WorkSpace Connect is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Dealing With Changing Social Norms in the Office

For many people, 2022 will be remembered as the year they returned to the office -- either in full or part time -- after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic sent many workers home in early 2020.

But it's not entirely a return to normal. More workers are still working remotely or in hybrid arrangements, even for companies that maintain in-person office environments. And we've all become a lot more comfortable with tech like video meetings -- and less comfortable working surrounded by other people.

“The new office etiquette norms could be a challenge for many employees and organizations,” said Kreisel Jaquish, a human resources manager at HelloVein. Overcoming that challenge requires good communication, clear policies that reflect current trends, and attention to productivity and safety in both in-person and remote workspaces.

Communicate clearly

“In addition to providing guidance on acceptable behavior, they should also help build an environment of understanding and respect among colleagues,” Jaquish said. For example, set clear protocols for communications in the workplace, and model those guidelines in all communication coming from human resources. Providing good information up front, and then following your own rules going forward, can prevent confusion and miscommunication going forward – especially in work environments where everyone is not located in the same building, or even country.

If you have staff who joined your organization after March 2020, ensure they receive any training they missed out on during pandemic restrictions on workplace activities. It’s also important to make sure existing office norms are communicated clearly to these staff – remember, if they began working with you after the pandemic began, they don’t know what the ‘old normal’ looked like. These employees – especially if they are new to the workforce – might lack context for both ongoing workplace norms and post-COVID policies and expectations.

And while en-masse communication is important, don’t forget about the importance of one-on-one conversations. Whether your employees are working in the office, are 100-percent remote, or are using multiple workspaces, schedule regular opportunities to check in with people individually and encourage managers to do the same with their direct reports.

Consider remote workspaces

In workplaces where some workers are remote all or some of the time, consider which policies need to be modified specifically for remote environments.

For example, it can be helpful to set ground rules for video calls based on what is feasible and desired by employees, Jaquish said. Ensure workers who are remote have access to all needed files and programs, and that they are working on secure laptops and network connections. Finally, ensure employees have an ergonomically correct work environment in their homes. This will help them work safely and effectively, with a reduced risk of workplace injuries.

Solicit input from employees throughout the organization to get a sense of the existing culture around video meetings, in order to learn what’s working and identify pain points to address. Share the feedback with your IT team – some of the problems might have tech solutions like muting all meeting participants other than the host as the default.

Follow the trends

“HR professionals should recognize that these office etiquette norms may be constantly changing and evolving as more employees shift to remote work,” Jaquish said. “They need to stay on top of trends in order to ensure their teams have access to the latest information and guidance.”

Dress codes are another area where pre-pandemic and post-pandemic expectations may be different. Employees may be unsure of how to dress for the office if they do some of their work remotely, or unwilling to give up the more casual dress code they adopted while working at home. Dress codes can also contribute to appearance-based discrimination in the workplace, and were already becoming more casual before the pandemic.

Consider where broader societal trends have shifted, and how your organization’s norms can adjust accordingly. For example, if office dress codes have broadly become more casual, and your organization’s employees want your own dress code to reflect that shift, that’s one area where it might make sense to change policies.

Ensure health and safety

Finally, as tempting as it is to pretend we’ll never need pandemic-mandated precautions again, it’s valuable to hold on to some of the extra caution around illness spread in the workplace that began when COVID-19 became a consideration.

“One new etiquette rule for workplaces is that employees should be more cautious when they are sick or feeling ill,” said Trevor Sookraj, chief executive officer of Divisional. In the past, many people felt comfortable coming to the office if they were under the weather, but still well enough to work. That’s no longer a fair assumption, and HR policies should reflect that reasonable caution against the spread of illness in the workplace.

Other policies, like the use of masks, social distancing, and good ventilation – especially in crowded workspaces or when someone is ill or immunocompromised – help protect against other respiratory illnesses as well as COVID-19.

In addition to offering flexible work schedules and reasonable allowances for sick time, expanded capacity to support work-from-home arrangements – whether they’re ongoing or ad hoc – can be an important part of protecting your employees. “Hybrid/remote work now gives workers the ability to WFH on days when they might have a spreadable illness, and it’s become essentially an expectation to stay home on those days in order to keep the rest of the workplace healthy,” Sookraj said.

These shifts in office social norms around sickness and illness prevention are ones to address as soon as possible – we’ve already begun what looks likely to be a rough cold-and-flu season this winter.