Are you the irritant in your office?

With the growth of open-plan offices, irritating and unsavoury personal habits have the potential to sour staff relations as...

With the growth of open-plan offices, irritating and unsavoury personal habits have the potential to sour staff relations as never before. Anna Potter reports

If a friend recommended that you read this article or, worse still, a copy of Computer Weekly was left on your desk with a Post-It Note marking this page, then chances are you fall into the category of "work colleague with an annoying habit".

Everyone has their own quirks and mannerisms but, while some can be amusing, many are annoying and, in some cases, downright offensive. "It is the little things," says Ronna Lichtenberg, author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren't For The People. Those little things that seem so innocuous to you can be why your desk sits on its own and colleagues give you a wide berth when they pass you in the corridor.

Every office has its own way of doing things, so what is deemed acceptable behaviour varies from one to the other. However, give or take the odd "new man", if you get a bunch of lads together in a confined space, you can almost guarantee that standards will start to slip. And, as the IT industry has more than its fair share of males, it has probably acquired more than its fair share of nasty habits as well.

According to a survey of 250 IT professionals conducted by Computerworld, the average IT professional generally works 50 hours per week, including at least one day of the weekend, on a regular basis. And when you are chained to a monitor for hours on end, becoming a connoisseur of junk food and takeouts, manners and etiquette just ain't top of the agenda.

Moreover, when the pressure is on and people are working at full stretch to get a project completed, it can be easy to forget about co-workers. Still, Jonny Chapman, an analyst programmer at the University of Derby, thinks this is no excuse for people losing their rag in the office. "I hate it when people let off sudden outbursts of anger at everyone in the vicinity, including every swear word under the sun," he says.

Every office has a tantrum-thrower, and, while it can be entertaining the first couple of times, when it becomes a daily event, even the most sympathetic souls lose patience.

Anything that distracts people when they are trying to work is bound to needle them, which is why office noise pollution is such an issue. The office motor mouth who does not realise that pelting out tedious anecdotes at 100 decibels winds people up, could find they are talking to thin air.

Remember the school bore who everyone ran away from? That could be you if you don't know when to keep your trap shut. Lunchtimes spent on your own, colleagues who finish their conversations, lower their heads and find something really important to do when you turn up - don't let it happen.

Phone etiquette is another bugbear. Holding a conversation on a land-line while shouting into a mobile at the same time does not make you look important: you just look silly.

What really gets Chapman's goat though is colleagues who still behave as if they are in the playground and actually think schoolboy humour is funny.

"Things like farting and putting the fan on, picking one's nose and wiping it under the desk are really annoying," he complains. "So is cruising around the office with shoes and socks off."

Think about it - you are never going to be taken seriously after someone has seen you spend five minutes with your finger up your nose.

There are also the people who disappear at regular intervals for a sly kip in the toilets, although this can be a more subtle method than snoozing at the workstation - especially if you are prone to snoring.

IT professionals have undoubtedly come a long way from the old fashioned techno nerd stereotype, but people are still only too ready to see the office techie as an anti-social nerd.

ITers who insist on using all the jargon, even when they are talking to IT-illiterates, do not help their image. If you are using confusing, incomprehensible terminology that has not yet made it into the dictionary, you are just going to irritate and bore people. Even like-minded colleagues will start to snigger and point their finger.

Likewise, the in-jokes of the IT sector should be at all times kept between IT buddies.

Another no-no that ITers can be particularly prone to is e-mail overload: rather than talk to someone, they send an e-mail. It verges on the ridiculous though, according to a technical analyst at a large publishing house, when it replaces normal human interaction. "Some colleagues insist on sending out an e-mail for every conceivable thing, even if the people are sitting within earshot. And it's for silly stuff like 'who's cup is this on my desk?'," he says.

Coffee cups and eating habits become very sensitive areas. Germinating new cultures in the bottom of coffee cups, eating smelly sandwiches or pinching colleagues' food can turn the office into a war zone. Things can soon escalate as people go to extreme lengths to protect their provisions. "Some people place labels on everything," says Chapman.

As more offices become open plan, it is increasingly difficult to hide away from colleagues. If someone has a habit that grates like fingernails on the blackboard, you may just have to scowl and bear it. If you are the one that has everyone biting their tongue, perhaps it is time to practice your best behaviour. Failing that, you could always try working from home. How to tell if you are the office irritant

  • You have been relegated to the corner, far away from everyone

  • Even the cleaner refuses to go anywhere near your desk

  • People avert their eyes as you walk around the building

  • You are not invited out with the lunchtime bunch

  • You think belching out a tune is funny

    Top 10 gripes

  • Nose picking
  • Belching
  • Farting
  • Humming
  • Whistling
  • E-mail overload
  • Pinching food
  • Pinching chairs
  • Egg sandwiches
  • Booming phone voice

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