Picture this: you grab a seat in a quiet corner of the office. On the table you have a cup of espresso and your laptop as you power through tasks for an upcoming deadline. A coworker comes by and plops down next to you — right next to you.
You may not be aware of it, but your body language communicates your discomfort or frustration. Because without intending to, your coworker has crossed a boundary and infringed on your personal space.
Even though you may enjoy coming to the office and interacting with your colleagues, it’s normal to want some space for yourself to concentrate on your work or take a breather during a chaotic day. Learning to advocate your personal boundaries and understand the boundaries of others is key to building strong professional relationships. It demonstrates respect and encourages healthy, consensual interactions.
What’s personal space?
In social psychology, personal space (sometimes referred to as interpersonal space) is the distance you maintain between yourself and others. Our need for adequate peripersonal space — that which surrounds us and we can reach out and touch — is an evolutionary trait: we instinctively create physical distance from others and objects to prepare ourselves for defensive responses to potentially harmful stimuli.
When your interpersonal boundaries are infringed upon in social situations, it can feel invasive. You likely experience physical or emotional discomfort and instinctively move your body away to reinstate comfortable proximity.
But personal space is subjective. What feels too close for comfort for you might be acceptable for someone else. Several external factors can influence a person’s unique boundaries, including:
Your relationship to the person you’re interacting with also affects your comfort level. An arm’s length might be comfortable for close coworkers, while more personal space feels appropriate at a networking event with total strangers.
Additionally, a desire for distance could signal a shift in your mood or attitude toward a person. Understanding what your boundaries say about your emotional state benefits your overall mental health and communication. If you find yourself creating a larger-than-normal distance with a manager, this may be your body’s way of telling you that something isn’t quite right. Likewise, less personal space around your coworkers might indicate that you feel comfortable and included at work.
Types of personal space
Proxemics is the study of space in human social interactions. In “The Hidden Dimension,” author and anthropologist Edward Hall illustrates four kinds of personal space based on social, emotional, and physical factors:
1. Intimate distance
Direct body contact can provide comfort, acknowledgment, or protection from a harmful situation. Intimate distance is typically reserved for partners, family members, and close friends. However, you may develop intimate distance with your best work friend and extend them a hug for good news, like a raving performance review.
In the workplace, entering someone’s intimate space should be exercised with care and consent. Unwanted touch (like grabbing something from someone’s grasp, staring over someone’s shoulder, or tapping someone’s arm) may not only invade someone’s bubble but constitute hostile behavior or harassment if attributions of intentional harm are present.
2. Personal distance
Hall designates personal distance as taking place between 1–4 feet, depending on your relationship with the other person. Maintaining a personal distance in work interactions demonstrates professionalism and respect, as it accommodates a person’s space and doesn’t feel overly familiar. Prevent discomfort by maintaining a comfortable distance in one-on-one discussions, collaborative work, and communal areas of the office.
3. Social distance
Hall considers social distance 4–12 feet. This distance usually doesn’t feel intimate and is ideal for situations that require formality, like interacting with customers or giving a small presentation.
In hierarchical workplaces, you may naturally observe social distance. The company CEO might place themselves 6 feet in front of employees while delivering a message, or you may create a similar distance between yourself and an important client as a sign of formality or respect.
4. Public distance
Public distance ranges from 12–25 feet or more. This designation is typically used to engage with large audiences or during public speaking, when the speaker requires distance and can establish authority and control.
Conference centers and similar spaces typically create this kind of distance — without it, participants can struggle to concentrate or learn. Have you ever been to a networking event where everyone is squeezed together? You may have felt so distracted by all the people you had difficulty getting down to business.
The importance of respecting personal space
Personal space is an important nonverbal communication cue. The distance a person creates and maintains between you is often an indication of their comfort level.
Recognizing and respecting personal space helps you maintain healthy relationships and a positive professional environment. Here are several more workplace benefits:
Helps people stay focused: No matter how much you enjoy your coworkers or company culture, everyone needs distraction and disruption-free time to concentrate on their responsibilities. Invading someone’s personal space can break their focus and delay productivity, which — depending on the person — they may not recover immediately after the distraction disappears.
Avoids tension and miscommunication: Even if you mean no harm, consistently entering someone’s personal space may be misinterpreted as being authoritative, intentionally disrespectful, or, in a worst-case scenario, harassing. Dealing with someone who frequently invades your bubble can make you feel standoffish, tense, or avoidant of that person, which in turn reduces critical teamwork and knowledge sharing.
Improves your communication: According to the 7-38-55 rule, most communication is nonverbal. Humans depend on nonverbal cues such as body language, eye contact, and vocal tone to understand the content and intention of the other person’s message. Invading someone’s space might not only be uncomfortable, but could also be so distracting that the content of your message gets muddled or misunderstood.
How to respect personal space at work
1. Define your boundaries
Your personal space boundaries likely won’t align with the rest of your team’s — and that’s okay. Don’t assume that everyone understands your needs: a coworker may be invading your bubble without realizing it.
Clearly identify, define, and set boundaries with your colleagues. This might mean letting people know you don’t like being touched or asking them to knock before entering your cubicle.
2. Separate personal from professional
Work occupies so much of your time that it may not be easy to separate your personal life from your professional one. Figure out your comfort levels and define what you’re okay with sharing about yourself and with whom. Setting clear boundaries (like keeping non-work related social media private or opting out of personal conversations) can help keep your relationships professional.
And for remote workers, having a special corner dedicated to work or being firm about working hours encourages people to respect your personal boundaries even from a distance.
3. Address problems quickly
Assertiveness may feel uncomfortable, but speaking up for yourself is one of the best ways to draw a clear line in the sand. The conversation doesn’t have to be aggressive or impolite — it only requires you to be direct and clearly state your point of view. If a coworker crosses a boundary, pull them aside and politely let them know how their behavior impacts you.
For example, if a coworker frequently interrupts your flow state, you could say, “I’m always happy to lend a helping hand. But when you pop into my office unannounced, I have difficulty regaining my concentration. Can you send a message first?”
Your honesty can have a positive ripple effect that strengthens your working relationship. After all, transparency builds trust and dedication. It encourages your coworkers to assign value to your opinions and needs and actively adapt work styles that benefit everyone.
4. Be proactive
Whether you work remotely or in person, establishing set times to go into focus mode lets people know when and how to give space. Shutting off messaging notifications or putting up a do not disturb sign next to your desk clearly establishes boundaries and expectations without explicit conversations.
Similarly, telling your manager upfront that you prefer nods to handshakes empowers them to adapt to your needs and provide a safe environment from the jump. And the next time you go to a meeting, they’ll likely have already informed participants of your preference.
5. Set the tone
Leading by example can establish a mutual understanding that everyone’s space, not just yours, is important and respected. Try knocking before entering a coworker’s office, keeping a distance during conversations, and developing self-awareness to recognize a person’s body language cues. Likewise, if someone isn’t forthright about their boundaries, you can gently ask them how you can better accommodate their expectations for personal space.
Save your space
Your social interactions in the workplace are full of nuance and complexity. While it may not be easy to ask for your personal space, setting clear boundaries with coworkers, colleagues, and managers is essential to succeeding at work. It helps you stay focused, advocate for yourself, and feel safe.
Understand that everyone’s definition of personal space is different — and valid. Clearly identify your boundaries and communicate them in a healthy, straightforward manner. You (and your coworkers) will likely be more comfortable because of it.