Etiquette for the Modern Office

Marianne Hayes
June 3, 2019

As the modern workplace becomes increasingly more relaxed, so does day-to-day office life; open floor plans, dialed-down dress codes, and self-directed work styles, are becoming the new norm. But while chilled-out workspaces are great for fostering collaboration and interpersonal relationships, they also mean office managers and those in charge of building culture and maintaining the office space are navigating more sticky social terrain. Namely, what is the code of office etiquette?

What do you do when certain employees routinely leave dirty dishes in the office kitchen, hog a conference room or, say, distract the team by talking too loudly on the phone? When it comes to setting—and enforcing—an expectation of professionalism, courtesy and respect at work, addressing these issues can prove tricky.

To ensure our social skills are evolving along with the modern workplace, we caught up with Daniel Post Senning, office etiquette expert and Emily Post's great-great-grandson. (Yes, that Emily Post.) Here are his thoughts on untangling today's most common office etiquette quandaries.

With office etiquette, start with yourself

Effective managers practice what they preach. Where office etiquette is concerned, this means really embodying the kind of behavior you want to see in your team.

"Something I teach when I do my business etiquette seminars is that we're all guilty of rudeness," says Senning. "It's usually unintentional and is really a question of awareness, but the most likely perpetrator of rudeness in the workplace is actually a supervisor, boss or worker with perceived valued talent."

In this scenario, before actively addressing rude behavior in the office, start by checking in with yourself. Are you continually modeling kindness and respect?

"We all have our moments, but whatever the situation is, use it as an honest and sincere attempt to recommit yourself to your values," adds Senning.

Open the lines of team-wide communication

When you perceive problem behavior that's impacting other employees, talking openly and honestly with your team is the best place to start. The question then becomes whether to do that as a group or on the individual level. It all depends on the situation, but if it's something that more than one employee is guilty of, it might be better to address the group as a whole.

"Talk to everyone together and take a fresh-start approach, highlighting that it isn't about what's happened before, but about what happens from this moment moving forward," says Senning. "Having reasons and being ready to talk about why it's important to you is key."

Instead of laying down blanket rules, which can feel arbitrary and authoritarian, open up about why you want the office to adopt this way of being. At the end of the day, we all want a space where everyone can work and be their best selves. Play this up when you address your team so that it feels like you're setting a collective standard, as opposed to an individual one.

"Be as explicit as you can, but also let it be an open discussion. That's part of good management and will result in easier adoption by all of office etiquette," adds Senning.

Prime people for awkward conversations

Some office etiquette faux pas are best handled one-on-one. Say, for example, the issue at hand has to do with personal hygiene, or someone routinely leaving garbage around the office, or a particular employee who makes loud and frequent personal calls. Talking about the office etiquette issue privately, in a way that's not embarrassing for them, is your best bet.

"Embarrassment can be a really hard thing to navigate emotionally, and it can take attention away from the thing you want to keep the attention on, which is fixing the problem and helping that person be better at their job," says Senning.

So how do you move forward? He suggests first giving the person a heads-up ahead of the conversation. This can be as casual as: "There's something a little awkward I want to talk to you about; can we make some time to do that?" Doing this primes the person so that the conversation itself doesn't catch them off guard. When you do actually meet, lead with respect by telling the person that you care about them and their success. It's also wise to note that you'd have this conversation with anyone in this situation—in other words, they're not being singled out unfairly.

"From there, be very clear about whatever the problem is and also that you're open to hearing where they're coming from and talking about solutions together," suggests Senning. "The most important thing is to be specific and to actually talk about the thing. Sometimes, we tend to dance around the issue, especially when it comes to office etiquette, instead of addressing it clearly."

Some helpful language here could include something like:

  • "You may not be aware of this, but I've heard people talking about the way the kitchen is left after lunch, and they're not comfortable leaving their food there..."
  • "This isn't the most important thing we deal with on a day-to-day basis here, but I think it's important to the success of the team and worthwhile to address it with you..."

It goes without saying that this can be a tough job for managers, but having upfront, respectful conversations about office etiquette helps create a cohesive work environment in which everyone can thrive and be comfortable. And that is a goal all teams can work together to achieve.

Illustration by Tin Nguyen

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