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Do we need reminding of office etiquette?

Returning to the office has thrown up some interesting conversations around how social interactions and conduct in an office environment are changing in a post pandemic landscape.

Pre-2020 most of us thought nothing of huddling round the kettle in the morning crammed into the kitchenette at the back of the office enjoying the latest cake offering or having a chat over the morning cuppa; however, it seems that there is a growing unease of how staff will return to the office environment.

Will staff bring bad habits to a more formal office environment and what can you do to avoid any potential problems?

There is no doubt that due to working from home and the change in social norms, companies are also building their new norms as to what are acceptable social standards in the work environment.

What has become clear is that clear policies are an absolute must so that staff know what is acceptable going forward.  Rules that used to go without saying may need to be disseminated by way of a polite reminder to avoid bringing any undesirable work-from-home habits back to the office.

Below are some handy tips and pointers to consider in the workplace

1. Dress Codes

There is also pre-emptive hesitancy about employee conduct and how they will transition from home to a more formal office environment. We have all seen the hilarious videos of workers dressed from the neck down in suits only to get up and be caught on camera in casual shorts and flip flops.  Many businesses promote a smart casual dress code; however, it is unlikely that this includes tracksuits and flip-flops!

What has emerged is that the term business casual has a much wider bandwidth than before working-from home became more normalised, so it is a good idea to provide detailed guidance to staff.

 It is a good idea to review any dress codes regularly and to ensure that expected business attire meets expectations when in the office.  Be specific, spell out what is not acceptable and reaffirm attire and office standards.

2. Read the room

Staff need to read the room and be mindful that people and mindsets have possibly changed when last in the office. Some staff are comfortable in closed quarters others are not; etiquette is founded on the principles of consideration and respect and so staff should be respectful of other people’s personal choices whether they agree with it or not.

We can no longer assume a handshake greeting or that a co-worker hug will be received well and so our social intelligence will need to be utilised to the max.  Some co-workers may still opt to wear masks whilst others will not. Some staff will be vaccinated whilst others are not or are unable to be vaccinated. Staff will need to navigate the complex social interactions of individuals who may have wildly different viewpoints and expectations from an etiquette perspective.

Employers should have a meaningful policy covering new topic areas around the pandemic and social interactions. Think about what could cause possible problems on a day-to-day level including whether meeting room spaces are large enough to accommodate a group of people, including those who wish to keep a distance from co-workers. Another consideration could be if workspaces are cramped and enclosed, could you accommodate a request to work in a more conducive environment to be socially distanced? 

3. Personal Space

It is important to respect each person’s right to personal space; many feel vulnerable after the pandemic and wish to still be spaced away from colleagues, as a result you may want to discourage sharing equipment. It may be an idea to find a way to communicate each member of staff’s preference like some companies who adopted a colour coded wristband system. For example, a red wristband meant please keep your distance, whereas a green wristband means that close contact, handshakes, conversations and even hugs were fine. This is one of many ideas utilised to ensure clear boundaries are known and respected across the workplace.

4. Courtesy and respect

Although it is appreciated that some staff may be super sensitive or anxious about returning to the office, if they are particularly health conscious, it still means that they are expected to act professionally and with courtesy to others who may take a more relaxed approach.

What an employer wants to avoid is a lack of cohesion in the workforce and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. This would damage inter-workforce relations and pose challenging obstacles to any employer. To avoid this, ensure all staff are well trained on acceptable codes of conduct and encourage open communication channels to managers so that any underlying problem can be dealt with openly and promptly.

 It is advisable to have in place a code of conduct which specifically makes mention to any social interactions in the context of health and avoiding the spread of viruses.

5. Avoid exposure

Sickness is going to be a major topic of discussion and possibly a contentious area and you will want to address issues of sickness earlier rather than later.

Health and well-being are of primary concern to many, particularly those who have vulnerable households. A clear policy and protocol should be put in place.

You may also consider being flexible with working from home arrangements if a member of staff starts to feel unwell even for just a sniffle or cold.

You could also be proactive and provide sanitising products across the office to stop the spread of any viruses. Staff will want to feel like an employer is acting responsibly and putting the health and well-being of its staff first. Although this isn’t always possible an employer should think about putting in protective measures to avoid any future outbreak. Employers should ensure that sickness reporting is clear and prompt so that any risk can be assessed quickly and avoid any unnecessary exposure to others. Avoid encouraging sick staff from entering the premises and encourage a culture of wellness as an overriding objective.

6. Hygiene practices

Ensuring a clean office environment will allay many concerns and encourage staff to maintain high hygiene practices which will in turn, avoid spreading viruses between staff. Make sure staff know that they should keep a clean and tidy workplace, keep any shared canteen/staff room facilities clean and tidy and provide appropriate supplies for them to do so.

There is a balance to be had with any implementation of hygiene practices and employers must ensure that that a workplace does not become a sterile lab environment whereby staff feel they always work within a sanitised environment creating an atmosphere of fear and potential contamination. This could have serious consequences on overall culture and well-being of staff particularly if solely driven by the employer.

7. Mental Health

Employers may want to explore ways to support staff in what could be considered an anxious inducing time. Stress and anxiety affect people in different ways and being able to offer help and support would no doubt have a positive impact across the workplace. There are many third-party providers offering specialist ad-hoc services for relatively small subscription fees or alternatively offer a safe space for staff to discuss any concerns or even an anonymous memo box for people to comment on anything that may be causing them stress in relation to returning to the office.

Employers should review their current well-being policies and consider covering post pandemic topic areas in any stress at work policy.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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