Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Q: I work in a large open-plan office. We have a particularly noisy and disruptive colleague. It's driving me mad. What shall I do?

A: Aha. I guess we've all been here. This is the one real downside to working in an open-plan office.

Open plan can be really productive in developing better teamwork and communications, and it can foster good working relationships. However, it can be equally capable of driving us all bananas.

There are two issues here. First is the noisy colleague and what you should do about him. But is there a wider issue about 'open-plan etiquette' that you also need to tackle?

AVOIDANCE

In terms of your noisy colleague, there are a number of avoidance strategies.

First, avoid eye contact. Don't encourage him to natter to you, and make as little eye contact with him as possible while continuing your work.

If he does come over to natter, look at your watch repeatedly. If that does not work, stand up. And if that fails, pick up your papers and tell him you really have to rush to a meeting.

You should call in support too. I guess this individual is causing problems for a number of you, so you might want to enlist the help of colleagues if you find yourself engaged in endless, time-consuming chatter. Get someone to pop along and remind you of your next 'meeting', which is due to start soon.

I imagine this person is also disruptive in meetings, so it is down to the chair to handle them. Comments such as "I really appreciate your input, Tony, but let's give Graham a chance to speak" can be helpful. Or "Matthew, I get what you are driving at - let me sum it up".

Share the burden. Of course, a really naughty way of handling this person would be to dump the non-stop talker on someone else - but you must not do this by dumping him on the chief executive.

OFFICE MANNERS

Perhaps what you really need is an open-plan code of conduct. This should be common sense, but my starter for ten would be:

- Don't yell across partitions.

- Switch off mobile phones or turn them to vibrate.

- Ban naff and annoying mobile ringtones.

- Avoid holding meetings at your desk.

- Don't stand up when you are talking on the phone - your voice projects.

- If you need to have an extended conversation, find somewhere else to hold it.

- Don't let your desk phone ring for extended periods - use voicemail.

And finally, have you tried telling Mr Noisy to pipe down?

STEPHEN BUBB is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo). Send your questions to stephen.bubb@haynet.com.

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