The pandemic requires some changes in workplace customs
As the vaccination programme in most countries accelerates, people will be thinking about going back to the office, if only for a couple of days a week. Many workers will have got out of the habits of the 9-to-5 day and the prevailing customs. The pandemic will also have changed attitudes towards behavioural traits that were seen as quite normal before the appearance of COVID-19. Here are some suggested dos and don’ts for the new world order.
Don’t tell others about your exotic holidays. Most people have had little to do but stare at the garden fence since the lockdown started. They don’t want to hear about your trip to the Maldives, even if you did sit through two weeks of quarantine afterwards. People only put up with the rules because they were told they were all in the same boat; they don’t want to know that you have a yacht.
By the same token, don’t humblebrag. A lot of people will have struggled during the lockdown so don’t boast about how you taught your kids ancient Greek and differential calculus while also hosting a dozen Zoom calls a day. Nor is this a competition like the Monty Python Yorkshireman sketch “You had Wi-Fi? You were lucky. I had to make do with a manual typewriter and a carrier pigeon to send messages.”
Don’t come to the office with a cold. Traditionally, people have been expected to arrive at the office with one, even when sneezing so often they could pass as one of Snow White’s little helpers. But the pandemic has demonstrated that viruses are highly transmissible. Pretty soon, the worker’s desk is littered with discarded tissues and the kettle has been commandeered for hot honey and lemon drinks. Fellow workers will be very lucky if they don’t catch it. A cold is nothing like as serious as COVID-19. Still, now that we know people can work at home, there is no excuse for inflicting your sniffles on your colleagues.
Be hygienic. In the weeks before the lockdown, many people came to realise how being in the office meant touching a lot of common surfaces: door handles, light switches, printer buttons. So wash your hands (or use hand sanitisers) as often as possible. Hold the door open for colleagues so they don’t have to touch the handle as well. It is a good rule to follow at all times as other viruses (influenza, norovirus) often strike.
Clear your desk every evening. For the near future, many people will be hot-desking so don’t leave behind soft-drink cans, bicycle helmets, crucial memos, etc, for the cleaner or next occupant to deal with. If this system is going to work, managers will need to provide lockers so workers can store important material.
Don’t stand so close to me. Everyone has become used to keeping a bit of social distance from others during the pandemic. So it is only going to seem more intrusive if you get within three feet or so of a colleague when you go back to the office. It is worth, therefore, keeping the Police song in mind. Don’t pull up your chair so close to a person that your arms and legs are almost touching. If the lift already has several passengers, don’t push in: wait for the next one.
Keep your voice down. Employees have spent much time on video calls during lockdown where research suggests they speak 15% louder than normal, perhaps because they subconsciously are addressing someone far away. It will take time to get used to normal conversation again but don’t start like a Shakespearean actor doing the Henry V speech at the battle of Agincourt.
Don’t dress too informally. It has been more than a year since male employees have worn a suit and tie, or female employees have searched their wardrobes for a carefully tailored outfit. Dress-down Fridays have become an everyday occurrence, especially below the waist (and out of camera range). Maybe office fashion will never go back to the pre-pandemic era, but there are limits; in particular, men should avoid the shorts-and-sandals combination. You don’t have to dress for a funeral, but you shouldn’t dress for the beach.
Do be tolerant of nervous colleagues. Some people may be more reluctant to return than others. This may be down to individual health reasons, or as a result of a family member being vulnerable. Don’t make cracks about part-time work, or forget to include them in discussions because they are only on Zoom. And don’t automatically assume that people want to shake hands (let alone hug) when they see you again. Not every element of “remote working” will disappear overnight.