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My workplace has a closed cubicle layout. My cube is so designed that I sit with my back facing the entrance of the cube. All was well until recently the company I work for acquired another company which has resulted in an increased employee count. I am now seated amongst new and diverse coworkers.

A lot of coworkers will walk into my cube and even before beginning a conversation start looking at my screen. And will keep on reading whatever I was doing even as they are talking. I find this extremely annoying.

Screen privacy filters are out of question. Most of the times I just lock my computer as and when someone is stepping in and I can locate them from the corner of my eye. But being a programmer that is not an option for every single time. I have hinted to them that I don't like what they do, but is not helping. I don't want to sound rude. What do I do?

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    If what's on your screen is work-related, what does it matter? If it's not, why's it there? – AakashM Aug 28 '13 at 14:09
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    @AakashM Those are very good questions. Even though everything is indeed work related, it is just annoying to me that some one keeps reading off my screen. Another thing is that sometimes there are email conversations open on my screen which are amonsgst my team members and manager - that I do not wish a non-team member reads. Sometimes I have radio playing (within company's IT policy) and I don't want them to know what channels am subscribed to. Things like these. – happybuddha Aug 28 '13 at 14:26
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    Are you looking to change your behavior (mirror, audible alarm) or theirs (management, policies, hr, company culture)? – atk Aug 28 '13 at 15:52
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    @atk: I have a curved mirror designed to fit on top of the corner of a monitor (it has a little sticky thing in the back), it works as long as my eyes are looking at the screen near the mirror. But with a dual-monitor setup, there's a good chance my attention is focused somewhere away from the mirror. It worked better when I had a small, single-monitor setup (but then I was unhappy with the monitors... sigh) – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 28 '13 at 17:46
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    A lot of programmers are aspergic, and forget that looking at the person they're talking to is even a thing. :P – AlbeyAmakiir Aug 28 '13 at 22:40
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Start+D if you have Windows.

But seriously, don't start conversation until you have eye contact with the coworker. Its the same as if the person you are talking doesn't look at you and watches TV instead _ you wouldn't talk to that person until they look at you.

If you are telling something and your coworker starts looking at your screen, stop talking and wait until your coworker resumes the eye contact.

It's really of respect and habit. So be consistent, and with such behavior you can hopefully make your coworkers grow the habit of looking at the other person while conversation.

If this doesn't work, I'd suggest a more radical method. When a coworker approaches and starts looking at your screen, start minimizing all the open windows one-by-one and explain what is each of them ("This is my email, its private, so I'll just minimize that. This is the code snippet I'm working on right now. This is my media player, wanna see my playlist?"). And again, don't start talking on the subject until your coworkers start looking at you.

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    or have a large "if you are reading this then you have to bring me coffee (1 sugar)" as you desktop picture – ratchet freak Aug 28 '13 at 15:20
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    Locking your screen is polite for the OP too. By locking your screen it signals "I am putting my work down and ready to listen to the person who just came by". – Freiheit Aug 28 '13 at 17:43
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    Maybe a sign on the entrance of the cubicle saying "please knock and wait"? – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 28 '13 at 17:45
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    @SuperM: Your Radical way is amazing..! Thank you so much..! – jaczjill Aug 29 '13 at 8:22
  • +1, but I think Start+L better than Start+M, easier to switch back, and makes you more likely to focus on them rather than switch back to work. If you need to talk about a PC thing, their desk better than yours. – deworde Aug 29 '13 at 11:15
25

First, Put the Blame Where It Belongs

From an environmental/psychological perspective, its important not to blame someone for doing exactly what the system teaches/trains/implies they should do. In the modern world, we look at flashing screens. We spend a weirdly large percentage of our lives staring at illuminated glass, and much of our pay is effectively based on how long we are willing to stare at them.

As such, when a person enters a space they have a very strong tendency to look towards the colored lights. We do it at stop lights, cross walks, driving along the highway, waiting for a bus, at work, in the supermarket...our very lives have come to depend on our attention being drawn to and at times fixed on colored light bulbs.

Secondly, "gaze matching" causes the tendency to look where other people are looking, whether it be eye contact or shared staring in a general direction or at a random object. Again this is important to modern social and work life - without the tendency you probably have failed the first interview and not been hired, and the same goes for your coworkers.

Put them together: if a person walks into a 'room' with an illuminated colorful screen directly in front of them which another person is already looking at, how weird would it be for that person to NOT look at the screen? If someone walked into such a space and started staring at the ceiling you'd think they were weird - or at least a member of IT.

As an aside, I once had a supervisor notice what he called "the IT gaze" - which is the tendency, especially when a person goes to enter a password, of automatically and conspicuously looking away from the screen (usually at an opposing wall, floor, or ceiling), apparently most common amongst experienced IT personnel. Once I recognized I even did it (it had become automatic to me), it was easy to see that most people don't intentionally and obviously divert their gaze even during times when it seemed most obvious that they should, like when entering a PIN code or password, etc. It directly contradicts shared attention/gaze matching and staring at blinking colorful lights, which are apparently more cognitively easy behaviors.

The Deck Is Stacked Against You

It just is - people are going to look where the system insists they look. To be clear, this is not accidental - it is by design, and the design is highly effective; it's probably counter-productive and uncomfortable, but it isn't accidental. But blaming individuals for this behavior is like blaming people who sit down in chairs which are "not for sitting" - chairs are for sitting, and screens are for looking at, and it takes conscious awareness and work to not behave accordingly.

While I appreciate and like the suggested humorous ways of dealing with this, I strongly suspect a priori that they will be largely ineffective.

Go With The Flow, or Change The System

If you can't change the setup - and people who are in this position are usually prohibited from doing so, again not out of ignorance but out of an intentional design decision that is usually targeted to assist drive-by-management in reducing unwanted personal web surfing, etc - you could always Fight The System, of course. But lets be honest - you are probably just going to make yourself look bad, silly, or suspicious, and most attempts at this will accomplish nothing. In this situation you could probably start tasering people who behave in the undesired way and people - if they still visited your cubicle - would still probably lapse into looking at your screen again anyway as soon as they weren't actively trying not to look.

Beyond "Just Deal With It"

OK, you will start to get use to it - but you'll "get use to it" in the way you get use to a boil or wart. You aren't ever going to like it. And if you do, in fact, have sensitive/protected work information on your screen that are flat out "none of your damned business" to various coworkers, then it might simply be unacceptable to just leave everything out in plain sight in your desktop. It is part of many people's job to protect company and client information - leaving some things out where other people can read them can easily be a fire-able offense, poor office design not withstanding.

So here's a few things you can do to deal with protect sensitive, or just "none of your business!", information:

  1. Better office design - You can't do it, but let's face it, if you could just even have the monitor at a 90-degree angle from the door that would help tremendously.
  2. Software Privacy Screen - Whether its just an image/document you have full-screen and ready in your taskbar, or even triggerable by a hotkey or keyboard shortcut, or software designed for this purpose, the goal is simply to cover/black the screen and present a simple message. Depending on your personality/culture it could be anything from "What are you looking at?" to "Conversation Mode - ACTIVATED" (my favorite), or "Customer-Information Privacy Screen", "Privileged Business Data", "Privacy Policy Compliance", "AFK", "Would you like to play a game?", your company logo, etc.
  3. Windows+D/Windows+M on windows machines. I'm not big on this, because frankly it often causes people to wonder if you are trying to hide something, or it can just make you feel like a teenager when your mom walks in and you are trying to, like, have an ABC conversation, like, you know? It annoys me too, but distractions of this sort just ARE annoying.
  4. Learn to differentiate 'modes'. Sometimes you are working on things that its perfectly fine for people to say, and to let people see them and read them helps to educate people about what you do and are working on, and makes you seem 'busy' and 'hardworking' (whether that's true or not). If you are working on code, leave that stuff wide open! To most people it makes you look like some sort of modern-day Egyptologist working on the Rosetta Stone or trying to save the company from the wrath of an evil escaped mummy or something. When they read it they are usually just thinking "how the heck does any of this make sense to you..."...heck, I think that about my own code sometimes. Anyway, the point is trying to develop mental awareness about what is potentially sensitive and what isn't, and act accordingly. This takes mental effort and should not really be an issue for someone working in these job areas, but if you have to adapt to a system you can't change then sub-optimal is your best case scenario.
  5. Freak out and demand to know what they are looking at, seductively suggest that "your eyes are up here, mister/mam", flick them in the crotch, practice your pickpocket skills, start doing something so bizarre it forces them to look at you instead...hey, I'm brainstorming the worst ideas I can think of for this one. You could call it "trying to put your options in perspective" or just going for a cheap laugh, because I don't know which it is either. Warning: most of this one can get you fired and/or married/divorced.

In conclusion, I suggest you just work out a way to make the system work the best for you, and realize that it isn't really all the fault of your fellow workers. Do what you can with what you have, realizing that this is only a problem because someone other than the person standing next you made it a problem.

  • I like your perspective as well...! – jaczjill Aug 29 '13 at 8:34
  • If the OP is seated and the intruder is standing near the OP, punching the intruder in the groin will signal that the OP is not happy with the situation. – Daniel May 1 '17 at 16:54
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Executive Summary

Expectation of privacy in an office is determined by the company. Your company has made a conscious decision to:

  1. Have your monitor(s) face the entrance
  2. Not have a privacy screen on the monitor(s)
  3. Not have a door on the cubicle

If you have requested additional privacy and had that request turned down, you aren't going to have a good chance of changing company culture, and can only focus on:

  1. Minimizing interest in what's on your monitor(s)
  2. Minimizing people coming to your office
  3. Minimize vision of monitor(s) when people are in your office

Minimizing interest in what's on your monitor(s)

As user10376 stated well, glancing at bright objects is second nature:

if a person walks into a 'room' with an illuminated colorful screen directly in front of them which another person is already looking at, how weird would it be for that person to NOT look at the screen? If someone walked into such a space and started staring at the ceiling you'd think they were weird - or at least a member of IT

If the person coming in to the office glances (as is their nature) and sees nothing of interest (a bunch of code, a bug report, documentation, etc.) then they won't have much incentive to continue looking at it. Most people are not interested in looking at other people's work (unless that work specifically has something to do with them, or they notice something in the work at a glance).

If on the other hand you're looking at lolcats or your facebook feed, then people are more likely to be interested because it is something more interesting than work.

You say you have two external monitors and (I assume) a laptop screen. If you are going to take a break and browse reddit, then do it on the little laptop screen or whichever screen is less visible when people come in, and be ready to start+M if someone comes in.

Once you start speaking to someone, you can lock the display with start+L with a comment like, "Give me a second, I don't want to be distracted from our conversation."

Minimizing people coming to your office

People coming by the office unexpected disrupt flow and cause distractions in general. Minimizing the amount of visits you get should improve productivity and minimize the amount of time people spend in your office reading your screen. If this is happening regularly, figure out why people are constantly dropping by your cubicle and correct that issue first.

You can:

  1. Ask people to send e-mails instead of dropping by
  2. Ask people to call instead of dropping by
  3. Set aside "office hours" where people can drop by (and you can assure your display is showing absolutely nothing of interest), etc.

Minimize vision of monitor(s) when people are in your office

If you are regularly chatting in your cubicle, don't chat such that they are looking toward your screens. You can get a second chair and have it facing perpendicular from the display directions, or you can stand up in front of your screens, or you can stand up by the exit to your office. If it bothers you that people read your screen while speaking to you, don't speak to them in a configuration that lets them see your screen.

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    I like the idea of a second chair. But the OP will need to be prepared to have longer conversations than without the chair. – superM Aug 29 '13 at 11:37
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    @superM Thanks. The point is to minimize the hassle with the first two points, and as a last resort (when the person is going to be long, won't stay away, and won't look away) you create an environment where he can't look at the screen. – jmac Aug 29 '13 at 13:29
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There is no expectation of privacy concerning what is on your screen. It is a work computer used for work purposes; it is not your personal computer and nothing on it is private unless you have been specifically directed that some types of information thtat you need to see (credit card numbers, health records, etc.) cannot be shared. UnlessI was accessing privacy type data that others should not see, I would not expect that the contents of my screen are private nor the contents of my hard drive.

If you need to access private data (such as health records) that others should not see, you should be where they cannot see it and have the privacy filter and always close the screen when someone comes up. But maintaining that kind of data privacy is your responsibility not theirs.

  • I agree. Any ideas on what I can do about my situation other than closing the screen all the time ? – happybuddha Aug 28 '13 at 14:31
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    What about stuff not covered by regulations but which need to remain private? Notification to a manager that there's going to be a layoff but don't share it yet. Coding something for a new, secret product that isn't public lnowledge within the company. Information about wmploees' pay rates. Private encryption keys for code signing. Typing in a password to a password field. You don't have an expectation of privacy from the overall company, but you do have such expectation from other unauthorized employees when dealing with restricted info. – atk Aug 28 '13 at 15:51
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    "There is no expectation of privacy concerning what is on your screen." Does that mean you should feel free to walk around and reading what's on your co-workers' screens? – Keith Thompson Aug 28 '13 at 20:01
  • I don't like people standing over me on the train to read what I write on my cellphone -- that doesn't mean I should have any expectation of privacy when in a public space. @atk, if you are regularly dealing with confidential information where a glance when someone comes in to ask you a question would be a serious issue for the company, then you should have an office, a door, or a privacy screen (and the company will happily provide it). If it is the rare single e-mail, you can quickly alt-tab or start+D (or do it at a time unlikely to be disturbed). – jmac Aug 28 '13 at 23:42
  • @Keith There is a difference between common courtesy and an expectation of privacy. While I may not have an expectation of privacy on a train while sending SMS to a friend, that doesn't mean it is polite for someone to snoop. The onus is on me to decide if I am willing to do it anyway knowing that someone is quite able to look and there is nothing I can do about it. You are not in the wrong for glancing at someone's screen when you enter their office (and I'll bet you do it as well from time to time), but it is rude to make a habit of trying to snoop in most cultures. – jmac Aug 28 '13 at 23:44
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Confidential company information should be addressesed with your supervisor. The last thing you need is to be accused of leaking information. It is their responsibility to privide an environment and tools to help you do this.

If other programmrs are looking at your code, you should cut them some slack. I know it's rude, but I'm sorry, if I see code, I'm going to be compelled to read it probably a little longer than you'd be comfortable with.

As far as radio station privacy, you're on your own; just ask them to please stop just like you would for any other anoying behaviors.

Just be careful you don't protest too much about people staring at your monitor or their going to think you have something to hide. Who needs to be the subject of that type of gossip?

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First: If you can rearrange your cube so that the screen is not visible from the access hatch, so that they have to approach you to your face, do it.

When my current employer moved me into a one-man cube some years ago, I made a point of doing exactly that. I do not like people coming up behind me.

Second: Take the cardboard backing sheets from three (3) quadrille pads (or Big Chief (R) tablets, or similar) and make a privacy screen around your monitor, so that you are the ONLY one who can read what is on the screen. This is what I did many years ago, when I had to do some classified work on my PC. (Removeable hard drive, dedicated printer ribbon, dedicated logbook for when I had the machine set up for classified and when I didn't, MAJOR pain in the butt.) If someone grumbles, say you've got an annoying glare problem, and the cardboard works better than the commercial glareshields. (This is absolutely true.)

Third: Hit the local hardware store for a length of lightweight chain, long enough to hang across the access hatch. Hit a toy store or a farmer supply place or some such for three cowbells. Hang them from the access control chain.

At this point, you have put up a Keep Out sign, put up a Nothing To See Here sign, and put up an I Know What You're Doing sign.

If the snoopers STILL don't get the idea, go have a talk with the head of security at your company. Let HIM/HER explain to the snoopers that their conduct is OUT OF LINE and will not be tolerated. He will be happy to do so, while it is still a situation that does NOT involve sensitive data, where he can correct the problem BEFORE he has to write all kinds of unpleasant letters because of any kind of actual compromise of sensitive information.

Even if your company does not do defense work, you still have sensitive data, that the snoopers have no right to shoulder-surf. That specifically INCLUDES your personal data (like your 401K, your elections at Open Enrollment, your pay stubs). It is security's job to help you protect that data, which includes reading the Riot Act to the people who are breaking the rules.

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I work with multiple workspaces (in linux, think OS X also has this, possible Windows as well but not sure). When some approaches and starts staring at my screen, if it is something I am not comfortable having others looking at, such as email, I simply use the shortcut to switch to a different workspace where I have something harmless open.

  • Usually, I always have a workspace with a maximized PDF of some library documentation, a shell window, or the like.
  • Switching to different workspace is easy/fast if you rely on shortcuts.
  • If you don't have multiple workspaces, having a window you can maximize when someone shows up has the same effect.
  • You can even create a shortcut/quick access icon (pin it to the dock/sidebar) for a document that you can open when someone gets near you.

They'll still be able to see your open applications, tray icons, and such. Not sure there is much you can do about that. A workspace/window with a full screen application would hide those as well (you can probably have a shortcut that will open an app and switch it to full screen automatically).

[Update] If it is possible to activate a scrensaver in your OS with a shortcut, perhaps you can do that as well. Something that shows company logo, or the word staring would do.

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One thing you could try is observe how most of your colleagues enter your work area, and try to position yourself so that they could only see the back of your laptop when they walk in. This is useful even if you work in an open area with no separation between employees.

And why are privacy filters out of the question? If your company won't provide them, then you could buy one yourself. Most aren't cheap, but they work pretty well.

If all else fails, you could be a little more direct. One thing you could say is that your computer has confidential information that can't be shared with other people. Some companies (such as the one I currently work at) do actually have such confidentiality policies. Of course, this would probably only work if your company has similar practices.

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