If you’ve worked in any shared office space for five minutes or five years you’ll know the world is divided into two types of people: those who take their coffee mugs back to the kitchen, and those who didn’t get the brief.

It’s a small example of a large problem we don’t really talk about much…until someone in the office sends an email about how their clearly-marked food keeps disappearing from the fridge.

Now you might be one of those people shaking your head and clicking away because that is not your problem, but it’s more important than you realise. Like most things in life, it’s the little things that can make or break your workday, and what goes into being a better colleague is a wider concern than complimenting people on their banging sneakers.

Based on years of field research, this office etiquette primer is a great place to start.

Your house is in another place. This is not your house.

You’ve seen it happen. Someone comes into the kitchen to make coffee and they do it like this: first, they use the last hot water and put the kettle back on the stand, then something happens between the spoon and the mug (earthquake?) that deposits all the coffee on the counter, which they leave there. They proceed to finish the milk and thoughtfully put the empty carton in the fridge, before loosely dispensing sugar into their mug so that it looks like it snowed very carefully around a mug-shaped circle (my personal ongoing struggle), before leaving a muck trail of sticky brown drops all the way back to their desk. Doing these things constitutes a troubling lack of thought for the other people who share the space.

Observe the following useful points so you’re not that person:

  • Empty milk cartons don’t regenerate.
  • The cleaning cloth is much closer than you think.
  • You do have time to fill the kettle.
  • If you’re old enough to earn a salary, nobody should have to clean up after you.

Desk. Not dining room table.

It has been very conclusively proven that taking ten minutes away from your desk to eat lunch is healthier for you. It’s also better for your colleagues a lot of the time, especially if lunch is a huge pile of garlic-laced broccoli eaten in an enclosed space. Horses for courses, everyone eats what they like. But it’s worth being mindful about how your pungent choices could be more considerately eaten in the kitchen or some convivial lunchtime environment other than your desk (where everyone else has to chew it too. Sometimes for hours).

If you’re a leg twitcher, make sure your desk doesn’t wobble

I’m an external processor. Which is a nice way of saying I think out loud to the distraction of my colleagues. Sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re in a close communal space where other people can openly view, and unwillingly share, your annoying habits. If you reflexively tap out the beat of any music you’re listening to, try whale song. If you simply can’t resist that little button on the back of the pen, buy yourself a nice marker. These tiny idiosyncrasies can ratchet your colleagues’ irritation level up to a fever pitch where they can no longer concentrate. They’ll probably tell you when it’s getting too much, but in case they don’t, exercise a little conscious awareness of the white-knuckled typing next to you. And stop.

Don’t take headphones personally

In this age of open plan offices where hierarchies disappear and everyone works in collaboration, headphones are the last vestige of focus for people who need to work to a steady rhythm. Not everybody thrives in a chatty melange of noise. Sometimes there must be quiet. When your desk mates put on their headphones, it’s not about you. Respect that they simply need a different space in which to do what they need to do. Even if you totally know their headphones are not plugged into anything.

Vibrate was invented for a reason

Putting your mobile phone on silent in the office is right up there with giving someone your last Rolo. Not only does it make you a considerate and mindful human being, but you also won’t break into your colleagues’ concentration with the separate text tone you have for every single person you know on WhatsApp. Despite the plethora of ringtones available to us, there is still no better one than none at all.

Not everybody wants to see the meme

It happens to all of us. You pop into Facebook and someone has posted ten seconds of a man falling down stairs or another Carpool Karaoke. Whilst understandably hilarious to you (certainly to me, especially if it involves stairs) it might not be what your colleague needs to be interrupted to share at that particular time. The same goes for baby sloths in onesies, three-legged cats and fainting goats. You might be okay spending half your own workday down the meme spiral, but take a few seconds to assess your colleague’s body language before forcing them to share the joy. Alternatively, send the links to them in an email so they have something to watch on their lunch break when they leave their desk.

Most of us spend at least some time on our career paths looking at our professional behaviour and learning how to do our jobs better. Being a better colleague in small ways is just as important. Successful people thrive in contented businesses and sometimes that’s simply a case of tuning yourself in better to the people around you.

Or finding the right meme.

Wendy Shepherd,
Lecturer – Copywriting/Digital Content
and affectionately known as the ‘Admiral’