Tips for Working in a Cubicle

After an hour on the job, you’ve managed to finish a grand total of 15 minutes of work. While it was quiet when you arrived, your fellow cubicle dwellers are straggling in and providing you with any number of distractions: Suzy, who sits right next to you, has been on the phone discussing her most recent date in excruciating detail, and your coworker James is listening to online pirate radio. How’s a person supposed to work in a land of cubicle distractions?

At most companies today, it’s rare to have an office unless you’re high on the totem pole; even then, some businesses have a culture where their top executives work in the open. While noise and interruptions are the reality of working in a cube environment, it’s still important to respect each person’s work time. Here are some common types that may cause disharmony and how to make sure you’re not one of them.

The Prairie Dog. There’s nothing quite as distracting—or, at times, alarming—as when an individual pops his head over your cubicle wall, seemingly out of nowhere. It typically happens just as you’re about to write down a brilliant concept for a new ad campaign. While cubes are by design informal and set up for interaction among colleagues, you still need to be considerate. Instead of interrupting your cube mate, you might send an e-mail to ask her if she’s available for a short meeting later. She’s likely to show you the same courtesy when she wants to talk to you about a project.

The Fish Fryer. Let’s face it, unless you’re designing a website for a tuna company, it’s hard to be creative when you’re inundated with the smell of someone’s reheated dinner. Those in the immediate vicinity of the kitchen—or your entire floor depending on your building’s ventilation system—are truly at the mercy of the person using the microwave. Have some consideration for coworkers when you choose your lunchtime meal and try to pick a food that doesn’t, well, smell. If you must heat up a pungent meal, consider eating it outside.

The Cacophony Queen. If she’s not busy broadcasting her meetings on speakerphone, you hear her cell phone reciting a digitized tango. And when she is out of her cube, she still sounds like she’s next to you because of the way her voice carries. Try to keep your noise to a minimum. It’s typically inappropriate to use the speakerphone when you’re in a cubicle. If you must use it, do your best to secure a meeting room or arrange the call for a time when few people are around. Similarly, turn off your cell phone if you’re leaving your desk. If you expect an important call, use the "vibrate" option to prevent any disturbance. And while it’s not necessary to whisper, keep your voice down when you’re having conversations.

The Socialite. This person can’t wait to tell you about the latest developments in his life—on an hourly basis. And when he’s not talking to you, he’s talking to his friends to get their opinions on his current situation. It’s fine to socialize at work—it encourages camaraderie, and when you spend eight hours a day with coworkers, it makes sense that you’d have more than a passing interest in their lives. However, in a place of business, it’s unprofessional—not to mention unproductive—to spend more than a few minutes talking about your personal life. Catch up on all the updates at lunch or after work.

The "golden rule" for working in an open area is to keep in mind that what’s annoying to you is likely annoying to others. While some noise and interruptions are par for the course when working in cubicles, if you respect others’ time and space, they’ll likely do the same for you.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.