Your office is more annoying than you remembered – here’s how to handle it

After two years of working from home during the pandemic and plenty of false starts, employees are officially heading back to work as the RTO or return to office is in full swing.

For many workers, the train has already left the station. And after controlling our own environment at home, returning to work means we’ll be faced with annoying behaviours among our colleagues again: Loud talkers, nosy cubicle mates, the olfactory emanations of the shared microwave.

How do we confront these people  and how do we check our emotions, which may be in overdrive after working in relative isolation, to keep ourselves from snapping?

Consider this a fresh start for everybody, said Darian Lewis, who, with his wife, Monica, founded the Monica Lewis School of Etiquette in Houston. “You know all those things you wanted to change in your workplace prior to the pandemic, but you just couldn’t figure out how to do it?” he said. “Well, seize the opportunity right now.”

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Lindsey Pollack, a workplace expert and the author of Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through The Changing World Of Work said there are three things to keep in mind when you’re getting back in the groove.

“Acknowledge that we are out of shape dealing with other people,” she said. “Lower your expectations and assume that you’re going to have some annoyances.

“And really give thought to the new habits that you want to create from Day One, and be deliberate about making changes now.”

And before you fume that, once again, Kevin is leaving his unwashed mug in the pantry sink for someone else to deal with, check yourself, said Sozan Miglioli, a Zen Buddhist priest and president of the San Francisco Zen Center.

“There’s actually a big difference between responding and reaction,” Miglioli said. “What I do is pause, breathe and connect with the present moment.”

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That pause will give you a chance to choose your battles, said Dr Jody Foster, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Schmuck In My Office: How to Deal Effectively With Difficult People at Work.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this a battle I need to have because it’s truly getting in the way of my work, or am I just being crispy because I’m so used to being alone during the pandemic and having everything the exact way I wanted it?’,” she said.

Here’s how to deal quickly and effectively with some of the most irritating workplace habits.


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

During quarantine, some people found they missed the sounds of the office  going so far as to listen to soothing audio, or ASMR, office sounds on Spotify or YouTube. Others decidedly did not.

If your attention is consistently being pulled away by a colleague’s loud chatter, Darian Lewis said, take a deep breath and approach the person, using what he calls the “SEC” rule: Smile, maintain eye contact and remain calm.

Then, simply say, “Excuse me. It sounds like what you’re talking about is really interesting. However, if you could just lower it, I’d appreciate it. Thanks so much.” (That also goes for the co-worker who likes to play loud TikTok dance challenges, or who unnecessarily takes calls on speakerphone.)

“It’s completely reasonable to make an intervention and because this is a new situation for everybody, you can frame it that way,” Dr Foster added.

You can say, “Joe, you may think I’m overreacting but after a year of being able to create my own environment, I’m finding that these distractions are really getting in the way of my ability to work”.


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

“Gossip is what we would call ‘harmful speech’,” said Miglioli, the Buddhist priest. When the office busybody races over with a new tidbit, ask yourself these questions, from the teachings of Buddhism contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, before listening to it or passing it on: Is this the right time to speak? Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial?

Dr Foster suggested warding off the gossiper with this script: “You know, it’s so tempting to hear gossip but at the end of the day, it always gets me in trouble. So no thanks, I don’t want to hear it”.


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

When your overly inquisitive co-worker begins to dig, “find a mantra, and then be a broken record”, suggested Pollack, the workplace expert.

“Like ‘Hmm, not sure I feel comfortable talking about that.’ And then say that phrase over and over, the same way every time.” Or give a one-word answer.

“With nosy people, it’s really about being as quiet as you can and not taking the bait and not engaging,” Dr Foster added.


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

“We all have that person in the office, where they’re talking and talking, and you’re thinking, ‘Just land the plane’,” Darian Lewis said. “And if you don’t have that person, maybe you are that person.”

His wife advised steering the conversation in another direction. “There’s power in pivoting,” Monica Lewis said. “You can say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, I hate to change the conversation, but I meant to ask you …’ and then shift into a neutral or safe spot.”

If you want to wrap it up, she said, tell your colleague you must get to your next appointment. Body cues are effective, too, like standing up or walking out of the room with the person.


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

You know how it goes: “Hey there! Got a minute? Knock, knock! Can I pick your brain for a sec?”.

“They either interrupt you constantly, or they have to think aloud with you and you have to bear witness to their thoughts,” Dr Foster said.

She suggested asking your interrupting colleague to save all of their questions for a once a day check-in that you can schedule for the sake of preserving your own work flow.

You might say: “I do want to hear all this stuff; it’s just that when I lose my train of thought, it takes me a long time to get back to it”, she added.

This politely delivers the message that the interruptions are problematic, Dr Foster said, “but it lets them know that they do have access to you  they just need to structure the access to you.”


(Art: Albert Tercero/The New York Times)

Office-wide food smells like garlic and durian can stop your productivity cold, but tread lightly here, Monica Lewis said.

“If you target a co-worker about food that might have strong odours, that can be a sensitive issue because people might think they’re being attacked based on their ethnicity and culture,” Monica Lewis said. “You definitely don’t want to go to the person yourself and tell them their food is smelling up the office.”

If it’s a chronic problem, she added, talk privately to management. “This is a great time for leadership to step in and create a new norm for the office, like maybe designated times and locations for eating.”

Try to exercise tolerance, added Darian Lewis. “Sometimes, when you pack your lunch in the morning, you have to pack your patience.”

One of the takeaways of the pandemic is that communities survive better than individuals. As we all return to the workplace, Miglioli said, we have two choices.

“One way is to disconnect as soon as possible with all that has happened and get back to your life,” he said. “The other is to embrace the pandemic as a great teacher.”

By bringing what we’ve learned about solidarity, compassion and what really matters back to the office, he said, “you can let these teachings transform you into a better human being”.

By Jancee Dunn © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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