I was scanning workplace headlines and came across a U.S. News & World Report article on how to poop at work and practice proper hygiene.
The story got me thinking about general office hygiene from another angle: How should you handle the co-worker who treats everyone in the office like a walking, talking bio-hazard?
If you work long enough, you'll encounter the co-worker who, after you've used his or her keyboard, whips out a wad of paper towels and a bottle of bleach spray and proceeds to wipe down the entire area you just finished using. The arm rests of the office chair are thrown in for good measure.
You can tell by the look in their eyes that they'd like to spray you down, too, just to be on the safe side.
You quietly take a bit of offense at the entire process, because you take pride in your personal hygiene, and rightly so! You shower every day, you take great care in selecting a clean, presentable sartorial ensemble, you flush the office toilet with your foot, you cough into your elbow, and you always wash your hands for 20 seconds in the company restroom. The last one automatically qualifies you for a cleanliness award, at least compared to what you've seen around the office.
Still, your germ-obsessed co-worker doesn't seem to trust in your overall hygiene process, and you wonder why not. Perhaps this colleague simply tends toward the anxious side? It's not unheard of, and recent surveys point to various hot zones around the average office. So the office germaphobe does have a valid point when they're not getting pranked by their co-workers. (Warning: language NSFW.)
Perhaps this colleague has watched one too many weekend marathons of Monsters Inside Me? Hey, it can definitely happen, and you'll never want to swim in a lake ever again. But you have to figure out how to frame your co-workers adverse reaction to...you, because almost every "how to" business article focuses on how to improve our own hygiene habits instead of offering advice for dealing with co-workers who continually make us feel sort of like the infected monkey in a Dustin Hoffman movie.
Ultimately, it's just how your co-worker is, and you need to respect his or her boundaries. Always ask for permission before using anything on this colleague's desk (or better yet, don't ask in the first place) and generally be aware of situations that might bother this co-worker. With any luck, this colleague will return the favor by respecting your boundaries, as well.
You may also find yourself having to defend this colleague to offended co-workers on occasion. Remind them that we all have to respect each other's limits. Let's play nice, everyone.
If the office germaphobe is regularly offending multiple colleagues, however, then a discreet, diplomatic suggestion to clean on the down low -- or to keep any running commentary to oneself -- might be beneficial to office morale. Only you can decide whether this step would be worth it, however, since you know your colleague best.
Also, think about the benefits the germaphobe brings to the office environment. The germaphobic co-worker can raise the hygiene game around the average office, where -- let's face it -- cleanliness standards have been on a downward slide ever since Casual Friday went 24/7/365. This co-worker will make sure the office supply closet is never out of cleaning spray and Comet. That's good, right?
The office germaphobe will never ask to borrow your smartphone or tablet, either. In fact, she'll never borrow anything at all if she can avoid it, which frees you from being in the awkward position of begging for your own stuff back.
Managers have some things to think about here, too. For example, if the receptionist is a germaphobe and everyone in the office tends to use her work area like it's Grand Central Station, then that's not going to work, is it? Speak with the employee to get his or her perspective. Chances are, you may need to make only a few small changes to make office life run more smoothly for everyone. At least you're trying to make things better.
Today's open office environments and rent-a-desk trends only add to the misery germaphobes face on a daily basis. What is mine and what is yours, and how clean is it?
Being on the receiving end of a germaphobe's extreme clean habits can be somewhat jarring at first, but please don't take it personally. Respect this co-worker's space, and go with the work flow. And if you see a spot of cleaning spray your co-worker missed adjacent to your work area, feel free to wipe it up.