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posted: 2/10/2013 7:03 AM

As workplaces shrink, tensions grow

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  • As companies have downsized, many employees have lost some of the elbow room they had in year's past.

    As companies have downsized, many employees have lost some of the elbow room they had in year's past.


Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: The company where I've worked for the past 13 years has moved. As a result of what I believe is one man's prejudice against my size, I went from a semiprivate office to a cramped, noisy cubicle. I have the same accommodations as the temp hired to scan files. People now walk into my small space and will stand and watch me as I fulfill their requests. How can I get them to stop? I hate having people at my back, making me jump when I don't know they are there. I feel disrespected and angry.

A: The solution to being sneaked up on is as simple as affixing a rearview mirror to your monitor. While you're buying that, throw in some desk toys to distract the looky-loos so you don't have to feel their eyes burning into you as you work. Or, you can gently dismiss them: "This will take some time -- I don't want to keep you waiting, and I can concentrate better on my own. Can I call once it's ready?"

The bigger issue here is your sense of disrespect and discrimination. The economic squeeze has forced a number of companies to relocate to more cost-efficient spaces,* cramming workers at all levels into tighter digs. Pop your head over your wall and do some prairie-dog recon: Are you the only person who has suffered a significant loss of square footage?

If so, you could argue that the lack of privacy and elbow room is hampering your performance. But if the move was designed to keep the company staffed and solvent, and everyone is suffering, don't expect the boss to sympathize.

Q: Our eight-person office recently relocated to a smaller space. [*See? -- KLM] We all have offices but are physically much closer now. We also have an "open door" policy: Unless you're working on a confidential matter, doors stay open. One staffer sings often "because she's happy." She has a nice voice, but it's distracting to the rest of us. I manage the company and have twice commented that others find the sound distracting. She quiets down for a week or so but then resumes. Any suggestions?

A: Why not accompany your cheery chanteuse on improvised office-supply instruments? Or shout out requests? ("Do you know 'The Road to El Dorado?' " "Yes, shall I sing it?" "No -- take it.")

Seriously, as the manager, you're in a position to ground this songbird with repeated, increasingly firm reminders to pipe down. You're also in a position to propose adjusting that open-door policy so your workers can shut out -- or in -- distracting sounds.

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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