We are slowly transitioning back to the office - at any given time, half of us are remote and the other half are in the office. Staff meetings are still all on Zoom, since 50% of the people are remote. I work in my office three days per week. The reason we are each only there a few days a week is so that we can maintain distance and not be too crowded.

When we made arrangements to return to the office it was explicitly determined that my office would not be a shared space. Today, I was working from home and looked at the screen during an all staff meeting and saw that while I was at home, someone else was using my office! As the COO, I have a private office. No one else is assigned to share my workspace. I was shocked by how much this upset me.

It really threw me and I am having trouble sorting out what would be a professional, appropriate reaction from my very emotional response of seeing someone at my desk.

My concerns relate primarily to the fact that I had not been informed that this was going to happen. Honestly, a simple message giving me a heads up or (preferably) asking permission, would have been a good idea.

I had documents out that, while not confidential, should not have been available to the casual observer. Obviously, moving forward I will clear my desk every evening - which is frankly a pain, but I can deal with it...

What should I do - or not do?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 22:46
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    "I had documents out that, while not confidential, should not have been available to the casual observer." So why did you leave them out in an unsecured room?
    – GManNickG
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 17:46
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    Please do not put edits at the top of your post. It's very confusing for people reading it for the first time to see the "updates" prior to the main body. The preferred practice with Stack Exchange is to work the added information/clarification into the text itself (without marking it as an edit). If, for some reason, you feel that you absolutely need to be explicit about the fact that the information was added in afterward, please place it at the end of the post, rather than the top.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 18:46
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    @GManNickG I gather that OP for some reason assumed that the room was secured and it was not. It seems the assumption was not unreasonable.
    – emory
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 19:33

5 Answers 5


It is your office

Despite what some other answers say, it is your office. Well not yours per se, but rather the office belonging to your role of COO at the company. As such there is every reason to expect that as COO your office remain yours and yours alone, not to be accessed by other staff without proper approval by you or someone above you (which would mean the CEO). There are multiple reasons for this. One is the sensitivity of the information you deal with. Another is your role of authority within the company.

Find out what happened from the CEO

The only person at your company with authority to share out your office is the CEO. So ask them if they approved this, and if they say yes, find out whether you missed a communication about this, or if they forgot to inform you. If the CEO did approve the action, you have an issue to deal with: it's not acceptable as a C-suite executive to have your office shared out as if you were an ordinary employee. You're not. Granted you may have to decide if this is a hill you want to die, but it's not a trivial issue, and is something you should discuss with the CEO.

If the CEO didn't approve shared use of your office, then deal with it as the breach of protocol that it is, specifically that the individuals in question 1) violated confidentiality of the company information that you work with in your office, and 2) violated authority norms by accessing your office without your prior approval. How you deal with this is up to you, but you do need to deal with it. Failing to do so puts confidential company info and your own authority as COO at risk.

Bottom line: you're not just an another employee

Basically if you don't deal with this, you'll send the message that you are just another employee (which some other answers imply), which will damage your perceived authority within the company.

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    I was about to write something just like this. Even in a small company, COO is a serious title and acting like it’s any old office when you outrank 98% of the company is ridiculous.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:53
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    The OP says "it was explicitly determined that my office would NOT be a shared space". This is the crux of it and overrides any generic consideration of whose office it is, etc. But the question is: with whom was this determined? The CEO? An office manager? The OP needs to work backwards from the person who used the office to figure out whether they were given permission (or allowed access) and where this chain of trust was broken.
    – CCTO
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 19:54
  • @CCTO Not sure I agree; by default C-suite execs should expect private offices (unless the company is a tiny startup and 100% staffed with C-suite execs), and needing for it to "be determined" that their office will not be shared seems unnecessary and a bit odd. If however OP was a regular employee it would make sense and I would agree.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 12:38
  • @bob. I think we're on the same side of this, but perhaps with different emphasis. To me, an agreement or pre-determination, whether reinforcing or overriding existing policy/culture/practice/norms, is the top layer of the question. If I have an explicit agreement with a borrower not to speed with my car, and I find out they did so, then the violation of that agreement is what I'm going to focus on, over and above the civic offence. So when OP says they had this "determination", I'd say that's where to start digging.
    – CCTO
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 14:12
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    It is actually even worse. The COO is the person tasked with organizing and running the organization - it is not even "just another C-Suite", it is the 2nd after the CEO. There is literally either a huge problem, or only ONE person that can decide over him.
    – TomTom
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 16:22

It can be common for support staff to allow employees to use unoccupied offices temporarily as the need arises. I could imagine that with WFH, there is a greater demand for private conference rooms, so a support staff member told someone to use your office as one. Discuss this with the support staff first, ask about the policy toward this, then request your office remain unused or secured if you see fit.

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    Indeed; it is very likely that that person looked for a private area for that call only, as to not bother other employees. I would take that person apart and verify this before going any further. Then, i would communicate that C-level offices are not to be used, even for calls, and perhaps invest in locks for any lockers you have. A "clear desk" policy combined with the locks should be sufficient to keep sensitive information private
    – ThisIsMe
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 10:24
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    @ThisIsMe It would be better to verify before taking them apart :-). Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 12:21
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    @RussellMcMahon ThisIsMe meant "Take them aside."
    – barbecue
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 15:31
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    This would be true except that this is the COO. This doesn't make sense in context unless the CEO said so. As written this answer is either incorrect, or at least incomplete. It currently reads like what you'd tell a normal staff member who asked this question, not a C-suite exec.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:24
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    @ThisIsMe - "take them aside" means to quietly pull into a private place to discuss. "take them apart" would be (literal) disassemble/dismember the person, or (figurative) "chew them out" or "dress them down", likely in a public setting. Sorry, that really confused me for a minute! ;)
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 18:30

You're the COO. You inform the person that you intend to return to the office on X date, and expect to use your office as normal.

If there are sensitive documents there you make sure the office is locked and inform staff that your office isn't to be used by anyone other than yourself.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 0:39
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    I'd go further. "You're the COO, you're responsible for administrative & operational day-to-day matters. New policy/directive: C-Level offices are not to be hot-desked"
    – mcalex
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 5:38

Unlike others here, I can fully understand your emotions. I worked a couple of sensitive jobs, and had a private office with a door that was always locked when I wasn't inside. Too many sensitive things, and nobody who knows how actual work is done can reasonable expect that they're all locked in cabinets all the time (plus, from a security perspective, even cheap door locks are much better than all but the best cabinet locks).

First, understand what you are upset about. Is it personal, akin to an invasion of your private space? Or is it business, concern for the documents and other items you have in that room?

On the emotional level, comments here are right that it isn't your personal room and it is fairly common in most companies to use unused office when space is needed. Unless something in your office policies or unwritten rules prohibits it, that person did nothing wrong.

On the business level, if the room is off-limits to others, it should be locked. If there were documents inside that are classified at a level above "internal use" (i.e., everyone within the company), they must be considered compromised now. Discuss with your CSO which appropriate security measures to put into place for the future.

Most likely, if I am allowed a guess, it is a mix of both. You mostly feel that your personal space was violated, and it increases any concerns of a business nature you may have.

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    I would disagree with the assertion that they "did nothing wrong". They might not have done anything wrong--if the CEO said "sit in the COO's office while they're out" then they did nothing wrong. If some employee said "OP won't notice; I'll just sit here", or some middle manager said "OP won't notice; I'll sit my direct report here", then that person definitely did something wrong, on multiple levels: they violated authority norms and quite likely company confidentiality, as COO is privy to info that many others at the company may not be.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 17:30
  • @Tom, I noted you are from Austria per your profile. Given the workplace culture there, as I understand, is more regimented / formal and private space valued more relative to USA, am a little surprised at this answer as I would expect it to side more with the OP
    – Anthony
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 23:35
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    @Anthony I'm actually from Germany, but live and work in Austria. In both countries, workplace culture is more formal, but not that much. Offices are generally respected as "belonging to that person", but that's not a strict rule and especially for people who are out often - including high managers - I've seen their "offices" used as meeting rooms occasionally.
    – Tom
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 7:54
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    @Anthony i disagree, the US has much more strict etiquette in relation to C level offices (including rules for personal bath rooms, carpet and furniture), while that might not apply to all companies I cannot imagine anyone even considering to enter a c-level office.
    – eckes
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 8:48
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    Just for info, if dealing with actual classified documents, rather than "commercially sensitive" documents, then the advice here is misleading/incorrect. For them, when not in use they must be secured in a suitable way - almost certainly in a secure cabinet. Only in very limited scenarios would this include something that could be defined as "a room" and even then it would not have a normal door lock. (It wouldn't even have a normal door, wall, ceiling or floor!). (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…)
    – Gwyn Evans
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 10:39

It's completely reasonable to not want people in your office when not present; especially as a C level I'd assume there was something sensitive in there somewhere. Ask the person and anyone else that needs to know not to use your private office in your absence.


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