chen.
People get annoyed by all sorts of things at work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try and make the workplace better for everyone involved. Approach the above situations with a level head, don’t stress too much over annoyances, and stay calm. When you do, you might dread work a little less.