Office etiquette with face masks and greetings may cause embarrassment. But maybe the rules and boundaries have changed since the pandemic.
This is awkward.
While we’re back in the office, our social skills seem like they may have stayed at home. Maybe the rules and boundaries have changed? It was common to grab someone’s hand during meetings or to take a seat beside a colleague in a conference room.
This is Dana Brownlee who founded Professionalism Matters in Atlanta, a corporate-training firm. Everyday office interactions can be very offensive. She says, “Like where are my three feet?”
Some people have anxiety about coming back, fear of making their family members sick, and/or are simply rusty around people. Our professional networks shrank while we were away and our worlds became smaller.
Are your relationships the same? Heather Vough, a George Mason University management professor who studies social gaffes in the workplace, asks: “Are they somehow different after not being there for so long? We aren’t used to hanging out together with our coworkers anymore.”
We have to figure it all. This guide will help you navigate the most difficult return-to-work situations.
Revisiting Our Saying “Hi!” Etiquette
Daniel Post Senning, the author of many etiquette books and the great-great-grandson of Emily Post, said that you shouldn’t assume that someone would like a hug or a handshake at the office. Instead, say “It’s so nice to see you. Do we shake hands?”
If the other person pulls away from you when you approach them for a handshake, you should explain that you weren’t trying to make them uncomfortable. Mr. Senning advises that you not worry too much.
Another option is to admit your awkwardness.
“It makes the other individual feel better,” says Vanessa Bohns, Cornell University professor of organizational behavior and author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think.” “When the other person feels happier, they will like you more.”
Rules for What’s Too Close
According to Mr. Senning, comfortable social distance is approximately a foot and a half. This was pre-Covid.
How do you deal with a talkative person? You can explain to him or her that you are getting used to being around people again.
He advises that you say, “I’m more comfortable when we can stand a bit further apart,” adding that people are used to hearing this these days.
Pay attention to how the other person reacts. Megan Reitz, professor of leadership at Holt International Business School, says, “Oh gosh! Can I just pause? Can you please check what you thought of what I just stated? Is that okay?”
Masking-Up Office Etiquette
Dr. Bohns says that if you ask someone to wear a mask during a meeting, it’s important to clarify that you are not rejecting them or singling them out. Tell them that you promised yourself you would say something to anyone who didn’t follow workplace or local rules.
You can also go with the it’s-not-you-it’s-me approach. You’re taking extra care of a family member that’s immunocompromised or something else you are concerned about. You can also emphasize the fact that you are trying to protect your office mates from school exposure.
Dr. Bohns states, “It’s nothing like, ‘I feel that you’re the germy’.”
Offer alternatives if your request isn’t granted. It’s understandable that they don’t want a mask on and that it can be frustrating. Perhaps you could have a Zoom call instead of meeting face-to-face?
The Big Question: Office Rules
Yes, coworkers can be asked if they are vaccinated.
Kate Bischoff, an employment lawyer in Minneapolis and the founder of K8bisch, a human-resources consulting company, said that asking a coworker if they’re vaccinated is not a violation under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or HIPAA).
It can be more complicated when an employee questions a manager about the status of a colleague’s immunizations. According to Ms. Bischoff, in such cases, the manager must adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act provisions. The ADA prohibits disclosing specific employees’ individual health information.
Managers may say that they are in a safe place and that all their co-workers have been vaccinated. Managers can also ask employees about their vaccination status, if necessary. This could be to ensure that people are safe in the workplace.
Ms. Bischoff suggests that bosses start the conversation by explaining how this pandemic has affected their organization. They could also tell their bosses that they expect the company to be subject to a mandate soon and that they want workers to be safe. She recommends that human resources workers should be the ones to request vaccine cards in one-on-one meetings.
According to Mr. Senning, it’s not taboo to talk about vaccines from an etiquette standpoint. “It’s an emergency of public health.” You can soften their approach by asking permission first. You could say: “I’m curious. Would you be willing to discuss your vaccination status?”
What Does the Boss Do to Encourage Office Etiquette?
Ms. Brownlee, a corporate trainer, says that you have to be open to change on a dime.
Tell coworkers that if they are staring at their drinks and standing apart, it isn’t working. What do they think? What would they prefer to do? Are they adjusting the timing?
Ms. Brownlee recommends that you chat with two of your plugged-in colleagues before each event to avoid future mishaps. You might need to have a more serious conversation with them when a party or an event is scheduled for daytime, rather than a meal that interrupts your evening family time. To get honest opinions, use anonymous surveys.
If small talk is difficult for you, try mimicking others’ cues. For example, if you have a conversation partner who wears a mask, be sure to ask questions and not just deliver a monologue. Ms. Brownlee suggests that you can be open and honest.
“It’s okay to say, ‘I’m a little bit rusty. What about you?'”