Back To Office Etiquette: The Next Normal Is Not The Old Normal


In-person office work is coming back and with it, much uncertainty about etiquette. Just what it is “the next normal”?

While many restrictions have lifted, everything from handshakes, mask wearing, elevator capacity and in-person business meetings are causing a new level of pandemic anxiety for some employees.

Businesses must not assume the old pre-pandemic rules apply, and instead embrace this opportunity to evolve workplace practices.

In order for employers to help their teams navigate the awkward and anxious return to the office, here are a few different approaches to keep in mind.

Respect Employee Preference Levels

Remember that each employee may have had a very different experience with the pandemic–including those who have had a very challenging time, such as losing a loved one–which means there will be varying levels of comfort.

A good starting point for all employers is to create safe space for employees to share their individual concerns and preferences–without being expected to justify why or disclose their full medical history–and to respect them without judgement when planning back-to-work policies and protocols.

Similarly, in day-to-day encounters, employees should pause before initiating a handshake or removing their mask and ask colleagues their personal preference. Organizations should assume that employees will want to remain careful in the early days of returning to the office. This means keeping your distance and wearing masks when entering other offices, unless both parties agree otherwise.

Leaders Should Walk The Talk

During this uncertain time, business leaders must set a good example and demonstrate to their employees how to have conversations about preference levels.

Dr. Matthias Spitzmuller, Smith School of Business, Queen’s University

Employees might not be comfortable taking the first step and reaching out to co-workers about their preferences, but seeing their leader do this it will make it easier for them to share their preferences as well.

It is vital for leaders to create pathways and open the discussion as employees navigate return to office interactions.

Consult With Employees And Adjust The Pace Accordingly 

Think of the return to office as a team climbing a mountain together, where the slowest person determines the pace of the entire group.

By proactively having conversations with employees about how they are feeling and their comfort levels in different activities and scenarios, employers can adjust the pace according to the needs, fears, and apprehensions of those individuals who might be less comfortable.

Don’t leave the last person behind on the mountain.

Develop Convergence Over Time

Humans are creatures of habit and need time to adjust to changes and new expectations.

That was true when we were suddenly thrust into the pandemic, and the same is true as we are hopefully coming out of it.

Business leaders must give employees ample time to mentally prepare for big changes and slowly implement them.

Employers need to recognize that, for some employees, it may take a little bit longer than others to adjust.

For example, instead of immediately expecting all employees to be comfortable attending large, in-person social gatherings and events, slowly ease into these types of activities with small team functions, or even one-on-one engagements.

Offer Alternative Formats

In some instances, alternative approaches and formats might be required for those employees who are still uncomfortable with certain activities.

For example, instead of expecting an employee to be comfortable joining their colleagues for a meal inside a restaurant, consider booking a table on a patio or another outdoor activity at first.

Many organizations with hybrid work arrangements will also need to create hybrid events and meetings, where everyone can feel comfortable and included, whether they are in-person or attending virtually.

Be sure to avoid post-meeting decisions or important discussions that occur after virtual attendees sign off, and key takeaways of meetings should be summarized and circulated to keep everyone on the same page.

While the return to office will no doubt be challenging for many, employers can help their teams navigate office etiquette through communication, respect and leadership. Let’s embrace this opportunity to evolve workplace practices for the better.



Dr. Matthias Spitzmuller is an associate professor at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University. His research and teaching focuses on organizational behaviour and human capital management, more specifically team leadership, co-operative workplace behaviours and people analytics. Most recently, he co-founded the People Analytics Laboratory (PAL) at Smith. At PAL, he has helped organizations identify human capital management trends and work towards sustainable and engaging workplace practices during the pandemic. Before joining Smith, he worked as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.

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