Shared office space – a delicate ecosystem

Just a few months ago, I moved into the very first office that has only my name on it. During my whole scientific career, I shared offices of various sizes with between 1 and 7+ people. My office history ranges from the windowless undergrad thesis internship room where 6 students working on related projects and shared science and cookies over the room with a view and 2 colleagues as a PhD to the office with a server and between 0 and 3 others I occupied as post doc. During this time, I experienced many ways of sharing space: From the uncomplicated folks that tolerate your occasional cursing at the monitor to the weirdly expansion obsessed colleague who insisted that I would have more room if I just moved closer to the wall. Now, I’d like to think I know a bit about how to navigate shared office spaces, and I want to impart some bits of my wisdom and open them for discussion. Don’t hesitate to share your office mate horror stories in the comments and/or add useful tips how to improve office life!

1. It’s not them, it’s you

Let’s get that out of the way first: When in doubt, the fact that this little habit of your office mate is annoying you this much is probably because you are stressed, tired, and/or hungry. Those can be default states for scientists, especially close to deadlines, and it’s hard to even notice that your nerves are laying bare. Even a kitten’s purr would probably be as grating as … no, I won’t remind you of this awful sound, you know what I mean.

So before you explode, maybe use the fact that other people are around to your benefit, ask them for a coffee, and vent a bit. Office mates can be your closest allies, they share most of your waking time and see how hard you are working.

2. Snacks and drinks go a loooooong way

Regular eating and hydration are not so compatible with the academic lifestyle, but they can help you focus and stay healthy (oh dear, I sound a bit like a glossy mag here, but it’s actually true). So having some nuts handy can be a lifesaver, and might prevent some grumpiness towards the poor (probably equally starved) fellow who shares your office.

Bonus: Invest in some good tea and a thermos (or, if you can, a hot water kettle in your office), and hydration becomes a lot tastier.

3. Meeting rooms are your friend

Science is often a collaborative effort, and unless you share your office with collaborators and/or you all work on the same project (which might happen, and it can be very helpful), there will be times where colleagues who don’t sit in your office want to discuss science with you. In large group offices, this issue is particularly pressing. My advice in short is to not just chat away but if possible transfer longer discussions to a meeting room / hallway / empty office. Your colleagues will appreciate it.

A related issue is the friend who comes in to ask about your plants for tomorrow night’s after work beers, and did you see this latest tweet…? Such conversations often develop spontaneously and can really improve a day that was just grinding, so why not use this opportunity to also step outside your office and maybe even go outside to breathe some fresh air?

4. Have an exit strategy

Sometimes, it’s just not possible to counter act your annoyance with sugar / carbs / drinking, or your office mate might have a meeting that is tied to their desktop computer and they can’t easily leave. In such cases, it can be a lifesaver to have a strategy ready that allows you to stay productive but also takes you away from your office. For example consider having a printed copy of the paper you meant to read ready, now you have an excuse to go and sit in the library or, if luck is on your side, in the sun. Other options include returning books to the library or printing a copy of your own paper for a comprehensive read through.

It’s not always possible to leave your desk, for example in the middle of a coding project or when you just need to get this submission out before the deadline. In that case, it can be as easy as putting on some headphones. If they are of the slightly more expensive, noise-cancelling kind, you might not even have to find music that keeps you productive.

5. Remember: We’re all in this together

Don’t forget, we’re all probably more similar than different, we chose a life in science and are passionate about discovery and insight. So if your office mate likes to eat vinegar chips at the desk, or enjoys chats with colleagues randomly entering your shared office a bit too much for your taste, it might be best to invite them for a cup of tea or coffee (remember, hydrate) and tell them that you don’t like the smell of vinegar (being the one with a passion for vinegar chips, I would judge you but stop eating them in the office), or you feel disturbed by the constant come and go and laughter in the office.

In general, it can help to adopt an open and communicative attitude with office mates. Just like the dishes won’t get washed just because you are mad at your neglectful flatmate so will the things that in your opinion make sharing an office harder not be resolved by loudly sighing and brooding.

I hope this all makes sharing this precious ecosystem a little easier. And don’t hesitate to forward this post to your office mates!

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