How To Be A Good Desk Neighbour

How To Be A Good Desk Neighbour

Here at Lifehacker headquarters, I sit right next to our wonderful video producer, Heather. All of two feet separate us at all times. While she works, diligently editing videos, I think to myself: does she judge me?

She’s seen me at my worst. I eat lunch like a rabid animal with no regard for manners. I laugh to myself every now and then, enough to distract her. I’m occasionally messy — not that messy, but I’ve been known to leave a banana peel and granola bar wrapper lying around.

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In small office spaces and open floor plans, it’s easy to be seen as a complete and utter mess of a co-worker. But usually all it takes is some effort and self-awareness to pull yourself together. Here are some tips on being a courteous desk-side neighbour, so you won’t be the least-liked colleague at the table:

Organise your space

Staying orderly is key to maintaining your own sanity and having a good relationship with your coworkers, Lisa Zaslow, founder of Gotham Organisers, said in an email:

Clutter is distracting and keeps us from focusing on our work: even if you’re not consciously aware of it, your eyes take in every object in your visual field and your brain has to process it all. When you leave your desk for a meeting, lunch or at the end of the day, it can be surprisingly satisfying to put things away. Your neighbours will appreciate not having to see your stuff, and when you return, the clear space makes it easier to get back to work.

Zaslow recommends using a tray or paper organiser for loose papers to save desk space and only keeping materials out you’ll be using that day.

And, of course, purge whenever necessary. Stephanie Shalofsky, a professional office organiser, recommends spending no more than five minutes a day cleaning your desk (so you won’t be tempted to skip it altogether). 

Scan files instead of keeping them around and don’t allow them to pile up around you (and on your co-workers’ space).

Don’t distract your office mates

We’ve all experienced the chatty colleague who seems especially interested in detailing the intimate, personal details of their life. But there’s a time and a place for it, and often, that time is not during busy work hours.

If you want to chat it up but you neighbour has headphones on and/or seems especially curt in their responses, leave them be and don’t take it personally. Maybe they’re trying to focus or are on a deadline. Try them during lunch hour or later in the afternoon, when they’re less likely to be on the grind.

Limit your volume and smells

This seems obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: When you’re having a conversation with another colleague or on the phone, limit your volume. Often, it’s difficult for someone to focus on work when a conversation is happening around them. Worse, they might retaliate with loud music blaring through their headphones. Now you’re in a full-out audio war with no real winners.

Take any conversations you have to a meeting or break room instead. And this goes for curious smells, too. While you’re entitled to eat your lunch wherever you please, an anchovy pizza can be a total distraction to everyone around you. What you bring for lunch is your business, but an intense smell in an intimate space is a communal problem. Zaslow added that after-shaves and floral perfumes can produce a similar effect on your neighbours (so please tone them down, too).

If you’re sick, leave your desk

If you’re absolutely unwilling to take a sick day because of piling work, don’t subject your colleagues to your cold or flu. Take cough medicine whenever possible and work from anywhere else in the office, if that’s an option.

Clean up after yourself, too. Germs spread easily, so disinfect your communal desk space with some antibacterial wipes and don’t leave tissues lying around for somebody else to dispose of.


When all else fails, just communicate with your colleagues before any problems arise. Ask them if your music is too loud or if your desk is a distraction. Will your colleagues be honest? Maybe, maybe not. But asking them can’t hurt and they’ll be grateful that you asked at all.

And if you’re on the receiving end of a particularly troublesome neighbour and want to communicate an issue, position the issue as a reflection of you, as Fast Company writes:

“That is, the things he does annoy you. So, you are asking for his help to clear up your problem and not focusing on him as the problem. In that way, you might be able to enlist his help while not embarrassing him.”

Whatever you do, try not to make them feel bad about their desk-side manners. In an office where we spend more time with our work colleagues than our own families, it’s easy to feel a little too comfortable.


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