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Debbie Nicol, the Workplace Doctor, says policing against smokers in the office do more harm than good in workplaces. Sarah Dea / The National
Debbie Nicol, the Workplace Doctor, says policing against smokers in the office do more harm than good in workplaces. Sarah Dea / The National

No smoke without ire in high-rise office

The Life: Smokers who are absent for up to 30 minutes while their colleagues continue to tackle the workload cause frustration at one company.

I find the smokers in my team a problem. Because we are on the 30th floor of an office tower, it can take them up to 10 minutes to get down to ground level to have a cigarette. Then, while the rest of us plug away at the workload, they smoke and gossip before coming back up again. The whole process can take 30 minutes and for heavy smokers it means a significant portion of the day is spent travelling up and down the building to smoke. How do I tackle the issue of productivity levels without sounding like the smoking police? ZP


Hi ZP, thanks for sharing your concern and the good news is that you are not alone with this issue. It is a common predicament for today's workplaces with all of the new legislation floating around as people have to leave the building to have a cigarette. While new rules may serve our health in one way, could they also be hindering our workplaces in another? It seems that there's a lot more than the mere smell of the smoke that is getting up your nose (pardon the pun). Interestingly there's a lot of environmentalists who would join your cause too as they aren't happy with the piles of cigarette butts discarded in the public eye.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest this issue would suffer if treated from the angle of the 'smoking police'. The thought of smoking fines just doesn't do it. I've seen policing do more harm than good in workplaces. Not only does it only result in short-term change, it also stops people from taking responsible judgement and decisions. Even though I am unsure as to your status or position level within the workplace, I feel sure anyone with your concerns would prefer long-term solutions.

I've previously worked in a corporation that took this problem to the smokers themselves, looking at the situation objectively with facts and figures, and asking them to come up with the solution. Forever optimistic, that organisation tried to demonstrate the greatest possible trust and assume that the smokers were not trying to take advantage of the system. Indeed, simple awareness of the facts and figures on how their productivity levels were affected by their habit was enough to spur on the desire to address the situation. In your case, what's the likelihood of your people coming up with a solution themselves, and if so, could it be a safe assumption that any solution would be followed wholeheartedly? Have you ever offered this freedom of policymaking to the people and if so, what result did it achieve?

Another conversation you could start is how does this inequity in productivity align to the company values. As values indicate how we wish to treat others and others to treat ourselves, is there any leeway you find here to start people talking? Who knows, it may even become a little emotive, forcing the issue to be resolved. When people look at issues through the eyes of others, it often opens minds in a way never thought of before. Collaboration may just shine through.

I'm really excited to imagine the view that you have from the 30th floor. Wide-open expanses and very little pollution, with only the odd cloud or small amount of fog floating on by. Can we always find a silver lining in a dark cloud (of smoke) and, if so, what might it be in this situation? My own silver lining (as I too am a non-smoker) would be that at the very least, these people with the smoking itch are out of your sight when they leave - imagine if your office was on the ground floor, and when they were having a cigarette it meant they were also standing directly outside your window. Imagine it now - eyes locking with every puff, and the smoke signals playfully tantalising your disdain through the window pane while you are slaving away - ooh, the misery that would cause. Positive thinking takes us far in times of stress - thank goodness for small mercies.


Doctor's Prescription

Sharing the same business vision can lead to sharing the decision-making too.


Debbie Nicol, the managing director of Dubai-based business en motion, is a consultant on leadership and organisational development, strategic change and corporate culture. Email her at debbie.nicol@businessenmotion.com for the Workplace Doctor's advice on your challenges, whether as an employee, a manager or a colleague

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