All together now

Office life can offer the best, worst of working experience

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

Office-mates can be a strange lot. They're like family in some ways, but like strangers in others, isolating themselves through headphones, a penchant for damaging gossip or a wall of obnoxious desk toys.

Here's a look at four aspects of office life in 2006. We'll take a second look later this year.

(Head)phoning it in

Today's workers, if given the chance, opt for music instead of the soothing sounds - think copy machine, phone chatter, occasional stapling - of the office environment.

"It may be a generational thing," says Saul Macki, a graphic designer in San Jose, Calif. "I'm always listening to my iPod, whether I'm working out or washing my clothes late at night."

Many employees rely on their music to do more than fill the silence at work. Instead, they use it to create the right background for the work that's in front of them.

"There are days when I have nothing but coding to do, and I need some voiceless, ambient music in the background," says Kevin Skoal, a computer programmer in Trenton, N.J. "It helps me keep my sanity."

Others use music to keep themselves motivated.

"I like listening to bad 1980s rock when I design. Maybe because it's so cheesy, but I like the way it makes me feel and the way it makes me think," says Macki.

Where are your kitchen manners?

Rancid odors, thievery, backstabbing and ...a turkey sandwich? Office kitchens are a convenient part of work life, but sometimes the carelessness of others can make something as simple as lunch seem less than appetizing. We asked our experts to shed some light on this sticky subject.

Clean it up

Lydia Voles, a communications professional in New York, says there were so many dirty dishes being left in the workplace sink that her company tried everything from sending threatening e-mails to triggering a loud buzzer when someone leaves a dirty dish in the sink.

"I am constantly sending e-mails out reminding staff members of the dos and don'ts of office kitchen etiquette," explains Voles. "Do wash your own dishes as soon as you are done with them; don't leave dirty dishes in the sink expecting someone to do them; don't leave four-month-old egg salad in the fridge; do clean up after you host a business meeting."

Disregard for cleanliness seems to be similar at just about every company.

"It seems like a no-brainer to take responsibility for your own dishes and food, yet so many of our younger - and older - employees fail to get it," she adds. "To avoid this problem with future recruits, we have decided to include a chapter on office kitchen etiquette in our new staff manual."

Who, me?

Kerry Patterson, co-author of "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High" (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) says even though these behaviors may seem out-of-the-ordinary to you, the person who is at fault may not even know it.

"If you respond [negatively], this turns you into them, and besides, who knows what the other person might do in response? The problem could escalate," says Patterson.

Additionally, don't take a "mistake" such as drinking your soda as a vendetta against you.

"Rather than assume the other person is purposefully doing something annoying, assume that he or she is unaware of the problem," he says. "When you assume the best of a line-cutter at the movie theater, for example, you say things like, 'I'm sorry. Were you aware that we've been standing here in line?' This presumption of innocence avoids an accusation and starts the conversation on the right foot."

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