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Cubicle etiquette: How to thrive in close quarters


In an era when the corner office has gone the way of the dodo bird, cubicle etiquette has become a hot topic. Companies of all sizes are increasingly opting for open work environments that cost less to build out while maximizing real estate.

Whether your business uses partitioned cubicles or wide-open workspaces and shared desks, chances are your employees have only a small area they can call their own. And they’ve likely got coworkers in close proximity all day.

Theoretically, such spaces are meant to foster collaboration and break down barriers that hamper creativity and productivity. But a lack of walls also means a lack of privacy, which can lead to employee frustration and difficulties concentrating.

While more cost-effective than the walled offices of yore, open office designs can lend themselves to lower productivity and some potentially awkward or difficult employee interactions if not properly managed. Everything from cube décor to noise levels and smells can have an impact on other people’s comfort and performance.

That’s where a cubicle etiquette policy becomes essential.

Think of it as an extension of a professional code of conduct or a dress code policy. You want to establish guidelines that allow your team to work in a shared office environment with sensitivity and respect for those around them, for the good of all.

Here’s how to craft and communicate a cube etiquette policy tailored to your company’s individual needs.

Get team input

The best way to establish new ground rules for employees working in open offices is to ask them what’s working and what’s not. You can do this through an anonymous online survey or in-person meetings, or some combination of the two.

It sounds simple, but don’t assume you already know what the biggest problems are with your open workspace. You need to ask your staff where the problems lie because you may be surprised what you learn.

While you might think noise levels are too high or there’s too much unproductive visiting going on, your employees may find the overhead music energizing and the impromptu meetings in the aisle useful for teamwork. Likewise, if you don’t sit with your team, you may be completely unaware that one person’s cologne is bugging everyone who sits within 10 desks.

Questions to ask include:

  • What do you find most distracting or bothersome in your work area?
  • What negatively impacts your productivity?
  • Are there any changes that would help you be more productive?

Once you know where the biggest triggers lie for your employees, it’s time to build your cubicle etiquette policy. You want to create professional standards that address widespread disruptions to productivity without restricting people too much. Your policy will be as unique as your company and your office space.

Monitor the three S’s of cubicle etiquette

If you’ve been in a leadership position for a while, you know there are some people who need to be reminded (sometimes repeatedly) that their behavior may be annoying others. Without intervention, open offices can turn into a Wild West with the loud talker, the over-sharer, the nail clipper, and the smelly-food lover driving everyone else to distraction.

All the most common offenses and annoyances of open workspaces generally fall into one of three main categories:

  • Smells
  • Sights
  • Sounds

Here are some of the rules you may want to consider in your cubicle etiquette policy to help deal with the three S’s:


  • Insist on a fragrance-free workplace to help those with allergies and sensitivities.
  • If you have a pet-friendly office, include guidelines for pet odors and be sure to designate a pet-free zone for people with animal allergies.
  • Discourage eating at desks to avoid bothersome lunchtime aromas.
  • Consider an outright ban of certain pungent foods. You won’t be the first company to forbid microwave popcorn (so as to avoid the dreaded burned popcorn smell), Limburger cheese or stinky tofu.


  • Establish standards for desk décor and neatness.
  • Discourage political, sexual or religious posters, signs, bumper stickers and other displays that may offend coworkers.
  • Request that employees take personal grooming to the restroom. Yes, some folks may actually need to be told this.
  • Remind employees not to overshare their inappropriate, bikini-clad vacation pictures.
  • Prohibit popovers (startling a coworker by popping over the cube wall without warning) by insisting staff walk over to one another to talk.
  • Implement a dress code that outlines your company’s standards of professional dress.


  • Prohibit speakerphone use at desks.
  • Make personal calls in private areas, and schedule conference calls only in rooms with doors.
  • Discourage staff from walking around or pacing while talking on cell phones.
  • Encourage employees to send a private message to loud coworkers if they need to ask them to lower their voices when on the phone.
  • Remind staff to be aware of their own voice. Assume it’s loud and carries.
  • Turn off any ringtones, buzzes, bings and other alert sounds your electronic devices may make.

Communicate standards often

Once you’ve created your cubicle etiquette policy, don’t bury it in the employee handbook and forget about it.

No, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be included in your employee handbook. It just means that it also needs to be a living, breathing policy that gets aired regularly, especially when any new guidelines are introduced.

Ways to remind your staff about professional behavior standards include:

  • Sending regular emails that highlight particular areas of cube etiquette that may be a problem; for instance, reminding employees who gather to talk in walkways to move to a conference room.
  • Establishing specific work times when no meetings (impromptu or scheduled) take place and only client calls are made (away from work zones).
  • Addressing widespread issues in staff meetings, such as a regular occurrence of people eating smelly foods at their desks.
  • Encouraging self-awareness with prompts such as, “If someone you normally don’t talk to asks how your home sale is going, you’re probably talking too loudly.”
  • Reminding employees to use headphones to help cope with noise pollution.
  • Talking to individuals promptly and privately if there’s a specific complaint.

As a business leader, you may sometimes feel like a babysitter when it comes to policing employee behavior. But it’s important to observe your staff in action and discuss concerns you may have.

For instance, if you notice a worker has displayed a provocative political bumper sticker, a poster with profanity, or revealing vacation pictures, you should talk to that person privately and ask that the objects be removed.

Remember to make sure your discussion focuses on the need for professionalism and group productivity, rather than sounding like a scolding from their grandmother.

Perhaps the best way to encourage the behavior you want to see in the workplace is to model good behavior yourself. You can do this by keeping your voice down, knocking before entering someone’s space and not interrupting meetings or conversations.

Managing employees can be tough without the right support and training, but it’s possible to avoid the big no-nos. Learn how by downloading our free e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.