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Coworker Drama: How to Navigate the Office Minefield and Accomplish More

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help yourself before you ask for a favor

It’s Monday. You get into the office and are all set to tackle the mountain of emails that have amassed in your inbox over the weekend when you hear, “and they were completely out of soya milk, it most certainly was not extra hot and I could swear there were two full shots when I explicitly requested a shot and a half!” from the desk behind you.

Monday morning coffee blues: just one of many “problems” you’ll hear working in a middle-class office.

The scene is familiar: You’re working your way up in the world, putting in the hours and doing great work. You’re surrounded by people at a similar point in both their career and life choices.

They’ve got a little extra disposable income, they’re starting to think about marriage, family or expanding family, moving homes, buying a bigger car — heck, they’ve worked hard these last few years and feel they deserve a decent coffee on a Monday morning.

Welcome to the world of the middle-class office. Best get ready to tackle some serious middle-class problems:

The little problems are huge

The main problem in working in a middle-class office is that there are few real “problems” at all. (Click here to tweet this thought.) No one is worried about scraping together the last few pennies of their paycheck at the end of the month so they can afford to eat, no one is working three jobs to make rent, and no one’s worried about unemployment.

That means the little problems in life become one catastrophe after another. And who are people going to moan to? You, their fellow suffering coworker.

Their eyes hurt because the computer screen is too bright. The traffic was especially terrible this morning and they were a whole three minutes late. They simply can’t believe there’s no decent sushi place nearby. And they’ve totally forgotten the name of their new cleaner.

Plus, little Oscar has started teething (you worry if Oscar is their dog or their baby), the wedding photographer had to pull out and, on top of all this, the photocopier has jammed again. They look like they’re about to keel over. Life has gotten to be too much.

The best thing to do?

Smile. A friendly nod.

In these situations, the smallest of gestures — making a cup of tea, offering them the opportunity to get it off their chests and out of their system — will probably pay dividends. A sympathetic ear and listening to them for a few minutes will minimize a day-long moan, and you’ll be in their good books, which is never a bad thing.

And by the time they’ve had their little rant, they’ll realize they’ve got so much to do today (you could always prompt this by saying, “Gosh, is that the time?”) that they can’t believe they’ve spent the last 10 minutes jabbering away.

Everybody is, like, so super-busy

You send an email only to be greeted with a plethora of out-of-office replies: “I’m in meetings all day… I’m on email, but away from my desk… Please contact my assistant…” yet you can clearly see each individual looking at their computer screen.

Everyone has so much going on that rather than talking to you about a certain project (yes, you who sits at the next desk), you get an email, a meeting request and a shared Google Doc because they’re so super busy they haven’t got the time to chat about this right now. Ask them how the search for that new kitchen is going, however…

Everyone is so busy that people don’t even have the time to speak in full sentences. Enter the language of the middle-class office: peppered with acronyms, abbreviations and phrasing that doesn’t make sense.

Expect to hear sentences such as, “FYI, going forward we need to reconsider the USP of this, think outside the box and adopt blue-sky thinking — let’s touch base next Wed and drill down the key issues then. Oh, and re: the party, I’m an in but no sig oth.” At a middle-class office, we’re not just talking a waterfall of corporate nonsense; we’re talking the shortening of “significant other” because they’re on such a tight “sched.”

No one has time to do anything because they’re all so busy. Busy doing what exactly, you’re still not sure.

In these situations, it’s best to take the lead and start face-to-face meetings. Agendas to ensure you’re on track, shorter meetings to optimize time, even popping to a colleague’s desk rather than sending an email will ensure you get the answer you need rather than waiting for a response. As for the corporate lingo? Just don’t. Please.

If you’re not on a health kick, who are you?

Perhaps one reason everyone is so busy is due to their involvement in some kind of crazy health program. You’re receiving sponsorship requests for colleagues running a 5K/10K/ marathon or planning a trek to Antarctica with a fridge on their back while riding a unicycle, and you can’t be expected to sponsor everyone (except then you look like the bad guy when you realize everyone else has).

Add to this the smug, healthy annoyance that everyone has cycled to work, is fitting in a yoga session at their desk and has a quinoa and broccoli salad for lunch while you were planning a Mexican feast of burritos with extra cheese (and maybe even chocolate pudding, too).

This health guilt is a side effect of middle-class office life. Your colleagues will be juicin’, chowing down kale, reminding you about the dangers of bad posture (they’ve already submitted a proposal to replace all office chairs with FitBalls) and not-so-discreetly judging your lifestyle choices.

The truth of the matter is exaggeration plays a role here. The smile, friendly nod and sympathetic ear technique is probably best put into action again. We should be encouraging each other’s achievements to build office camaraderie — however much it pains you.

By acknowledging your coworkers’ lifestyle choices, hopefully they’ll respect yours. Or, as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” Even if it’s the smallest change, a healthier lifestyle isn’t really such a bad thing.

Then there’s the air conditioning warfare, the fact that no one does a tea run because you’re all too important for that now, and the pressure of thinking of something witty to write in a colleague’s birthday card while having to chip in for said colleague’s present, when you’re not even 100 percent sure their name is Amanda — or they even work in this office…

It’s a minefield out there.

Good luck.

And if you do succeed in effectively navigating this period of your career, share your tips with us in the comments, please!

Sarah Atkinson is a digital marketing professional and blogger based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She is currently working with serviced office provider Easy Offices and has a special interest in workplace motivation.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Matt

    Sarah, this is a delicious piece of “first world problems” satire. Thanks for brightening my day!

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  • lukawanjohi

    This article has made my day.

  • grayeyedgirl

    This was funny. I did enjoy it because the truth is sometimes hilarious. Sadly, I still need to figure out how to deal with dramatic people in my office who yell at me because someone left COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF GLITTER ON A CHAIR AND OMG WHY IS THERE NO ONE IN THE EVENINGS TO CLEAN UP?!?! *sigh* It’s so dumb the things these people will yell at me about.

  • ML

    So true. A little empathy with an equal does of perspective is good armor for this kind of environment!