Michele Thwaits’ top tips for sharing office space and giving a great handshake

Following on from Part 1 in the May edition where we covered cellphone and business phone etiquette, let’s take a look at:


  • Cubicle etiquette
  • Handshake etiquette


Cubicle etiquette


One would think that working in open office spaces where most people work without doors, this would encourage teamwork and creativity.  Right? I would reply Yes and No.  Working in open plan offices can also mean working closely with others – sometimes too close for comfort.


I don’t know about you, but here in South Africa the change to open plan offices is becoming more and more appealing.  No more offices and closed doors as was the case in the good old days and believe me, it was really something I had to get used to after having an office for many years.  Suddenly there was no privacy.


We need to remember that even though there are no doors or four walls marking an area or office, we need to respect everyone else’s work space.


Tip #1 – Peek a boo, where are you?


If you need to speak to your neighbour, walk around the partition instead of just popping your head over the top of the cubicle.  And if you are walking down the passageway, don’t feel the need to just pop your head into every workstation on the way.  We all have that inquisitive streak in us but some people really value their privacy.


Tip #2 – Pretend that workstations have walls


Now this is where I have been at fault too.  I really had to work at it to keep myself from doing this.  Don’t just walk into a work area that has no door.  Rather tap on the wall near the opening lightly and say “Excuse me” to announce your arrival.  That person could be on the phone or talking to someone else or even concentrating on a piece of work.


Never assume it is okay to just enter their workspace unless he/she signals for you to do so.   I had a boss who loved to do that.  He would just come up behind me, pull up a chair and starting talking about his dog or whatever he felt like talking about.  I would be in the middle of something and would have to just stop and give him my attention.


Tip #3 – Allow your colleagues to complete calls


If you are walking past someone and you see they are on a call, don’t interrupt them with sign language or lurk just outside the cubicle until they are done.  Rather put a note on their desk and return later.


To expect someone to just end their call when you arrive is rather disrespectful.  I know, it may be urgent, but then say so in your note.


Another thing, don’t hang around and listen to the conversation either.  If you were to be part of that conversation you would have been invited and they would have arranged a conference call.  Let them finish and get back to them later.


Tip #4 – Grant your neighbours private time


Tea breaks and lunch breaks (even smoke breaks) are the one time you can have to yourself without interruptions.  These are times you can walk away from your desk for a few minutes just to “zone out”.  And many a time you don’t want to have anyone around you or to talk to – you just want to sit and think.


Stagger your lunch breaks or tea breaks so that everyone has a few minutes alone at their desks or in the lunch room or wherever they choose to go.  Silence and no interruptions for just a few minutes can be heaven.  If you have a meeting room that is free, book it out for yourself and if you need to take a power nap, then do so.  You will feel so much better and recharged for the rest of the day.


Tip #5 – Move conversations from the passage


After a survey done by Harris Interactive, they recorded that more than 30% of people said “People talking loudly at work” was one of their biggest pet peeves.  Employees who talk loudly on the phone and in person can hurt productivity and morale – and that can create tension amongst everyone.


I would advise in a situation like that, to send out an email (or get your HR representative to do so) reminding employees about the Noise Policy (if you have one in place) and the need to respect co-workers workspace.  Many people probably aren’t even aware that they are causing a disruption.


Also if you are in conversation with a group of people in the passage or in an open area, rather find a conference room or other common area where you can talk without disturbing co-workers who are trying to concentrate.


Tip #6 – Don’t chime into conversations


Sometimes we can’t help overhearing conversations – but if you do hear something over the cubicle wall, don’t get involved or offer your two cents worth.  Whether it is a work question you can answer, or a private conversation you’d rather not hear – ignore comments that aren’t directed at you.


I had an instance where a colleague asked me a question whilst I was busy finishing off something urgent.  Before I could answer, a lady who supported me in the office just answered.  And when this happened a second time, she did the same thing.  I eventually walked over to her and asked her to please give me the opportunity of answering the questions posed to me.  If I couldn’t answer the question, then should have liberty to say so.  We laughed about it afterwards but she wasn’t even aware that she was doing it.  She never did it again.


Tip #6 – Keep lunch in the kitchen


Oh yes please!  Eat your lunch in the kitchen if you have one.  However, if you cannot leave your desk for a meal, then make sure you have foods which do not have a strong odour.  A lady in my office was eating raw sardines – can you image the smell after that?


And then of course, place your lunch time trash in the bin provided in the kitchen area and not at your desk.  Again, fish left overnight will leave a ghastly smell by the time you get in the office the next day.


Try and remember when sitting in close proximity to someone and eating something crunchy – not everyone likes to hear another person crunching in their ears.  I am one of them.  It drives me up the wall.  I had managers who loved to eat nuts in the afternoon – it took everything in me not to say anything but to try and focus on something else.


Tip #7 – Turn down the volume


In this instance, I am referring to your laptop or PC.  Mute any sound effects on your screensaver, incoming emails or notifications.  Set your phone ringtone on low or vibrate or even silent.  In fact, your callers can go to voicemail (after all that is what it is there for) when you aren’t able to answer your phone.


Can you imagine sitting at your desk and all you hear are these strange beeping sounds coming from the other desk when messages come in?


Another thing to remember is when you are in a meeting, ensure that all programmes are closed and alert tones are switched to silent/off.  It can be very embarrassing when they come up and you are presenting to clients.


Etiquette is what you are doing and saying when people are looking and listening.  What you are thinking is your business – Virginia Cary Hudson


Handshake etiquette


Handshakes are very important.  Do you know why?  According to research, a prospective employee with the best handshake is more likely to get the job. So even if you are not looking for a job, a good handshake will grant you instant rapport when meeting someone new.


I have had to shake hands with people who have that limp fish, hardly-make-an-effort handshake.  And I can tell you just by looking at them, they are not really interested in shaking your hand – it makes me wonder, do they really want to meet me?


Tip #1 – A good well-timed handshake together with your smile is a sure way to stand out


And that is so true.  Smile when shaking someone’s hand.  You are keen to meet them, aren’t you?  Yes!  You are keen to market yourself and show your brand? Yes! Then smile.


In fact, what I do is, I step forward (or lean into) the handshake with a person.  The whole body language says you are keen to meet and interested in knowing this person and getting them to know about you.  And I generally make the first move – I don’t wait. Try it.


Tip #2 – Focus on the person you are shaking hands with


When you shake hands, look directly in the person’s eyes during the handshake.  Why?  Well a lot can be seen in the eyes of someone, after all, they are the windows to your soul.


If you are shaking someone’s hand and in so doing you are talking to someone else, it shows that you are not really interested in meeting them and that shaking hands was merely a formality – this is the wrong impression to be creating about yourself.  If someone does distract you, finish with your introductions and let the other person know you will be with them once you are done talking to “Mr Smith”.


Tip #3 – Keep your grip firm and assertive – not too tight


General rule of thumb – grasp as tightly as the other person does.  Yes that is the general rule of thumb, but what happens when you shake hands with a bone crusher? You are left nursing your sore hand.  Then again, you could end up shaking hands with someone who has a limp fish handshake – ugh – why bother?


Make sure it is a firm and assertive handshake – nothing more.


Tip #4 – Two up and down pumps are adequate


Yes – two pumps should be absolutely enough to shake hands.  Your handshake shouldn’t last more than 3 seconds.  Unless of course, someone is desperately trying to get your attention or show his/her intentions – they will probably want to hold on for a little longer.


A little something to remember – when going into shake someone’s hands, note which side their name tag is – so if name tag is placed on their right side, you go into the handshake with your right hand.  Why?  Well, you can then lean in a bit to read their name and company especially if you are hard of hearing or want to make sure you get their name right.  Just saying.


Tip #4 – Two-handed handshakes are a sign of real affection


I wouldn’t recommend using this handshake when meeting people in a business setting for the first time.  You normally find that people who know each other well go for this type of handshake.  I know that politicians tend to use it a lot.


Just watch a guy when he meets an extremely beautiful and attractive woman – he tends to shake hands that way too.  Subtle clue as to his intentions, don’t you think?


Tip #5 – Be ready to shake hands regardless of gender


If you are OCD or have a phobia about touching other people, then this could be a problem for you.


Whether you are being introduced to a man or a woman, be ready to shake hands.  Be the first to extend your hand to shake theirs – believe me, you will be remembered.  Do you wait for someone to extend their hands first?  You may come across as not interested or hesitant.  If you want to win someone over and get their attention – step forward and extend your hand.


“No matter how well you know the rules of etiquette, you will eventually offend someone who doesn’t” – Don Rittner


Make an impression! Stand out! Respectfully apply the tips that we have covered on phone etiquette, cubicle etiquette and handshakes.  And if you have to remind someone or make them aware of what is the right thing to do, do so in a friendly and supportive way.  Remember to ensure that your tone and intention is right as it can either come across as welcome information or the person you speak to can become defensive.  In most cases, people watch you and listen to you and if you are consistent in your ways, they will eventually follow suit.


You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart – John Ford

Michele Thwaits is the owner of Empowered 4 Success - an experienced and a sought after facilitator and trainer specializing in EA, PA and administrative skills. Since 2006 she has had the privilege of working with audiences through training and speaking ... (Read More)

One comment on “Business etiquette essentials for Administrative Professionals – Part 2

  1. Tara McGovern on

    Here in the US our offices are changing to open workspaces too. I get annoyed when the person who sits just 5 feet away from me takes her calls on Speakerphone! Invest in a headset for conference calls please! Thanks for this great article, very good tips.


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