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MISS CONDUCT

How to get stuff done in a post-pandemic open-plan office

What to do when chatty colleagues and indiscreet Zoom sessions distract you from your job.

Need advice dealing with a difficult situation? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

My company returned to a hybrid schedule a few months ago. When we were fully remote, it felt like the only time you talked to colleagues was when you needed something or there was a problem. Now, there are lots of chances to bump into people, catch up, and make small talk. The problem is — and I feel like a grinch saying this — is that there’s too much small talk, and it feels like there’s never enough time to do work. Will this eventually solve itself? Should I try to politely extricate myself from conversations?

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Anonymous / Boston

The exuberance may indeed fade over time; it may also be the case that your colleagues are a chattier bunch than you recall. It’s possible you used to have the knack of shutting them down — cast back in your memory of the Before Times and see if past Anon has any advice for you.

If not, end conversations when you need to. It’s not rude — you are, after all, at work. Ambassadorial tact and grace is beyond most of us right now, but you can be clear and kind and simply embrace the awkwardness that everyone is still feeling. “This is great! But I have a thing I just remembered I have to do. Gotta go!” Everyone you work with has been in your position and will empathize, I’m sure. If you do fear you might have ruffled feathers, or just want to be nice, circle back later with the person you talkblocked. Send a friendly DM or add a PS to a work e-mail. They may be feeling self-conscious about their attack of motormouthiness — that, too, is a position many of us have been in.

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Repeat offenders require sterner treatment. I’ve found it useful to get in motion and stay in motion the moment I see them, which is easier in some situations than others, admittedly. Remember, people who habitually harangue others are used to being cut off, and won’t see you as uniquely impolite.


My office is largely made up of close-set cubicles and I’ve noticed a lot of people, many more than before the pandemic, have Zoom meetings with our remote colleagues with the sound fully on. Sometimes the conversation veers into talk about other teams or other colleagues, as well as other topics I’d rather not be overhearing, and maybe shouldn’t be overhearing. Should I say something? It’s unclear if the remote-working people on the Zoom call know they might be overheard in the office.

Anonymous / Boston

This sounds like a problem worth escalating. Cube farms in general are awful and there’s no solution for many of the problems they entail. People have biological functions and need to speak to conduct business and have silence to concentrate; the open-plan office allows you to pick one, leading to inevitable frustration. Compromised confidentiality is another matter, though, so bring this issue up. People can be defensive, so be clear you aren’t pointing fingers, only identifying the need to develop new procedures for new ways of working.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.