The New Rules for Office Etiquette

By Robert Half on October 19, 2022 at 8:15am

Everyone’s tired of talking about the pandemic. But the COVID era has dramatically changed how people interact with each other and navigate densely populated spaces — like the company’s office. And that has caused managers to focus afresh on the (mostly) unwritten rules of office conduct to make sure they suit working in a changed world.

As a leader, you’ll need to set the right example and foster a culture of honesty and respect. Here are some tips to help you and your team navigate the thorniest interpersonal issues affecting the office today.

Respect people’s physical boundaries

Most adults instinctively know where to stand when talking to someone. You lean in close at a cocktail party or restaurant where the noise level is deafening and retreat to about a foot and a half in the office.

But in the COVID era, that foot and a half is a foot too short for some people. So don’t be offended if someone takes a step back, and don’t attempt to close the gap. If you feel awkward (or sense that the other person feels awkward), say something like, “Are you more comfortable if we stand a little farther apart?” and suggest your employees do the same.

Adopt a similarly open and considerate approach to greetings in the office. Should you shake hands, bump elbows or fists, or nod and say hi? “Shall we shake hands?” is one way to break the ice. Another is to smile and say, “Hello, I’m not shaking hands these days, but it’s so good to see you.” Or offer an elbow bump or fist-bump right away. Your team members will appreciate a clear lead on this, especially if you welcome clients and customers into the office.

Defuse mask-wearing controversies

Mask-wearing has become a political hot potato in some quarters, but there’s no place for politics in the office. Indeed, the greatest barrier to good office etiquette is an “us versus them” culture. Therefore, discourage any differentiation between “maskers” and “non-maskers.” If an employee persists in singling people out, take them aside and ask them how they’d feel if others were commenting on their personal healthcare choices.

In addition, make sure your team understands that company safety protocol always trumps office etiquette. If your firm mandates mask-wearing in the event of a new COVID wave, failure to comply is a breach of company policy, not a political statement. In this scenario, consider allowing those with strong aversions to masks to work from home, just as you would for people with a religious or other mask-wearing exemption.

Get tips on building a thriving remote work culture in this post.

Don’t let vaccination status become a flashpoint

If feelings run high on mask-wearing, they can hit the stratosphere when it comes to vaccination status. But don’t assume your staff is at loggerheads on this issue. For one thing, your company may require employees to be vaccinated, as supported by federal law. Even if that’s not the case, your team may have (consciously or otherwise) adopted an approach to not ask others about their vaccination status, requiring little or no intervention from you.

That said, since there’s no legal reason employees can’t ask about a coworker’s vaccine status, it’s likely some will. If the question is asked and it results in no hard feelings, consider it a learning experience for the questioner and move on. But if vaccine-related questioning persists and becomes hostile, you will need to step in quickly and remind the parties concerned of your company’s bullying and harassment policies.

Don’t overstate the impact of the new normal

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So, while adapting your behavior to the COVID era is essential, that won’t count for much if you neglect the basic rules of good manners and respect. Here are some ways to set a good example, COVID or no COVID:

  • Discourage gossip. Give a clear message to your team that you won’t share in rumor-spreading, and you disapprove of anyone doing it.
     
  • Communicate with class. Keep your language clean, no matter how comfortable you are with your team or how casual your office is. Make sure you know how to pronounce employee or customer names properly. Consider your audience when you use humor, sarcasm, irony, puns and wordplay. And when someone else is speaking, make sure you aren’t distracted by calls, emails, texts or side conversations.
     
  • Show respect for downtime. You can be a better boss by demonstrating your own work-life balance. Keep reasonable business hours and make sure staff members know they should do the same. Unless it’s an emergency, avoid late-night phone calls and emails and don’t expect anyone to respond after hours. 

See this post to learn four ways to prevent burnout at your company.

One final tip: Cut yourself some slack and encourage your team members to do the same. You’re only human, and the occasional faux pas isn’t the end of the world. Demonstrate to your employers that you are accountable for your mistakes and always strive to learn from them. When you lead with integrity, others will follow.

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