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Returning to the Office: Workplace Etiquette Post-COVID

by Joe DeBari

Tips and guidelines on how to interact with coworkers upon your return to the office.

After months or even years of working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are going back into the office on a full-time or part-time basis. And working in an actual office comes with, you guessed it, office etiquette.

Working remotely for so long, we’ve all lapsed a bit in regards to this under-the-radar-yet-major fact of worklife. Norms and unspoken rules about how to interact with colleagues in an office environment are back in play, so it’s important to keep them in mind and base your actions off of them.

And, as it has affected every. single. aspect. of our lives (including VoIP trends), COVID has reared its ugly head into workplace behavior. We’ve added some pandemic-influenced guidelines into this updated edition of in-the-office etiquette.

Workplace Etiquette Training Guide

Approaching Coworkers on Their Vaccination Status

We’ll start with the elephant in the room: COVID vaccinations.

It is not a violation of the Privacy Rule established by HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) for your employers to ask if you received the COVID vaccine. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, the Privacy Rule specifically applies to “covered entities,” which include health care providers and insurance companies. And furthermore, it only applies to how covered entities “use and disclose” protected health information (such as vaccine statuses), not the actual collection of that info.

That being said, businesses must ensure that employees’ vaccination statuses are kept strictly confidential.

As an employee, you cannot ask your manager or the HR department if a specific colleague has been vaccinated, nor should HR go around disclosing this information to the staff.

If you want to ask your coworkers if they are vaccinated, it’s best to first consider how well you know them. While the Privacy Rule does not apply here either, it’s still a sensitive topic about a person’s health decisions. You might consider wearing a mask around someone you don’t know well or who is visiting from a distant office—that act may prompt him to tell you if he’s vaccinated or get him to put on a mask himself. You can also approach HR with any concerns that you have. They will address your concerns in an appropriate manner.

Recognize and Respect People’s Physical Space

Returning to the office means being in close quarters with other people for long periods of time. After being told for months to keep 6 feet away from people, don’t touch anyone, wash your hands, etc., be patient with your friends and colleagues as we all reacclimate to the changing times.

Also, be mindful of the unique situation that each of your coworkers have. Perhaps a coworker is taking care of his elderly parents or has unvaccinated toddlers at home and wants to take every precaution possible—including wearing a mask in the office and keeping a bit of distance with other staff members—to keep them healthy and out of the hospital.

When you’re first back at work, you might ask your colleagues, “Is it ok to shake your hand?,” or tell them, “I’ll stand a bit apart from you unless you tell me otherwise.” Be open and be thoughtful of others—they’ll treat you the same way if you do.

Stay Home When You’re Sick

COVID has made us all acutely aware of how easily airborne viruses spread. While you may have come into work with a tickle in your throat in the past, it’s better nowadays to just stay away from an enclosed office when you’re feeling sick. If you don’t want to use up any sick days, ask your manager if you can work from home for the couple of days that you’re under the weather. With hosted VoIP, softphones, and SaaS apps, you can certainly be just as productive from the seclusion of your own home while also ensuring that you’re not spreading any viruses to your coworkers.

Woman sitting at a desk on a video call on her laptop
Softphones, such as OnSIP's desktop app, keep you connected to your coworkers when you're remote working.

Dress Appropriately

Yes, of course it’s wonderful to work in sweatpants! But going back into the office also means adhering to your business’s dress code. It’s important to note that many executives are rethinking these formal dress requirements due to the many months that their employees were remote working, and the situation is a bit fluid as of this writing. Whatever the dress code, make sure that you know what it is for your company and dress accordingly.

Silence Your Devices When in the Office

In the privacy of your home, the dings of text messages and rings of phone calls are part of the unnoticed background noise of daily life. At work, though, not so much. Those same dings and rings (especially when they’re repetitive) can break someone else’s concentration or provide an annoying soundtrack on a call between a business rep and a customer. When you get to your desk, silence your smartphone—it’s the courteous thing to do.

Be Mindful of the Level of Your Voice

On a related topic, take note of the level of your voice. When working from home, you may be able to close the door to your office or the room in which you’re working. Back in the workplace environment, you’ll have to keep aware of how loudly you’re speaking, especially if you’re in an open office layout. Loud talkers can overtake a room and be just as distracting as those notifications from your smartphone.

Keep Your Workspace Clean

A holdover from pre-COVID times, it’s still important to keep your workspace clean. Wipe up any crumbs or spots from on and around your desk. Wash out dirty mugs and cups. Organize any papers or books that you keep on your desk or in your office.

And this also extends to when you’re using common areas in your building. Clean up after yourself when using the lunchroom or a conference room. After all, if everyone cleans up the area of the table that they used, then the entire room will stay clean.

Review Your Specific Company’s Policies

And finally, keep abreast of your own specific company’s workplace etiquette training guide, whether it’s in an employee handbook or on a company intranet. Each business has their own set of rules and policies that they will enforce, and some of these policies will no doubt have been updated thanks to COVID. Review these rules before you go back into the office so you know what’s expected of you there.

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