My workplace subscribes to a startup mentality and our seating is made up of long double-sided tables that are each five "desk" pieces locked together end-to-end. Anyone is free to sit where they like and move chairs around as desired. As an introvert and someone used to a lot of elbow room, I find putting five people on each side perfectly reasonable as there's nearly enough room to spread your arms out and not touch your neighbor doing the same.

However, many of my coworkers will scoot multiple chairs into one "desk" area, often spilling over into my section. I will shamefully admit to attempting to mitigate this by both staking claim on an end to at least free up one side, as well as getting in early and moving any extra chairs on my side back where they belong (and possibly pushing my neighbor's chair to dead center of their section and out of mine before they get in).

This works well enough in a preventative manner, but sometimes I get in later and someone's already settled halfway over into my section, or someone will come over to consult with my neighbor, pull up a chair, and suddenly be halfway into my space.

As much as I recognize how silly this is on the surface, I find having someone sitting that close insanely distracting. I'd like to say something to ask if they wouldn't mind moving down a foot or so but I don't want to come across as rude or antisocial. I'm asking here first because I don't even know if this is reasonable to ask for, or if I should just suck it up and deal.

My workplace is fairly casual and I do joke around with my coworkers a lot, but almost everyone is my senior in both age and experience. I do not share a boss with any of them and on top of that our hierarchy isn't one where I'd want to bring this up to an authority figure. I'd rather just hash it out with them.

Clarification from the comments:

  • The person sitting next to me could be any of a number of coworkers and vary from "I see them daily" to "internationally-based coworker who comes in once every 6 months for a company event". My level of acquaintance with them similarly varies from "very friendly" to "polite nod in the hallway". I'm looking for a polite way to request more elbow room that would work for any of these scenarios.
  • There's enough room for everyone to take a desk (there's two of these long tables, plus conference rooms if people need to group up). Others are just more social than I and/or seemingly need less elbow room and would prefer to clump up, or will come over for a question and then not go back to their original seat for ages.
  • would forming a buddy-system with one or two coworkers so they are the only ones you sit next to be viable or must it always swap around?
    – Jesse
    Mar 6, 2018 at 0:39
  • @Jesse It's certainly possible (and worth writing an answer about) although who's in day-to-day does fluctuate enough that it's not a perfect solution.
    – Alex
    Mar 6, 2018 at 0:58
  • Have you tried a carrel? You can use cardboard tri-folds or something similar but homemade and a bit smaller. Have you tried headphones with music or white noise? Is there space in the room to bring in your own desk desk? Is there another room? Have you tried piling books on chairs next to you to create a buffer zone? Have you tried leaving some belongings set up when you leave for the day, in case you might get in late the next day? Mar 7, 2018 at 2:09
  • @aparente001 While I appreciate the ideas, everything you've suggested is rather passive-aggressive and in my workplace would be seen as isolating and rude. I would rather face this head-on with my neighbor via conversation.
    – Alex
    Mar 7, 2018 at 3:14
  • @Alex - Well, great. Go for it! If you want to do some reading related to this, you could consider looking for these topics: disclosure, neurological differences. I hope you'll update us -- ping me! Mar 7, 2018 at 20:59

2 Answers 2


My team is moving into new space soon that's going to be set up in rows. Individual spaces are assigned and there will be short dividers between the desks, so it's not exactly your situation, but I have the same cringe reaction to somebody practically breathing down my neck, so I'll share how I'm approaching it.

First and most importantly, when I talk about this I characterize it as my problem, not theirs. It's not that they're sitting too close; it's that I find it very hard to focus without a little space. Treat the conversation as if you are asking for an accommodation (because really, you are).

Next, figure out who you need to talk with and do it privately and one on one. In my case I talked with the manager (not my manager, another team's) who is coordinating the move, apologized for the inconvenience, and asked for what I needed. In my case that was a particular desk and that some of the dividers be taller, which he was able to do. In your case it's not always the same person crowding you and there's nobody really in charge, but you can start with one person who often crowds you. Getting that person to stop crowding you is a good outcome, but the better outcome that you might get is for that person to start influencing others. For example, if that person is next to you and someone else comes to sit with him, he might encourage that person to sit on the other side, or he might slide over, or something like that. I saw something similar work for a coworker whose desk was right behind the printer, but there was a cubicle wall so people at the printer didn't actually see her. She talked with people one at a time about moving conversations from the printer to a nearby conference room, and then those people started proactively moving conversations, which educated the people they were talking with, who started moving... you get the idea.

You can say something like the following (again, privately):

Hey Bob, I was wondering if you could help me with something. I have a lot of trouble focusing on my work when I feel crowded in, which is why I always try to grab that spot at the end. I'm a little embarrassed that I can't seem to fix my problem, but I guess it's just how I'm wired or something. When you're sitting next to me, could you try to use your desk and not slide over into mine? I really appreciate the help, and I'm sorry for the inconvenience.

You can use this approach with any of the regulars. For infrequent visitors, your choices are to either grin and bear it for one day, move if you can, or ask that person to move over. This last might be harder to do since you don't know the person as well as your regular coworkers. That might be a good day to grab a conference room.


I have worked with first in class computer programmers for several years who would not do well in the environment you are describing. At times, several have vocalized their inability to concentrate as a result of the activity going on around them. From my personal experience, it is possible to say in a light-hearted yet serious way that you are finding it difficult to concentrate and do quality work because of the proximity of all the wonderful collaboration going on.

Because it doesn't matter who so much as the other dynamics (personal space and to some extent noise), I don't think I'd single anyone out as much as find a way to share in an open way.

An issue of personal space is trickier to communicate than noise level, so I'd use noise as an excuse: "I love all this brilliant collaboration of creative minds (big smile) but I'm finding it hard to concentrate. Could you guys possibly move to ____" - obviously tweak with your own words.

I'm sure that you don't mean to come across as snobbish, so if you opt to go down this path, you might find some common shared interests (e.g. sports, hobbies, etc) so that in passing you can occasionally strike up a short conversation with some of them.

If you find over time that the same person continually invades your space, that is a whole different issue.

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