Pilita Clark: The hell of other people in the office

The scourge of loud or smelly co-workers is back – and there’s hot-desking issues too

The most reliable source of co-worker anguish is noise. Photograph: iStock

If you sit next to a window at work, congratulations. Natural light and outdoor views are among the most treasured perks in any office.

Cafeterias, childcare centres and gyms are also prized. But there is one feature of the modern office that has always been hard to improve: other people.

Proximity to loud, smelly or otherwise irksome colleagues is a curse that has long been with us. I assumed it would be sharply eased thanks to the rise of working from home. But there are signs the pandemic is spawning another set of annoyances that could be almost as grievous.

I started thinking about all this last week after reading of the great popcorn Proms commotion at London’s Royal Albert Hall. An angry man “tore apart” a hapless American couple during a production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites opera according to audience members who begged the hall to stop selling the crunchy snack.


“It’s noisy, smelly, intrusive and completely inappropriate at a concert,” said classical music critic, Jessica Duchen, in a post that others quickly endorsed. “Just dreadful,” agreed one man. “Completely unacceptable,” said another.

The next day someone tried to start a parliamentary petition to ban popcorn sales at classical music concerts. It failed on the grounds that snack-related decisions were up to music venues, not the UK parliament.

Still, the angry man and the Americans were reportedly moved during the interval so they could sit apart from each other.

Solutions are trickier for those doomed to work near the long list of annoying people in the office.

Toenail clippers, teeth flossers and sweaty gym gear wearers seem to lead the ladder. Then comes offensively strong perfume, eating fish tacos al desko and messy desks, which aggravate people for reasons that I find baffling.

I feel for those who work for the many firms that are bringing in hot-desking... If poorly executed, this can be an infuriating, productivity-sapping scourge

The most memorable story of an infuriating work colleague came in 2018, when it was reported that a Russian working on a remote Antarctic base had stabbed a colleague who kept telling him the endings of books he was reading.

Doubts about this claim subsequently emerged. But it will surprise precisely no one to learn the most reliable source of co-worker anguish is noise. Loud chewing. Loud sneezing. Loud music. Loud tongue clicking. Loud typing. Even loud breathing sends people round the twist.

When researchers asked 21,000 workers across the world to name the benefits of working from home this year, “individual quiet time” ranked among the top five.

I felt a flash of guilt when I read this, knowing I have a horrible habit of sighing, exclaiming and occasionally hooting at the sight of something on my screen.

My colleagues are too nice to tell me off, and in any case we work next to a lavatory with a thunderous hand-dryer that drowns out all human sound in the vicinity.

Working from home clearly solves such problems. But I fear it is adding other woes as employers confront costly, half-empty offices.

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Last week the AWA consultancy reported that more than 80 per cent of the 119 offices it regularly tracks in 22 countries are being attended by hybrid workers for just two days a week at most. Employers are trying to cut office space “wherever they can”, it says.

That means there is more pressure to bring in one of the chief reasons that noise has come to plague today’s offices: open plan desks.

I had not appreciated the disquiet this was causing until friends around London began complaining about being turfed out of quiet private offices into the noisy wastelands of open plan.

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I feel for them. But I feel more for those who work for the many firms that are also bringing in hot-desking, or unassigned desks that people have to nab on the days they come into the office. If poorly executed, this can be an infuriating, productivity-sapping scourge.

One new hot-desker I know works for a company that has bought up several rivals. Unless he faffs around trying to book specific desks at specific times, his increasingly rootless office days are spent beside people he does not know, talking about stuff he has no interest in, often loudly.

Unsurprisingly, he is doing what any sentient person would do in such a situation. He’s working more from home. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023