You might have dreams of a corner office, but chances are your first professional workspace will be something far less lofty: the lowly cubicle.
Cubicles have their advantages for your employer: They are cheap and flexible, allowing all sorts of configurations in an otherwise open floor plan.
Cubes can also be good for workers, when they are part of a general office culture of accessibility. But good etiquette is needed to make sure that all that easy interaction is productive, not painful.
Here are some tips to help recent grads ease the transition from classroom to cubicle:
* Keep your voice down. There is zero soundproofing in a cubicle. Take no comfort in those paper-thin walls, even when they go all the way up to the ceiling. Assume that everyone around you will hear everything you say, whether it's inane chatter about dinner plans with your best friend, fighting about bills with your boyfriend or interviewing for another job. Keep your voice as quiet as is reasonable for work-related conversations. And if the conversation is not work-related? Take it outside.
* Control the cell phone. Cell phone ring tones are distracting, especially snippets of goofy songs. When you're in the office, turn it off or set the ringer to "vibrate" or "visual only" mode. When you leave your cube, always bring your phone with you. Otherwise, you risk having one of your co-workers toss it out the window or stomp it into bits to stop the incessant ringing.
* Ask before entering. Knock gently to announce your presence, and wait for the person to make eye contact before stepping inside his or her cubicle. If the person is on the phone or looks otherwise occupied, leave a note and come back later.
* Avoid sneak attacks. The configurations of many desks and the "doors" of cubicles leave many people with their backs to the "hall." Let people know you are walking up behind them. If you have problems with other co-workers sneaking up on you, invest in a cheap-o mirror that attaches to your computer monitor so you can see who's coming.
* Don't pile up. Cubicles are not good places to hold meetings. For anything other than a quick chat between two people, find a more appropriate space, such as a conference room. Letting the crowd spill out into the walkway is not an alternative. It's distracting to everyone else around you.
* Keep your germs at home. I know there are lots of macho people out there who "just can't be sick," but this is a mindset that we need to break, especially in cube-land. People who are separated from their co-workers' sneezes by walls that aren't that much thicker than Kleenex to begin with are especially vulnerable to contagious illness. If you've got a bug, please stay home.
* Choose your decor carefully. The lack of privacy in a cubicle means that everyone will be privy to your choices in wall art. A few family photos are fine, but leave the drunken party pics of you and your 11 best college friends at home. Be judicious about choosing foliage as well. Plants are not likely to damage your fledgling professional image the way cheap-beer-slinging, skimpy-tank-top-sporting snapshots can, but they can irritate some people's allergies.
* Choose food carefully. You might think your husband's chicken curry is the yummiest, but your office neighbors could disagree. Anything that has a strong smell should probably be heated up and consumed outside of your cube. Even if everyone agrees that it smells utterly delicious, the appetizing aroma could be distracting to a hungry co-worker who is just trying to make it through to his own late lunch time.
* Speak up. When one of your neighbors is doing something that interferes with your ability to get work done, say something. Don't let it fester. A polite and direct comment immediately about the offending behavior is infinitely more effective than griping to everyone else in the office.
Brush Up Your Shakespeare, Put It to Work
Wondering what you're going to do with that brand-new English degree? Are you a professional with a liberal arts diploma with some good advice for the recent grads on how to turn their expertise on sexual repression in Edith Wharton novels into a marketable career? Send me an e-mail at email@example.com.
Join Mary Ellen Slayter at 2 p.m. June 17 for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/jobs/careertrack.