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Have people forgotten how to behave in the office?

Have workers spent so much time at home they’ve forgotten the rules of the workplace?

In Summary

•Many workers are finding colleagues are especially boisterous as they get together for social interaction – but people are also very sensitive to noise.

•Working in personally curated home spaces has meant some rules of professionalism have gone out the window – and will have to be re-learned 

People are out of practice on their own but there’s another factor that’s affected workers’ ability to calibrate their office behaviour appropriately: the changing purpose of the office.

Workers used to go to offices to do all their work, both their heads-down solo tasks as well as their group work.

But now, in-office days in a hybrid environment often have a new, highly specific purpose, which is to foster socialisation and collaboration. 

As a result, some workers are finding their colleagues have lost the etiquette – and even decorum ­– required in an office setting.

With a focus on socialisation, many colleagues are boisterous in ways they haven’t been in the past, leaving workers who still have to get individualised work done in inhospitable situations annoyed and frustrated, to say the least.

There's this need to connect on such a large level after being isolated for two or three years, so the office, for those who are going back to work, is really kind of seen as this place to finally connect and share ideas,” says Anna Shen, venture partner at VC firm Raiven Capital, who worked on a recent Future of Work report.

“It's almost like they’re overcompensating for the time that they were not able to see each other face to face, and it does feel like they have forgotten basic manners and basic social norms.” 

However, while it may be true that some colleagues are acting out of line in a socially driven office setting, the workers who are bothered by disruptions may also be more sensitive now than they were prior to office closures. Some experts say workers have adjusted so thoroughly to their remote environments, curated exactly how they want them, that even a baseline ‘normal’ amount of disruption may be difficult to take.

Jane Parry, director of Centre for Research on Work and Organisations at Southampton University, UK, agrees. “People’s tolerance for open-plan offices is going to be a lot less,” she says.

‘We can’t go straight back into the world’ 

Now that both workers and their colleagues have seen behaviours atrophy, what next?

Importantly, these are early strides in the return-to-office marathon. It’ll be a while until workers are back in stable routines that enable them to restore good habits and cultivate behaviours that are correctly calibrated to the new role of the office. 

“We've had a lot of time where the world has been different,” says Roberts. “We can't go straight back into the world. We need to take our time with this, we need to start piecing things together to figure out what works for us as individuals, but also what works for the organisation.”

Positively, experts say the initial discomfort of the office won’t last forever – the pandemic showed how good we are at adapting.

Parry explains, in her research, “managers said again, and again, that people were much more adaptable than they ever thought they would be. We don’t give them enough credit.” 

The socially anxious will get reacquainted with working alongside other people, while the boisterous employees excited to see their friends will start to calm down, too.

In parallel, what exactly we’re meant to be doing in the office will become clear; it will be different for each company, but firms and teams will gradually establish new rules of use and new rules of conduct in post-pandemic offices.

For now, the best thing for employees to do is to speak up, and explain to managers what’s getting in the way of your productivity, or what about an environment or routine isn’t working.

“Managers need to have that information because no one's ever done this really complicated curation before,” says Parry, “so it’s going to be a lot of learning.”