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So, I'm in my first cubicle job and have been here a few months. The company culture is very lax about cubicle presentation. The upper's realize that our cubicles are our "homes" and don't want to interfere as long as we stay productive and don't keep any unprofessional material (Basically no pinup girls). My cube is not exactly the prettiest, I have notebooks, printed pages, office supplies, a whiteboard that see constant multi-colored use, and a couple of different desk toys strewn around for when I'm trying to think something through. I don't keep food containers at my desk with the exception of a cup that is used and rinsed daily.

Earlier today a coworker who is in no way my superior came by and asked me to clean out my cube because the clutter was distracting him. He is located so that he can see inside my cube, so I guess it really could distract him, but at the same time I like my cube just the way it is, and as long as he's not actively looking at it, there are no smells or sounds coming from it that are offensive.

I don't really want to create a sour relationship with this coworker, but at the same time I don't like the idea of him telling me that "your cube is too messy, clean it!" (Edit: this is my contextual interpretation, he was fairly polite about it) when no one else on the floor has a problem with it. How can I handle a situation like this?

Edit: While I can't post pictures of my personal cubicle, I found one that was somewhat similarly cluttered on google image searches. The main difference is the things hanging on my walls are all work related papers (upcoming commitments, deadlines, project references).

enter image description here

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How can I handle a situation like this?

(I'm assuming here that your cubicle isn't the only cubicle that has this sort of clutter. If it is, then perhaps you should consider fitting in more closely with the company norm in this regard.)

Since you indicate the co-worker was fairly polite, you should reply in a similarly polite, but firm manner.

Something like "Thanks, but I like the way my cubicle is currently arranged!" should suffice.

If it doesn't, and if for some reason your co-worker becomes less polite and insists that your cubicle is somehow distracting him, you can be even more firm. "Sorry X. My cubicle is no more distracting than anyone else's cubicle. I'm leaving it as is." should do the job.

As a last resort, if your co-worker continues, you could add "If it bothers you so much, you should bring it up with management. Maybe you could asked to be moved to a cubicle where you can't see mine."

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    How would you respond if you thought your desk was actually messy and the coworkers complaining served as a reminder to yourself? – The Muffin Man Aug 17 '15 at 18:38
  • I don't like this answer, it reeks of "my way or the highway". A little bit of push back is fine if this person is just testing you out (you don't want to be seen as a pushover), but if it is a genuine problem "take it up with management" is not going to endear you to your new work colleagues – Phill Feb 11 '16 at 2:11
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    @Phill The responses here are to be used in a careful progression. I.e. you just start with response #1 ("Thanks, but I think it's fine the way it is."), and then wait and see if the situation diffuses itself. You probably don't need to go on to response #2 or #3, because your coworker will have backed down by that point. Notice the "take it up with management" line is really a "last resort". – Brandin Feb 11 '16 at 15:24
  • @JoeStrazzere no, not at all, but if this was my new next-door neighbour when I'd just moved into my dream house, and my car became an escalating issue because of it's appearance, I'd start to look for mutually agreeable solutions - whether or not this is reasonable on the part of my neighbour - before I started to, say, speak to the local council (this metaphor is getting a bit stretched). Basically I'd add an extra step of trying to find a win-win, before appealing to a higher authority, because that could burn a bridge and make an enemy - not something you want to do when you're the new guy – Phill Feb 12 '16 at 0:25
  • @TheMuffinMan, why woudl an actually messy desk be any different? People have a right to have messy desks. – HLGEM Sep 26 '16 at 15:17
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I have sympathies for your co-worker (I can't work with clutter looking at me either), but I wouldn't consider it your problem, but mine to deal with, in the same way that I use headphones for screening out audio clutter.

Having said that, if the area can be good for both you & your worker, then that's the best option, practically speaking. Possibilities other than clearing up your cubicle include:

  • Introducing a visual blocking screen, if a curtain or piece of card stuck on in a judicious place could make a difference.
  • Changing the angle or position of either your or your coworker's desk and/or chair so that your clutter is not a distraction for your coworker.
  • Talking to your co-worker in a constructive fashion, saying something along the lines of "I don't want to cause a distraction for you, but I have my cube set up to be productive for me. How would you suggest that we remove the visual distraction for you?" and see what comes back as a suggestion.
  • Swapping cubicles
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Compromise is a fine art, and essentially required when more than one person is breathing air in the same proximity.

Do you need to change your work area to match your colleague's? No.

Do you need to change your work area at all? Probably.

Personally I don't have a lot of stuff in my work area, but at any given moment it could probably stand to be cleaner or tidier than it is. Papers could be stacked more neatly, items returned to a drawer.

Now that you know your area is bothering your colleague, organize it to your standard of cleanliness, or what you consider a reasonable person's standard.

Then consider the matter closed. Whenever your area -- in your opinion -- drifts away from that standard, take a moment to return it to its original state.

As long as you are making an good-faith effort, I don't know what else one could ask for.

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If you do not want to create a sour relationship then I would suggest tidying your cube up. Your coworker has brought an issue to you in what sounds like a polite way, ("asked me to clean out my cube ") and you concede that it could be a distraction to him.

Consider it from his point of view, you know there is no food hiding under your papers but how is anyone else supposed to know that. Your clutter could be providing cover for vermin that are even feasting on food in other cubes. I realize this may seem a stretch to you but to someone who does their best to avoid these things it is exactly what they think. To them your clutter is a very real distraction.

It also may reflect poorly on you in the eyes of your supervisor. I am the type that also has organized clutter in my work area. I know basically where everything is in my work area and what each of those piles is and why I have them out. But to people who are super organized in their thoughts it is difficult to impossible for them to believe that your "mess" is organized to you. They may not say anything to you about it but in the back of their mind they are holding it against you.

I suspect that your coworker does not need your desk perfect just not messy. So each day before you leave take a few moments to declutter your desk. Make use of cabinets and file folders to reduce the clutter sitting out on your desk to just those things that you are actively working on. I also found a 3rd monitor drastically reduced the amount of paper materials I had any use for. That monitor did not make a huge difference in productivity just in the amount of clutter I needed on my desk.

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It sounds like what your colleague finds distracting clutter from, what, ten feet away, you, who are inches from it, find it useful and acceptable. It sounds like you are seeing things differently.

How can I handle a situation like this?

The first thing to do is find out exactly what is irking your colleague. There is no point you worrying about keeping the desk free from piles of paper if in fact it is things stuck to cubicle walls that are the problem.

The only way to know is to ask them - something like:

You mentioned last week about being distracted by my workspace: could you describe what it is you'd like me to change?

Then shut up and take notes. It might just be one but likely there will be a few things. Write each one down. Don't argue, don't try to explain why they're there or anything like that, your goal here is to acknowledge how your colleague is feeling and understand what's causing it. When it sounds like they're done, recap your list and check you understand it (you may need to clarify, e.g. "is it all piles of paper or just the fact that this one is teetering on the edge?").

The second thing to do once you have that list is to go back to your desk and work out if and how you can help them.

  • Some things will be easy - you genuinely don't need that on your desk and it can go in the bin/the file.
  • Mostly, though, clutter is there for a reason. You need to work out if there is another way you do things. So if your colleague objects to you having multiple bright colours on your project planning board, chances are you won't be able to do anything. On the other hand, unsecured scraps of paper whisked hither and thither every time someone walks past your desk could easily be put on a spike or under a paperweight or in a drawer. Could you put your "desk toys" in a box when you're not using them? Could you organise your papers in piles rather than in expansive overlapping tectonic formations?

Notice that this is about what you can or cannot do that will help your colleague, not about you judging your colleague's reactions.

Finally, report back. Start with something you're prepared to do. Be realistic about it and don't overpromise - you can't guarantee that your intray will be empty by 9.15 every day, for instance. If you're not prepared to do something, make it a brief, firm, no, explain only enough to make it clear you're not just being arbitrary: "I can't take down my project plan. I need that to make sure the deadlines are going to be hit. It won't fit on the other wall.". If you can, do the tidying you've promised before you report so you're not just returning with promises while chaos continues to reign just over your shoulder.

If they are still dissatisfied, and unless they have suggestions that will work for both of you, then politely end the conversation with "I'm afraid I can't really help you further". You might suggest they request alterations to the layout - (a partition around their desk, swapping desks, altering the angle of their screen so they don't face you, etc.) Don't get drawn into organising that, though, all you need to do is make sure they know that you've done all you can and the person to talk to next isn't you.

Equally, if they are satisfied, keep your word and don't resent them for it. You're not extending generosity, you're just committing to doing something polite and reasonable.

We all have our different quirks, often incomprehensible to others. Your colleague has taken the risk of communicating directly about what can be a touchy subject. This matters to them enough for them to start a conversation about it. Take them seriously, and at least be willing to continue that conversation; make sure your response shows due respect for your colleague's needs, your own needs and the company's needs.

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    This would be a good approach if the colleague was a supervisor, but seems like overkill for a co-worker. – mcknz Aug 14 '15 at 21:25
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    I won't even do it for my supervisor. My supervisor should pay attention to my productivity and performance, not my desk. – scaaahu Aug 15 '15 at 8:25
  • I would not ask what they want me to change, I'd ask something like 'what in specific bothers you?" There's less implication that you're necessarily going to change it. At this point, you don't know if what your co-worker wants is for you to rearrange the papers pinned to the wall, or if they want you to keep everything in absolutely perfect order. Just because someone is polite doesn't mean their request is reasonable (or vice versa). – Kaine Feb 11 '16 at 12:49

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