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8 office etiquette expectations that are now history


Whether your team is just starting to return to the office or you have been on a hybrid basis for some time now, you may notice office etiquette is different than what it was traditionally.

What changed?

In general, employees definitely aren’t the same as they were before March 2020 when the pandemic brought much of the world to a standstill and skyrocketed remote work. The fact is that the pandemic changed:

  • The way we work
  • When and where we work
  • How we interact with colleagues
  • What employees value and prioritize

Changes in office etiquette

As a result, you can also count office etiquette expectations among the changes. With so many employees working from home for such an extended period of time, many people have lost a sense of what the “normal,” pre-COVID workplace was like. It feels foreign and distant now.

It’s just as well, because former workplace standards certainly don’t serve the wants and needs of today’s employees or support how some people have grown accustomed to working.

Here’s a list of what you need to be prepared to let go of if you want your return to the office to be:

  • Smooth and friction free
  • In alignment with the expectations of employees and job candidates
  • Successful for the long term

Office etiquette rules to throw away

1. Employees go into the office … just because

The old days of working in the office every day without a clear “why” are over – your employees have experienced “a better way” for the last few years.

Furthermore, the technology exists to support remote work and, generally, employees have proven they can work remotely with no hit to productivity.

There’s no convincing employees otherwise if you want to remain competitive.

Many of your employees like working from home because:

  • They are comfortable in their own environment
  • They can focus better and experience fewer disruptions
  • They don’t have to go anywhere, much less spend time in traffic
  • It affords them more flexibility in their day
  • They can dress however they want
  • They enjoy greater autonomy
  • It saves them money in gas, food costs and maintaining a wardrobe of business attire

Working from home simply makes them happier. If you’re going to ask them to give this up for at least a few days per week, you should have a compelling reason for them to come into the office.

This is even more true if you plan a 100% full return to the office, five days per week. You’ll need to carefully communicate your reasoning for being in the office all the time to get everyone on board.

The new expectation?

We go into the office if and when it offers otherwise unachievable levels of collaboration, planning or socializing.

For hybrid workplaces, be intentional about the purpose of gathering in the office for a certain number of days per week or certain hours of the day. For example, are these days or hours reserved for connection, such as meetings or brainstorming sessions? Explain which circumstances call for office time because they can’t happen as well remotely.

2. Employees are on-site 8-5

Before the pandemic, employees typically worked the same 8-hour shift daily, spending most of their time at their desk except for a one-hour lunch break.

The new expectation?

Employee hours are flexible.

As many employees return to the office in some form, they want continued flexibility at work so that work fits into their lifestyle and accommodates their individual needs. That’s why flexible schedules are incredibly popular with employees.

A flex schedule can take many forms:

  • Hybrid schedule (split time between home and office)
  • Custom shift hours according to the employee
  • Shortened work week
  • Flexibility to leave work to attend to personal needs and finish up their work later, at home

Overall, the consensus is that there’s no “one size fits all” schedule or means of working.

3. Spontaneous meetings at cubicles are normal

Remember how team members used to surprise their colleagues with a cubicle visit to discuss a project or ask a question? It was no big deal to just swing by someone’s cubicle and chat for a bit, right?

Maybe back then the “cubicle sneak attack” was accepted by its recipients as the price of being in the workplace. Today, that behavior may be considered disruptive at best and an irritant at worst.

From working remotely, many of us have grown accustomed to scheduling meetings and even conversations in advance, because our colleagues weren’t physically nearby. Many people have fallen out of the habit of being put on the spot or interrupted from their current task. They may prefer time to think about a topic or an advance warning to prepare for a meeting.

In fact, “fewer disruptions” is among the benefits that many employees enjoy about working from home in the first place.

Furthermore, if employees are on flex schedules, there’s no guarantee a colleague is even available in person when someone else wants to talk to them.

The new expectation?

Check to see if someone’s free to chat in advance.

Although there is much value in spontaneity and unscheduled moments in the workplace, recognize that some employees don’t enjoy an interruption during a moment of concentration. When in doubt and whenever possible, it may be best to stick to:

  • Scheduling meetings and conversations in advance
  • Sending someone an IM or email first to see whether they’re available

(And speaking of cubicles, some employees may need to brush up on their general cubicle etiquette. Gently remind employees about loud music and pungent food smells, for example. What you can get away with at home may not fly in the office!)

4. Meetings are held in a conference room

Ah, the good old days of gathering in a sterile conference room with cream-grayish walls and fluorescent lighting to talk about a project. Very few people miss that from the pre-COVID days, right?

But then the stale conference room meetings transferred over to videoconference. It’s a safe bet that many of us are suffering from video meeting fatigue at this point.

The new expectation?

In-office meetings don’t require a long conference table.

As your employees come back to the office, this represents an opportunity to do something different while re-energizing and re-engaging your employees. If your purpose in bringing employees back to the office is for enhanced engagement and connection, rethink your approach to meetings. For example, you could:

  • Conduct meetings outside
  • Go off-site somewhere fun
  • Do “walking meetings”

Think about how to infuse more creativity and excitement into the activity.

5. Everyone has the same level of comfort with workplace safety

Following the pandemic, people have a range of opinions about health and safety in the workplace.

Some employees have zero qualms about going back to the office and some may still be more fearful about being around people, especially in enclosed environments.

The new expectation?

Consider varying levels of comfort with working in the office.

Don’t assume that your employees are all on the same page. Encourage employees to speak with you and their other managers directly about their concerns, and be prepared to accommodate them. This may involve:

  • Making building upgrades to protect health and safety
  • Implementing more frequent cleanings
  • Moving meetings outside in the fresh, open air
  • Making facemasks both permissible and optional
  • Allowing employees with concerns to continue working remotely full time
  • Training employees to ask team members for permission before trying to shake hands or give hugs
  • Rethinking sick-leave policies (more on this later)

6. Working overtime and on weekends is acceptable

Being a workaholic used to be an expression of your commitment to your job.

Then along came the pandemic, and everyone re-evaluated what was most important to them: family, friends, mental health, physical health and outside hobbies and interests.

What followed was a shift toward not just work-life balance, but life-work balance. No one’s impressed by workaholics anymore, and employees have no desire to burn themselves out and cause their personal lives to suffer over a job.

The new expectation?

Life-work balance reigns over work-life balance. Now, it’s the expectation that managers will:

  • Check in with employees about their workloads
  • Look out for signs of employee burnout
  • Pay attention to employees’ wellness, particularly their mental health

7. Coming to work sick means someone has a good work ethic

It’s ok, I can come into work. I only have a head cold, but I can function.”

Sound like a familiar phrase from the past? Before the pandemic, employees were seen as “heroes” for coming to the office and powering through whatever ailment they had. As long as they could get out of bed and pretend to act normal, they were ok enough to go into work.

Common office policies, such as rewarding no sick days taken or lumping in sick days with overall paid time off (PTO), may have inadvertently encouraged the practice of coming to work sick.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed sick-leave culture completely. Now, people are much more sensitive to sickness around them, especially those so-called minor symptoms that could indicate anything from a common cold to more severe viruses: sore throat, fever, cough or nasal congestion.

The new expectation?

Employees should always stay home and/or take time off if they are sick.

Frankly, it’s now seen as rude to go in public when experiencing symptoms of sickness – and rightfully so, because it puts others at risk.

In an office setting, it’s clear that sick employees need to stay home to avoid transmission of illnesses and, as a result, prevent greater absenteeism and dings to productivity in the long term.

Fortunately, employees no longer have to check out completely when they’re sick. Now, if an employee’s illness isn’t serious enough to prevent them from working and they don’t need to be physically present for any reason, they can easily continue work from home.

8. Employees wear formal, or even business casual, attire

For people who spent the last few years working in sweatpants, yoga pants and pajamas, it can be a big ask to order them back to the office in business attire. As it turns out, comfort can play a role in employees’ happiness and productivity.

The new expectation?

Jeans might not be just for Fridays.

No one’s saying you have to institute Pajama Day at work, but a return to the office may be a good time to reassess your dress code policy. Depending on your industry and workplace culture, ask yourself:

  • Why – and when – is it necessary for employees to dress more formally?
  • Who are our clients, and how do they dress? What are their expectations of us?
  • Do we align with what everyone else in our industry is doing?
  • How does our workplace culture stack up against the broader culture?

With all this in mind, is it possible to relax the dress code, with certain parameters in place? Is it that big of a deal if employees wear jeans and sneakers, for example?

Weigh employee morale against the continuation of any rules that could be perceived as arbitrary.

Why office etiquette matter

An examination of how the broader workplace culture has shifted and how your organization measures up matters greatly. Actually, following through and making changes to office etiquette within your workplace is equally important.

Why? It demonstrates that your business:

  • Values its people, placing them and their needs first
  • Is adaptable and willing to evolve with the times
  • Is intentional about cultivating a positive culture

This exercise also can boost employee morale and help with recruiting and retention. After all, trying to cling to how workplaces operated several years ago can make your organization seem stuffy and regressive – and that’s a surefire way to lose the war for talent to your competition.

Summing it all up

The workplace simply isn’t the same as it was in 2019. By working from home for several years, employees and their expectations for office etiquette have changed. To successfully navigate a return to the office while keeping employee morale and retention intact, your company will need to accept this new reality and make some changes as well. Here, we’ve outlined eight office etiquette expectations and standards that may have been commonplace before the COVID-19 pandemic – but now no longer have a prominent place in the office.

To learn more about becoming a workplace that attracts and keeps top talent, despite significant external changes, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.