Q. I work in a department with over 50 desk cubicles, no walls. When approaching someone to speak to them is it proper to stand behind/beside them until they notice me or is it proper to gently knock to alert them that I am standing there?
D. F., Houston, TX
A. The gentle knock is the appropriate answer. Simply standing there waiting for her to acknowledge you doesn’t work. She may not respond, especially if she is on the phone or deeply involved in work, and that would be awkward for you. On the other end of the spectrum, speaking to her without getting her attention first could startle her, interrupt a phone conversation or cause her to lose her concentration.
Too often I’ve found myself in your situation: I’ve approached a person who is working at her desk and started to ask a question. With the person’s back to me, I hadn’t noticed that she was actually on the phone. My speaking rudely interrupted her phone conversation. Even if she isn’t on the phone, a soft knock would be a gentler way to get her attention without being overtly rude.
Impersonal and public though they appear, a person’s cube is as much a personal workspace as an office with four walls and a door. It’s important to respect the invisible boundaries. Gently knocking announces your presence without causing a rude interruption. Once you have her attention, you can either ask or signal if this is a good time to talk. If the person indicates or says that it’s not a good time—she’s on the phone or needs to complete a task—don’t walk off in a huff. Instead show consideration and return at a better time. An alternative is to take a piece of note paper with you and write on it, “Please call me when you’re finished.” You can quietly slip the note on her desk.
The best solution may be to avoid the situation altogether. Don’t assume you will be able to talk with her. Try calling her extension first. If she answers, you can talk with her directly or set up a time to meet later. If her extension is busy, you can leave a message for her to get back to you when she’s available. An e-mail and an instant message are also other less intrusive ways to ask to meet.