Strained workplace atmosphere
August 7, 2018 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I have just taken on a temporary part-time, casual role and have run into problems with my co-worker.

I am based in an office with one other worker who does similar but different work to me and has been there around 2 years. I learned from the beginning that she has more or less always worked alone in this office and has told me repeatedly that she likes her own space. Sometimes workers from other sites come to work in the office. Mine is a new role and the hiring manager took me on the day before she left on annual leave. I am supposed to be working for a team of people, however, they are having a hard time finding things for me to do and since the manager is away on leave, I don’t really have anything to do. I could get by with this if it wasn’t so difficult for me in one other area, and that is my relationship with my co-worker. She is very reluctant to talk to me, share with me. She doesn’t really acknowledge anything I say. It’s like pulling teeth. She sighs and checks her phone constantly and then walks out with her phone having private conversations. A worker from another site came in today and asked to work in my space as that is where they normally work and asked me to move to another office. Before I left, they were speculating as to who would be starting another new role in the department. The worker that had just arrived suggested it could be someone who has worked there before. My co-worker said she didn’t think so as she had “seen them off” the last time they were there. I feel like she is doing the same to me. She doesn’t want me there and although she is not being outright rude, there is such a tense atmosphere. I really need to work there until the end of August. How can I work through this?
posted by charlen to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Pretend like she is someone you are sitting next to on an airplane.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:26 AM on August 7, 2018

Do you need to talk to her for work reasons? Could you IM or email instead if you have work conversations? She obviously doesn't want to have social-type conversations at work, which sucks, but is fine - just act like you're working from a co-working space.

Would it make sense for you to move into the other office permanently so you wouldn't have to sit next to her? If not, and your space is really your space, then don't cede it to other people when they come in. You're allowed to stake your claim.

This is just like 3 more weeks, and the only problem is a little social awkwardness. Just work through it.
posted by brainmouse at 10:33 AM on August 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

To clarify, you are asking her about tasks you could be doing? Or are you trying to get her to talk about her private life? I'm not sure if that's what you mean by "share with you," because it's clear she does not want to do that, and she's entitled to that. Can you ask other people about tasks? Otherwise, just let her do her work and find other ways to spend your time.
posted by sageleaf at 10:38 AM on August 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

Why are you trying to interact with her? Even in larger offices, unless you share work why be anything other than simply polite. You don’t need to have a relationship with her. Be cordial and professional. You have the whole internet to keep you busy til the end of August.
posted by shoesietart at 10:40 AM on August 7, 2018 [18 favorites]

If it was me, I'd ignore that other person.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:43 AM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your job is such that you have no need to interact with this person, why are you trying? Even if you did need to interact with them for work tasks, is there any way you can do this in the most minimal, non-verbal way possible?

Coworkers don't have to like each other and as soon as you're comfortable with that the days will be much easier for you, I promise. You don't have to dislike each other either, just coexist. Ignore them, because who cares if they sigh or check their phone or do whatever else they do? I don't say that to minimise your feelings, because they're real. But it sounds to me like you want something from them … what is it? Why? Do you really need it? From them?

"I could get by with this if it wasn’t so difficult for me in one other area, and that is my relationship with my co-worker."

Being bored and having nothing to at work sounds like it's causing you anxiety. It certainly would for me! Your coworker wanting to be alone shouldn't really prevent you from getting by with nothing to do unless you're relying on them for something. Why are these two things related?

My recommendation for getting through this would be to fully own the solution for having nothing to do. That is, find a way to pass the time productively that does not rely on your coworker one single bit. Separately, I would also suggest that you answer for yourself the following question: What needs to be true for both me and this person to consider this relationship successful? It may turn out that the best you can achieve here is something like ' we both acknowledge each other in the morning and evening and ignore each other in between, each focussing on our own work all day.' If that's it, that's totally achievable! Win win. Good luck!
posted by iamkimiam at 11:31 AM on August 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

You have a temporary part-time, casual role; don't stress so much. Do the work assigned to you, do anything that looks useful, offer help to Hostile Co-worker, and spend remaining time on sites where you can learn a few skills. Maybe the copy room is a mess; tidy it. Maybe there are old files that can be culled and the useful stuff scanned.

A co-worker who is hostile to a temp is pretty fucked up. She is very reluctant to talk to me, share with me. She doesn’t really acknowledge anything I say. If you need a response, say I need an answer to my question about blah and be a little aggressive and then you can go back to declining to communicate with me.
A worker from another site came in today and asked to work in my space as that is where they normally work and asked me to move to another office. The reply I'd give is I was assigned this desk. Can I help you set up at another desk?
although she is not being outright rude Nope, she's being outright rude, and you should be civil, calm and ignore it as much as you can. Distract yourself with MeFi and anything else.
posted by theora55 at 12:02 PM on August 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really need to work there until the end of August.

It's 3 weeks - just a blip in the long span of your life. It sounds like she'd rather not have you sharing her office and is maybe not being super-nice about it, but it also sounds like she isn't really doing anything wrong. So just be cordial and don't try to engage in conversation with her unless it's work-related. If it is work-related and she's ignoring you, that's another story, but again, it's 3 weeks. This will be over before you know it.

Same with the lack of work. I bet your manager will have work for you when they get back from vacation - until then, just practice the important office skill of looking busy while reading metafilter.

If you're worried this woman will try to get you fired before the end of your contract - I'd say that's highly unlikely. Even if she were gunning for you, it doesn't sound like she has hiring/firing power, and anyway, it wouldn't be worth the effort to get rid of someone who's only there for a few more weeks.
posted by lunasol at 12:11 PM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

She's said she doesn't want to talk. Go in in the morning, say "Good morning, Kathy" and then stop talking to her.

It's three weeks and apparently the only person uncomfortable with this is you. Someone is at this point basically paying you to play games on your phone; enjoy.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:00 PM on August 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Would it make sense for you to move into the other office permanently so you wouldn't have to sit next to her?

I came to ask this. It sounds like she's a territorial introvert who is used to working alone, likes her privacy and space, and is taking out her resentment over not being alone on you. This is rude and immature behaviour but is probably not particularly personal. (The fact that she might have "seen another person off" tells you this is just how she treats people.)

Now that she's shown you who she is, you have no obligation towards her beyond superficial, professional politeness. Say hello in the morning, nod if you pass in the hallway, and otherwise, only engage with her if absolutely necessary. If you can give her space by working in the other office, do that. In any case, focus on your own work, and if there isn't enough of it, spend your time finding useful articles or podcasts and learning about something useful or interesting.

Three weeks is not a very long time. Enjoy the downtime while you can get it.
posted by rpfields at 1:46 PM on August 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think rpfields is right on the introvert/territorial bit and definitely not personal. If you can move away from her, do that. Even if it's temporary. If she's the kind of person who gets freaked out about having her work environment disturbed, avoid doing that as much as possible.

Give up on trying to talk to her. Load up your phone with podcasts, books or TV shows, work on a personal project (screen play, new language), or come up with a work-related project for yourself that makes sense based on your role. Review the work you've already done so far and double-check it for errors. Type up your notes.

If you have to stay near her, avoid drawing attention to yourself. Take lunch, personal calls, etc away from your desk. Use headphones when listening to stuff.

Even if she is really determined to get rid of you she can't do it overnight because she hasn't yet - she has to either intimidate you into leaving or influence someone else to let you go, and both of those things take time and require your cooperation to some degree - you need to either allow her to intimidate you or give her leverage to get you fired, and you can decide not to do those things. You only need 3 weeks, hunker down and lay low. If she forgets you're there, so much the better.
posted by bunderful at 4:25 PM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is totally optional, but if you have the bandwidth and the interest, why not take this on as a challenge in how to win somebody over? If you succeed, you will have a new superpower that will stand you in good stead for years to come.

It would have been nice if coworker was welcoming and friendly, but she is not. That's absolutely not your fault. Since there's an end date, why not try something new?

The key is, don't be the one to interrupt her or encroach on her space. Wait for her to engage you (even if just to gripe at you), then give her your full attention and be courteous and friendly until she ends the interaction.

In general, mirror her body language and mood.

Ask advice about topics she shows interest in - food, fashion, anything. Even if you have opinions, listen attentively.

Bring treats to share. Be very casual about it. If she turns it down, no big deal, just means there's more for you.

Engage in courtesies - hold the door open, jump in to help with repetitive tasks, etc.

Don't take it personally. Whether or not she warms up to you has zero reflection on your worth. Some people will pick up on signals that you're annoyed or scared of them, and become even less friendly.

Expect that she might rebuff your first few attempts at friendliness. It can take a few repeated overtures before she lets her guard down.

Pick up a copy of Dale Carnegie and try some of, or all of the things. This is the perfect setting for it!

You may be already doing all the things, in which case, good job and carry on.

Best case scenario, the big boss comes back from vacation and is absolutely amazed that you're the first temp that she's OK with.

(Or read a book for the rest of your time, which is totally OK too.)
posted by dum spiro spero at 5:03 PM on August 7, 2018

She's "not being outright rude", but you are. She was there long before you were, she's been ultra-clear that she likes her space and does not want to chat or "share", and you're refusing to respect that. Just stop it already. Be a good coworker by leaving her alone. The atmosphere is only tense because you're making it that way.
posted by nirblegee at 8:45 PM on August 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

Email your hiring manager and ask what, if anything, she'd like you to do. Then ask for help, if needed, by presenting your request in the context of something your hiring manager asked you to work on. For the rest of your time, work on your novel.

It's pretty common for this to happen when starting a job. I've been told before that I needed to start right away at a job, could not take a few days to get things in order, and then waited weeks to be assigned a desk, actionable work, a computer, etc. Things will probably change when your hiring manager returns, in the meantime familiarize yourself with anything you need to do for future work, etc., write that novel.
posted by xammerboy at 9:47 PM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your responses. You have given me much food for thought. Yes, I was basically looking for small talk to help pass the time away but soon got the message when I saw that that was not going to happen. I was following many of the things you mentioned dum spiro spero but was angry when I saw how completely different and friendly she was with the worker who took my desk temporarily. I sit face to face with this co-worker in a small office without any windows. There isn’t any possibility of moving out of the office permanently - I was only able to do this when the other worker arrived as someone was absent that day. This role is supposed to be on-going. I might have done it for longer if circumstances were different.
posted by charlen at 11:14 PM on August 7, 2018

You have given me much food for thought. Yes, I was basically looking for small talk to help pass the time away

You were looking for small talk; now you are looking for podcasts. And earphones.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:53 AM on August 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

This woman is dead to you. She does not exist beyond good morning and goodbye, and maybe "pardon me" if you burp. Do what you need to do in order to keep busy and ignore her existence for the next 3 weeks. At best she is a put-upon introvert, at worst she is a toxic troublemaker. Either way, not your problem.
posted by mccxxiii at 11:50 AM on August 8, 2018

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