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Chapter 5

Cubicle Protocol and Time Management: Functioning Well in the Office

As a man is, so he sees.

- William Blake

What do we see when we show up at work each day? A collection of deadlines? A pile of memos on a desk? A series of commitments in frantic pursuit of a finite number of hours? Or perhaps - just perhaps - the opportunity to interact harmoniously with those people with whom we share the workplace?

In the hectic world in which we live, we must manage both our relationships with co-workers and our own time if we are going to keep our interactions harmonious and our work flowing smoothly. In this chapter, you'll get some essential advice on co-existing with those people who have such a huge potential impact on your quality of life, those people with whom you probably spend half of your waking hours - your co-workers. You'll also get some important pointers on controlling your own schedule, rather than letting it control you.

Tip #54

Obey The 12 Commandments of Cubicle Etiquette.

Working in a cubicle can be a challenge! Aside from space limitations, the greatest common complaint that cubicle workers have is the invisible sign that hangs over the area proclaiming, "No Privacy Allowed." There are distractions galore in the modern workplace: typewriters, calculators, computers, and printers clicking, clattering, and humming away in adjacent cubicles; the personal conversations going on in the next pod that you can't help but overhear; and worst of all, the assumption of other cubicle mates that they can walk into your workspace whenever they like, without being invited or welcomed. A protocol can and should be established to help ease the situation for all those who must share a common area in the office. The following list suggests basic cubicle protocol for the modern workplace.

The 12 Commandments of Cubicle Etiquette

  1. Thou shalt not enter another person's cubicle unless you are invited. (Recognize that an invisible door exists.)

  2. Thou shalt not interrupt someone who is on the telephone by using sign language or any other means of communication.

  3. Thou shalt think twice before interrupting someone who appears deep in thought. (When you must interrupt a person who appears to be deep in thought, say, "Excuse me. Do you have a minute for me?")

  4. Thou shalt be aware of how your voice projects (if you laugh loudly, for example, ask yourself if others can hear you and how it affects their concentration).

  5. Thou shalt realize that speaker phones and cubicles don't mix.

  6. Thou shalt not discuss a confidential matter in a cubicle setting.

  7. Thou shalt realize that everything you say makes an impression on your "internal customers."

  8. Thou shalt not make or receive personal telephone calls during the workday except during breaks or lunch.

  9. Thou shalt not establish eye contact with someone when you would prefer not to be interrupted (when you're on the phone or meeting with another person, for example).

  10. Thou shalt stand up and walk toward the entrance of your cubicle when you would like to keep an impromptu meeting short.

  11. Thou shalt keep snacking to a minimum. (Your cubicle should not look or smell like a mini-cafeteria.)

  12. Thou shalt recognize that your cubicle is a reflection of you. Keep it neat and orderly.

Tip #55

Manage your time effectively and courteously.

Do you plan your work and then work your plan? Do you act rather than react? Do you manage interruptions rather than letting them manage you?

Effective time managers create a daily list of what they want to accomplish. Whether they have a block of 10 minutes or an hour, they refer to their to-do list to see what, exactly, they can accomplish. They also plan their "prime time" - the time of day that they are most likely to be able to "act" rather than "react." For some people, it is the beginning of the day before phones start ringing and people begin dropping. For others, the end of the work day is "prime time." Maybe you have a different nominee for your own "prime time" - but there is an hour or two of time when you can train yourself to get your best work done. Make the most of it!

What about the rest of the day? Remember that good time managers see interruptions as opportunities. Here are a couple of the most effective "tricks of the trade" when it comes to time management:

Tip #56

Show up early.

Have you ever had to do business with one of those people who are notoriously late? You know the kind I mean - they act as though they are on Pacific Standard Time even though they live on the East Coast.

Those who know how to manage their time, however, typically arrive 15 - 30 minutes before their workday officially begins. They find that their colleagues, superiors, and clients have a way of falling in love with this trait.

If you'd like to acquire the habit of managing your time better, here's the secret. When entering the time for a meeting or other commitment in your schedule, write down the time you have to leave - rather than the time you have to show up! By doing so, you will find yourself becoming an early bird almost without meaning to ... and you'll actually enjoy those 15 - 30 minutes you win back as a result.

Tip #57

Send the right message to cubicle lurkers.

As though an open work area weren't formidable enough already, you've often got the challenge of a colleague who hovers around your cubicle, waiting for you to return, eager to separate you from the pressing project you need to work on. Usually, these folks are easy to recognize. They're the ones who want to discuss social plans, petty gripes with colleagues or family members, or other nonessential problems - usually when you're on deadline.

What to do? Acknowledge the person with a pleasant smile as you enter your cubicle, but stride purposefully to your desk. Don't initiate a conversation. If you do, the lurker may just follow you in (and perhaps never leave). Start working - perhaps by making a phone call - and hope the person has the presence of mind to realize that you're busy dealing with a critical project. If push comes to shove and the person insists on talking about nonwork-related matters, ask tactfully yet firmly to reschedule the meeting until after work hours: "Jane, I'd love to talk to you about the wedding shower for Patricia, however I've got a report due in an hour, and I'm wondering if we can catch up on this after work, say at 5:30 today?"

Tip #58

Rework the "Do Not Disturb" sign.

Employees who work in cubicles or "pods" should set parameters for when they are available to other co-workers. When you are not available, you could post a red paper sign outside the work area that reads, for instance, "Coworker alert! I'm working under a project deadline until 11 a.m., but I want to hear from you. Please leave a note in my mailbox and I will respond to you by the end of the day today." When you are available, hang a green sign outside your area advising your co-workers that you're free for discussions.

Warning! This works well only if you alternate the signs frequently and give clear indications of when you will be available. Also, make it clear that your message applies to co-workers, not to superiors!

Tip #59

Keep cubicle decoration in balance.

Your cubicle is your home away from home...kind of.

If you're like most people, you'll spend more of your waking hours at work than you will at home, so the instinct to make your cubicle or other office space feel homey is understandable. But how homey is too homey?

Here's a rule of thumb that will help you make sure your workspace keeps everyone, including superiors and important outsiders, happy: Take a good, long look around your office. Then ask yourself, "Whose level would I like to be working at a year from now and what does that person's workspace look like? How audacious is the design? How many, and how obvious, are the personal items in that person's area?"

Follow the design lead of the person who's successful in the area you'd most like to call your own, and you usually can't go wrong.

Tip #60

Deal positively with a chronic complainer.

No matter where you work or what type of business you are in, it is impossible to avoid people who (it seems) live to complain. Complainers go with the territory in any job, and they often generate a feeling of negativity that can bring down morale for everyone. This in turn brings on resentment and ill feelings between co-workers and strains office relationships. It is best for all concerned to keep complainers in check as much as possible, but how do you keep from sinking to their level and lashing out with complaints of your own? ("It really drives me crazy when you complain about the cleanup schedule. Why do you have to doooooo that? It hurts my heeeead!") Here are a few tips that will help you institute solutions and keep new problems from arising:

The best way to handle complainers is to encourage them to become proactive. Give them the attention they are seeking and guide them towards constructive solutions. You will help both them and the office as a whole.

Tip #61

Learn to manage your time.

Time management is an essential ingredient in business etiquette. Besides demonstrating how well you are organized and can handle mounds of work, it can also have an effect on your relations with business colleagues and clients. Nobody wants to have his or her time wasted by someone who is always arriving late at meetings or hasn't been able to complete a project by the assigned deadline. Sometimes, of course, circumstances prevent us from getting there on time or meeting that deadline; time management gaffes do occur quite legitimately. However, those who appear to make a habit of such gaffes are committing the sin of wasting precious time, not only for others but for themselves. In the business world, especially, time is money!

We all know that it is not always possible to meet a deadline that has been imposed on a task or project. This happens frequently in the business world. The important thing is not to make a habit of missing key deadlines. When you are consistently unable to complete a project on time, it says something about your ability to organize and manage your workload. However, on those occasions when a delay is inevitable, you should advise all concerned parties in writing of the time delay and the reasons for it. You should then come up with an alternative and reasonable deadline - and brook no further delays! One strike will not penalize you; two strikes will have people questioning your abilities; three or more strikes and you may be out of a job!

To avoid getting yourself into such difficult situations, try following these guidelines for managing your time:

  1. Use only one calendar. Map out where you will be, what you are to do, what the relevant deadlines are, etc., on a single calendar. By keeping one schedule with you at all times, you will be more efficient - and you will save time because you won't be shuffling between six different planners.

  2. Plan your work and then work your plan! That is to say, write it all down. Have a "road map" in front of you, with your strategy for the day worked out. Rather than piddling your day away deciding what to do first, you will actually be doing it. By setting up a schedule and sticking to it, rather than improvising your way through the day, you can post some dramatic time improvements. You may accomplish as much as 20 to 30 percent more each day. (These are the improvements people I've worked with in one setting or another have been able to post.)

  3. Set realistic deadlines. Be fair to yourself! Sometimes a project that you promise to have completed by Tuesday may not need to be finished until Wednesday. Be realistic when you lay out your goals.

  4. Put off until tomorrow what you really don't have to do today. In other words, establish priorities and tackle the most important tasks first. If you spend three hours "returning calls" to people who don't have anything to do with the accomplishment of major goals, there's a problem somewhere.

  5. Make your voice mail work for you. When you are on a deadline, use voice mail to minimize interruptions from ringing phones. Callers would prefer talking to you when they have your undivided attention. Be sure to indicate in your message when you will be available to return their calls.

  6. Touch a piece of paper once. Try following the "do it now" principle. If you don't need it, pitch it. If you are going to need it, file it. If you need to act on it, do so now!

By planning ahead in this way, you'll ensure timeliness in all areas - and leave your colleagues and business associates impressed with the way you do business.

Tip #62

Move beyond deadlines.

A deadline should mean more than the due date of a project. Before committing to a deadline, consider what it means to your schedule. If everyone in your workplace followed the rule, "The Proper Time to Do Something Is Before It Needs to Be Done," no one would ever be late with, or for, anything. In addition, we all might feel less frazzled, have more time, and many egos would be spared. If you haven't already found a way to be in control of deadlines and your time - rather than letting them control you - here are some ideas to keep in mind:

Delivering materials on time and showing up on time will help you shine professionally. So use deadlines and start times as beginning points, rather than as calendar entries.

Tip #63

Don't let others exploit your time.

Another crucial aspect of time management involves not allowing others to cut into your valuable time and keep you from finishing a project (or simply working in peace). While most people won't waste others' time intentionally, they may do it anyway as a result of their communication style. Here are a few tips for preventing such people from exploiting your time and for helping them to use their time more effectively:

Tip #64

Get out from under the clutter!

Do you really want to keep your hottest prospect waiting while you track down those specifications?

Americans waste a significant amount of time each day looking for lost and misplaced items. Studies have confirmed that the average United States executive loses six weeks per year retrieving misplaced information from messy desks and files. The more stuff you stuff away, the harder it is to find what someone else needs.

Estimates from various research organizations indicate that:

Rather than keeping a piece of paper because you "might need it," ask yourself, "What is the probability that I will need this piece of paper? Can I replace it? Does someone else have a copy? What's the worst thing that would happen if I didn't have it?"

Here are more questions to ask yourself before you decide to keep a piece of paper or throw it away:

Your work area's appearance and your ability to handle the flow and filing of the paper that passes through it reflects strongly on you as an organized individual. When you get out from under the clutter, you regain control of your time and your space. Unclutter your work space, and you will unclutter your life!

Tip #65

An organized briefcase is vital to your image.

Just as a well-organized office reflects your ability to manage your time effectively, so does a well-organized briefcase. By merely throwing papers into your briefcase without making any attempt to put them in order, you run the risk of looking foolish later when you have to hastily sort through them to find what you want or need. This wastes both your time and that of the executive who is impatiently waiting for an answer to his or her question.

Key point summary

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