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We’re Back in the Office – What is Acceptable and What is Not

May 18, 2022

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

After working from home so long, it appears that many have forgotten office etiquette.  For example, the heating of fish in the microwave, eating tuna fish at the desk, or not showering before coming to the office.  For people with olfactory sensory issues, returning to the office could be a nightmare.  Then there are those who forget their decibel levels. They can be heard everywhere.

It is easier to be working from home.  Screening calls is easier.  Dressing doesn’t require thoughtful pause, and background noises can be ignored.  Screaming at kids or significant others while on mute could be acceptable – but not from the office.  It’s back into society, whatever that may mean today.

“This is what happens when you cut people off socially,” says Tessa West, a New York University psychology professor who studies uncomfortable interactions. “We developed some habits that are nonnormative, that were totally fine in our houses. Now we’re having a hard time letting go.”

Office norms are changing.  For example, Professor West has seen colleagues in her workplace entering conference rooms without shoes and painting their nails at their desk. “We all used to have a shared reality of what you can and can’t do at work,” Dr. West says. “Now we’re in a place where we’re all kind of disagreeing about what the rules are.”

Jennifer Edwards, a California-based leadership coach and partner at a venture-capital fund states that the key to changing behavior is to acknowledge the other person before presenting the ask.  For example, in the middle of an office, an employee she observed was making a personal FaceTime call on speaker phone and shushing people around him.  This might be acceptable at home, but not at the office.

It seems like people are forgetting that there are others in the frame and acting as if their world evolves only around them.  When trying to change that behavior, frame it as a joint problem-solving exercise, says Suzanne de Janasz, who teaches negotiation and conflict resolution at George Mason University. Use phrases like, “Have you noticed?” or “What’s your take?”

“We’re adults. We want to make decisions for ourselves,” she says. “When you tell me what to do, I’m going to get defensive and push back.”

And this attitude isn’t just from working from home; it’s been a long-time coming.  In 2016 political discourse became more intense and public.  Over the last six years, people are more prepared to express themselves and their viewpoints over the expense of others.  It’s an HR nightmare.  HR is not the office etiquette police.

Don’t forget that it’s not just others who are annoying.  You can be too.  Are your co-workers staring at you when you are doing something?  Did you forget your shoes or are you speaking less professionally to others?  Ask a co-worker you trust to tell you if your professional demeanor is off, says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of manners guru Emily Post and author of several etiquette books. It’s good to have reality check-ins even if you don’t want to hear it. 

But for HR, it may be time for training for returning to office. From simple policy reminders to more respectful workforce training, HR could nip much in the bud to keep the office environment harmonious.

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