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For many people, the office is like a second home. When you spend 40 hours a week or more in a shared space with coworkers, it’s easy to become comfortable. Unfortunately, that comfort can also come with least blurred boundaries, especially when it comes to personal work space. Everyone has their own boundaries when it comes to personal space, but even if you feel like one big happy family with your coworkers, respecting personal space is necessary when fostering an atmosphere that is safe, comfortable and productive for everyone. With that in mind, you need to consider how you respect personal space in terms of physical contact, privacy, work areas and environment.
In the U.S., physical contact isn’t always welcome in the workplace, and could even be misconstrued as an unwelcome sexual gesture. For that reason, respecting each coworker’s physical space means keeping your hands to yourself. Avoid physical contact without permission, and only when you know the other person well. For example, if a coworker who you also consider a friend is upset, it's appropriate to give them an affectionate hug. Otherwise, keep all physical contact professional (as in a handshake or high five) and avoid unexpected touching.
It’s also important to maintain a “space bubble” around yourself when speaking with coworkers. Typically, you should maintain at least an arm’s length of distance between you and a colleague when talking. Otherwise, you risk being too close and can possibly make the other person feel uncomfortable.
While it’s arguable that privacy is a myth in today’s workplace – especially with open work spaces as the norm – it’s still important to respect a coworkers' privacy. This means not reading over anyone's shoulder without being invited to do so, not eavesdropping on conversations (no matter how tempting) and generally minding your own business. If a coworker’s personal business begins to infringe upon your ability to do your job – for example, if you are distracted by their endless phone conversations with a significant other – bring up the issue tactfully. You might say, “This is awkward, but I can’t help but overhear some of your conversations on the phone. I’ve noticed that the meeting room down the hall is usually empty – maybe you’d be more comfortable talking there?” If the problem continues, speak with your supervisor.
Again, open work areas tend to lend themselves to a more communal atmosphere, which is great until you can’t find your stapler yet again. Respecting your coworkers’ personal space means respecting their work areas as well, and not borrowing items without permission. Never touch anything on your coworkers' desks or move anything in their areas without asking first. If you do borrow something, return it promptly as soon as you are done.
Also, if you share a work space with a colleague, do your part to keep it clean and well-organized. Don’t encroach on your co-worker’s space with files, papers or other paraphernalia. Put your things away at the end of the day, and keep the space neat and tidy.
You might think that the sounds you make or the heavy fragrance you applied affects your coworkers’ personal space, but they can. It’s important to remember that others can hear every snort, cough, sniffle or other bodily function, and that can be distracting – just as wearing too much perfume, eating a smelly lunch or listening to loud music can be. If you don’t have a private office with a door, consider how your sounds and smells might affect others, and act accordingly. That might mean staying home when you’re sick, wearing headphones, and eating your delicious fish sandwich in the break room instead of at your desk.
Personal space at work is a hot-button issue, and failing to respect others’ space could lead to lawsuits or other consequences. Courts have ruled in favor of plaintiffs who have brought cases against their employers or coworkers when it's proven that the invasion of privacy would be offensive to a reasonable person. So follow proper etiquette, and respect your colleague’s space as you would expect your space to be respected.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.