The top faux pas that are driving us out of the office

A tight squeeze can leave a workplace feeling a sense of unease - Yellow Dog Productions
A tight squeeze can leave a workplace feeling a sense of unease - Yellow Dog Productions

It was the plastic container that rang alarm bells – densely packed with shiny white orbs. As my new colleague placed it on the desk between us, I was faced with a choice: say nothing and act like the sort of chilled co-worker who didn’t mind if he ate multiple hard-boiled eggs (my food hell) al desko. Or knock it on the head straight away.

“So sorry, but would it be possible to eat those in the canteen?” is what I should have asked. “Ugh, no thanks,” is closer to what I actually said – though it worked, my poor colleague banished to eat his daily egg snack elsewhere for two years. He took it well, I think.

Would the problem have been solved had we been farther apart? A new workplace design guide thinks so. The report on office density, by the British Council for Offices (BCO), recommends that employees each have around 12 sq m of space, an increase from their previous guidance of 10 sq m. More space would mean, it concludes, “most workspace issues and concerns are alleviated”. What’s more, it suggests productivity could rise if workers had more elbow-room, explaining that cramped offices “are more likely to cause issues and affect occupant comfort, wellbeing and performance”. It doesn’t mention eggs specifically, but I think the subtext is clear.

In 2001, the average employee had 15 sq m per desk but by 2018 this had been squeezed to just 9.6 sq m – meaning Britain now has some of the most tightly-packed offices in Europe. Swedish workers get more than 20 sq m and in Finland it’s at least 30 sq m.

Danielle Oakley, associate director of HR Advice at consultancy Peninsula UK, says that a lack of office space and resulting irritation can have a significant impact.

Productivity takes a hit when there are other issues going on,” she says. “When they’ve got a settled environment and are not being irritated, employees can focus on the job at hand so their effectiveness naturally increases. Where there are disputes going on, they will be distracted.”

Sometimes, it takes a quiet word with a colleague about their annoying habits to solve the problem - JohnnyGreig/ E+
Sometimes, it takes a quiet word with a colleague about their annoying habits to solve the problem - JohnnyGreig/ E+

Nor has hot-desking culture helped. In a survey of 11,000 workers by Savills in 2019, a third said the layout of their workplace had led to productivity dropping – a figure that rose to 45 per cent where there was a hot-desking policy. Studies have shown that it can create distrust and cause disruption. And as you don’t necessarily know your neighbour’s boundaries, you can more easily cross them.

Then again, the flipside – having a permanent desk, where you feel utterly comfortable – can encourage territorial behaviour, allowing your worst habits to emerge.

Crisp crunching, loud sneezing, smelly gym trainers under the desk – for years, we have secretly seethed as our colleagues place their bag in front of your drawer so you can’t open it, or fiddle with the blinds.

“I worked with someone who caused some distress by regularly placing a used wet towel across a nearby desk to dry,” says one man. “It never occurred to him that nobody wanted to see, smell or think about where that towel had been…”

Food is a big one. “I had to share an office with a man who ate a large garlic sausage at his desk every day,” a friend tells me. “It was the size of my forearm and he peeled it like a banana.”

One pal recalls a colleague who would sit beside her shelling peanuts, the cracking of hulls a constant distraction. Another worked with someone who had kippers for lunch every day “in a windowless room”. A former co-worker of mine would bring in a wooden chopping board and paring knife, and sit at his desk peeling an apple and eating slices straight from the blade as though he was a movie villain.

Little wonder that post-pandemic – having worked in comfort from our own homes – we’re less likely to put up with it. The BCO report says that we no longer want to sit so close to one another, partly due to “health concerns”, and that staff want more breakout rooms and separate eating areas – something that should be doable with many companies still having bricks and mortar offices, but fewer people in them.

“There’s definitely been a reduction in tolerance,” says Oakley. “People are saying: ‘I want to come back into the office some of the time but I’ve got used to being in a nice environment at home, so I expect that to be replicated.’ It’s a massive factor in whether companies can retain talent.”

It could also be a moment for self-reflection. None of us has led a blameless office life. I once spent an entire day accusing a colleague of having a dead mouse under her desk – such was the rotten smell emanating from beneath – only to later realise that I’d trodden in fox poo. Can I truthfully say that I’ve never sprayed perfume in the middle of an open plan office? I cannot. But while such things might, on the surface, seem petty, Oakley says they can have a serious impact.

“It changes your whole day because it’s how you’re feeling in that environment and if you can smell something that you don’t want to smell, for instance, you feel uncomfortable,” she says. “It will build irritation and end up with people falling out.”

Nobody wants to spend all day with co-workers in their personal space - Rawpixel
Nobody wants to spend all day with co-workers in their personal space - Rawpixel

So what is the solution? Some have suggested a return to cubicles, which fell out of fashion in the early Noughties and were mocked in films such as Office Space – damning studies from the time found they decreased productivity, as workers felt constantly interrupted, and were bad for collaboration.

Open-plan offices – pioneered by tech giants Google, Apple and Facebook – fare little better. A 2018 Harvard study found that, contrary to accepted thinking, they reduce face-to-face collaboration by around 70 per cent and increase emailing by 50 per cent, as being surrounded by colleagues actually gives us permission to ignore them more.

And forget those plexiglass screens installed during Covid, which created a sound barrier, meaning that you ended up standing to speak to the person next to you and distracted everyone in the vicinity – as well as negating any health benefits.

“I think we’ll see a massive shift in what workspaces look like in the next couple of years,” says Oakley. “There will probably be more space around desks, as homeworking continues and not everyone is in the office at the same time.

“I imagine we’ll move away from what we would see as a typical office and start to have desks not being in rows or even next to each other, but an environment where it feels a lot more free flowing. The more space people have, the more comfortable they will feel and that’s what we’re aiming for – a work environment where they don’t get irritated because someone is tapping a pen on the desk or eating a smelly breakfast.”

Three people you don’t want to share desk space with

1. Sports kit Steve

Every morning commute is like a triathlon for Steve. There he is, dripping sweat dangerously close to you, his bike helmet under one arm. “I need a shower!” he’ll exclaim, stowing his perspiration-soaked cycling shoes under the desk. After reappearing in his work outfit, he’ll drape his sodden sports kit across any empty chairs, before spending 15 minutes updating Strava while you gag on the overwhelming scent of Radox shower gel.

2. Microwave Mandy

Fish, cabbage soup, sprout stir fry – when you spot Mandy heading towards the microwave, container in hand, you know a pungent odour is about to reach your nostrils and will hang over the office for hours, smelling like the bins on a hot day. Those who sit beside her will suddenly disappear for a lunchtime walk in the hopes that the air will have cleared on their return. It won’t.

3. Feet-up Fred

Fred – whose favourite film is Wall Street – knows the best place for his shiny brogues. On his desk. Every time his phone rings or a colleague wanders over, he leans back extravagantly and up they go – the filthy soles of his shoes visible for all to enjoy and placed exactly on the spot where, in an hour’s time, he’ll eat his Pret baguette. Bossing it.

Do your colleagues have habits that grind your gears? Get it off your chest in the comments