Ombud's corner: space invaders

When normal communication breaks down and there is no sharing anymore, office-mates can become ‘space invaders’. Very often, the situation can be resolved effectively by taking just a few simple steps...


The lack of office space at CERN is a permanent issue that the various departments regularly have to address. As a result, very often this precious space where we spend the entire day has to be shared with other colleagues. Office-mates may come from different backgrounds and cultures and may have very different habits and behaviours; they may also have different activities during the day, sometimes requiring unusual, (perhaps even strange?) interactions with the space they occupy; finally, their presence might be irregular, making it very difficult for us to establish a stable relationship.

Mark and Claire share an office as well as some professional activities. In the beginning, the relationship seems to work normally but, over time, the communication between them steadily degrades and now Mark and Claire find themselves avoiding any interaction with each other: Mark doesn’t even look up when Claire walks into the office and Claire doesn’t bother to say “hello”. They limit their work communication to the absolute minimum, sometimes even resorting to e-mail rather than talking to each other. The situation becomes unbearable for Claire, who decides to go to the Ombud.

The example above demonstrates a mismatch between two people with different needs and expectations: both find the situation unpleasant but neither of them feels able to speak up and clarify it. In such a case, requesting the support of the Ombud may make it easier for the two people concerned to sit down and find their way out of a situation in which both are stuck.

Indeed, very often we make assumptions about people’s intentions and interpret their behaviour to mean something that may not always correspond to reality. By doing this, we find ourselves locked into positions that are very hard to break out of. Things that seem insignificant take on greater significance and start having an influence on the whole working relationship. In the example above, it turned out that the real problem was not one of a lack of consideration after all; it was something quite different and, as soon as it was brought to the surface, the problem was resolved.

Before assuming that your office-mate is insensitive and uncaring because he opens the window even though you are coughing and sneezing, consider sharing your needs with him calmly and openly. Do not wait until sharing the office becomes a daily conflict and you feel that your space is constantly being invaded; instead, take steps to clarify the situation. And if you do not feel able to tackle the question yourself, engage the help of your Ombud. 

All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed via the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill