Keep clean and keep your distance: the new rules of workplace etiquette

Workplace etiquette was a minor minefield before the pandemic. Now, in the wake of Covid-19, navigating an ever changing “new normal” of office interactions has become a major conundrum. Can you stop for a conversation in a one-way space? Should you get a colleague a cup of coffee? What can you do to make remote workers feel like fully integrated team members?

There’s no pre-written rulebook for pandemic work etiquette, so let’s look at a few tips for navigating the new manners landscape.

1. Keep your distance
It’s amazing how quickly we’ve moved from an intimate, close-quarters society to one where people hug the sides of corridors upon passing another human. But good manners here are what they’ve always been. That is, you want other people to feel comfortable and at ease, so you should assume relatively strict distancing even if you are personally quite relaxed. If this seems a pain, there are some real upsides here. No more bone-crushing handshakes and no more awkward or clumsy collisions when a colleague or contact leans in for a peck on the cheek. You just waggle your elbows stupidly at each from a metre away from each other and make a joke about how weird it all is.

2. Video conferencing v face-to-face
If you are working on a hybrid or semi-remote team, there are unwritten rules of engagement. Those who are in the office can pick up on nuance and body language in a way that those who are on a video call just can’t. So it falls upon on-site employees to speak as if everyone is on a video call, taking turns and talking clearly. Resist the urge to make asides or get into rapid fire discussions with your in-person colleagues as this excludes those who are working remotely. It’s hard for remote employees to fully participate when it sounds as if they’ve called into the middle of a rugby scrum.

Colleague eating at his desk surrounded  by paper and work - illustration

3. Keep clean
During the Black Death, a group known as the Flagellants roamed from town to town, whipping themselves mercilessly in an attempt to placate God and thereby end the plague. All you have to do is wash your hands and wear a mask. Doesn’t seem so hard now, does it? Also, keep your workstation wiped down and if you have to cough or sneeze, please do it into your sleeve. Oh, and don’t turn meals into social events. “In our phased approach [to returning to the office], we are advising people to eat at their workstations to avoid physical interactions with larger groups in high traffic areas such as cafeterias,” says Daaf Serné, director of Global Real Estate at ServiceNow. Consider the upside – you won’t have to make small talk about other people’s children for at least the foreseeable future.

4. If people are breaking the rules …
A good rule of thumb here is to treat everyone as if they’re innocent at first. Rather than being aggressive or sarcastic you might say: “Mike, I think you forgot we’re meant to be socially distancing here.” Chances are a reminder is all it will take. However, if the person says it’s no big deal or refuses, you might say: “It makes me uncomfortable or anxious,” or “We all have to obey the rules, even if they’re a pain.” In the first case, you’re making it about their effect on you, not their behaviour and in the second, you’re making it about rules that aren’t set by either of you. Both or are non-confrontational and hard to argue with, especially the former.

5. Companies can help
Lewis Baker, senior workplace services manager at ServiceNow says that it really helps if companies codify the rules and explain them to staff. “We put together a Return to Workplace playbook, which explains the new workplace experience and behaviour we expect of ServiceNow employees upon return. By the time they came back in, they knew what the guidelines were.” He adds that ServiceNow also supplies some of the basics: “We provide masks. We also offer online mindfulness sessions, you know, cooking classes, nutrition advice, and ergonomic advice. We’ll help you to get set up from home and put support mechanisms in place.” Straightforward rules help people understand what is expected and reduces the risk of disagreement and conflict. Companies should also keep staff up to date as government guidelines and scientific advice changes.

It truly is a weird new world of work out there. But by staying respectful and keeping it clean, we can all make it through together – apart.

The ServiceNow Safe Workplace Suite offers tools for organisations to deliver the right digital experience for each phase of reopening. Including engaging with employees in advance, automating steps for returning, and providing a safe, employee‑ready working environment. Find out more


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