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When a Co-worker Co-opts the Workplace Quiet Space

Today's open office environments are noisy, so companies are designating office "quiet spaces" where employees can decompress amid the Sturm und Drang of random workplace dysfunction.


But what happens when the office quiet space is taken over by a territorial co-worker who grumbles and gives you the stink eye for invading their personal space? You could at least knock first!

But the quiet space is not this employee's work space; it's a quiet place meant to be shared by everyone for solo meditation, yoga, cooling off after a heated exchange, cat napping, general de-stressing, long-range planning, visionary thinking, reading or snarfing down a bag of Cheetos far away from the disapproving glance of the office food critic. It's meant to be a momentary escape from the stress of work, at work.

You can't help but notice how this co-worker's workload is spread around the quiet room like a poison ivy of productivity. This co-worker's devices are recharging in the outlets, soft music is playing on their tablet courtesy of Pandora, and is that a small teapot coming to a boil on the corner table? Hmm. So much for reading Chapter 7 of your latest page-turner as this co-worker makes another call.

I don't blame you for quietly boiling about this employee's blatant territoriality over the office quiet area. It feels like a hostile takeover, and it grates that management hasn't kicked the employee out of there! The quiet area at work represents prime office real estate, and the battle is on among stressed-out employees for their 15 minutes of wane.

Sure, you could do your daily deep breathing in the highly-visible (and often tastefully decorated) common area with its comfortable sofas and fun Foosball table, but you would feel rather conspicuous, no? Besides, decompressing in the employee collaboration area could get you labelled as an under-performer by your colleagues. Sad, but true.

Consternation in the Office Quiet Area
We're all looking for a place to hide at work these days. In fact, a recent survey found more than half (58%) of high-performance employees require more quiet areas at work, not fewer. More than half (54%) say they need more quiet areas because the work environment is "too distracting."


So it's not hard to see how the quiet area could quickly become a point of contention among quiet-seeking employees. Here are five tips for dealing with this very modern workplace problem:

1. Ask this co-worker to leave. It seems paradoxical that a quiet, meditative space has become a source of tension. You'll need to be honest with this co-worker. Tell them it's not their personal work space, and they'll need to find another place to work because it's power nap time! At least this employee knows it's a problem, and we can all appreciate a head's up before somebody runs to HR.

2. Run to HR. HR is in the business of handling just these sorts of workplace issues. Explain the situation (this co-worker is taking over the space as a personal work space!) and ask HR what might be done about it. Ideally, management will address the issue and send out a memo to employees reiterating that the quiet room is not to be used as personal work space.

3. Do what you need to do. You want to use the quiet room for meditation on your work break, but this co-worker is in there typing away on a laptop while chatting on a smartphone. Management doesn't seem interested in dealing with the problem, so just do what you need to do. Go in there, sit down and start meditating. A bit passive-aggressive perhaps, but your deep breathing will send the message that this is a shared space. Throw in a few loud sighs for good measure.

4. Enforce a sign-up sheet. This step seems obvious and many companies already do it, but over time the sign-up sheet can become meaningless unless somebody occasionally enforces it and/or check up on use patterns of the quiet space. Your workplace may not need a sign-up sheet for the quiet room until an employee sets up shop in there. Consider it a corporate lesson learned.

5. Encourage the company to create more quiet space. Employees who claim quiet spaces for themselves are sending a not-so-quiet message to management: we need more dedicated quiet areas, and how! If the territoriality and tension over quiet space is boiling over, then management may need to re-evaluate the entire concept of the open office environment. Is it working? Ask employees, or survey them anonymously, to find out what type of quiet would be helpful.

The battle over quiet space doesn't have to become a major problem as long as management remains aware of human nature. Some employees will ask for forgiveness instead of permission as far as utilizing office space is concerned. Managers will need to hang up a shingle that says: this quiet space is a shared space, not a personal office. There's no room for debate on the issue, either.

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