Many of us are observing the anniversary of a sudden pivot to new forms of work. Last March, some professionals moved permanently into sweatpants while others stayed posh. Some added beards, others removed bras. One network reporter filed a report with a suit jacket but no pants. And a public official who toasted colleagues on Zoom sparked “Winegate.” On and on, we improvised new rules, rituals and punishments.
A year in, it’s time to look at the state of workplace etiquette. Bear in mind, the very concept of a “work-place” will continue to expand, given many companies’ intentions to make remote or hybrid work the new normal. (And Forbes’ Kristin Stoller recently noted that half of American professionals expect some sort of allowance for post-pandemic telecommuting.)
The evolving workplace etiquette involves two simple, guiding values: Discipline for yourself and grace for others. If you get those two in reverse, you will be a terrible colleague or manager that others will flee from. Here are how those values inform some of the most common issues for professionals today:
1. Don’t assume that others agree with your politics or worldview. In recent decades, American society has been sorting itself into homogenous industries, professions and neighborhoods. That can lull you into small talk in which you assume—wrongly, and at your peril—that the rest of the room sees the world’s challenges like you do. Be mindful of terms and concepts that grate on the nerves of those who think differently, especially given the heightened emotion caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Sneering about “The Fox News crowd” or “the woke mob” or “Covidiots” or “lockdown tyrants” is a sure way to ignite the contempt of colleagues and clients who may be politically farther from you than you realize.
2. Keep the camera on for video calls in which you’re a primary participant. “Imagine if you went into a meeting with a bag over your head,” says writer and workplace expert Lori Putnam. “When you have a Zoom meeting, treat it like a real meeting. Your boss knows that your camera really is working, and may think you just don’t want to get out of your pajamas.”
“In some cases turning off your video makes total sense when you are not the featured speaker,” says workplace psychologist Bill Dyment, who has presented hundreds of webinars since the pandemic began. “But during an open discussion or regular team meeting, know that appearing as only a phone number on a virtual meeting where others are appearing on camera definitely makes you more forgettable.”
3. Become remote-inclusive. “High-performing work environments will allow for more hybrid workers,” Putnam says, “which means you can’t leave off remote workers from essential meetings. Everyone gets to be in the room where it happens.”
4. Make the good stuff easy to find. We’re all drowning in text these days. Dyment, who specializes in building resilient teams, suggests a simple tool to help. “For greater speed and clarity, don’t be afraid to use the highlighter feature in your emails,” he says. “People appreciate being able to jump to the two lines that show the link to your webinar event, instead of having to scroll through a sea of international call-in numbers and links, passwords, even company logos that may not be what they need to quickly join a meeting.”
5. Look straight at the camera when you’re speaking, and when you’re being addressed. Even after a year of remote work, many professionals have only a vague idea of what good eye contact looks like on a video call.
Strong eye contact is one of the quintessentially human aspects of communication. It conveys trust and interest—and, in an era of remote work, it’s the equivalent of a firm handshake. And you’re not making eye contact if you’re looking at a person at the bottom-left square of your Zoom call while speaking to her, or while listening to her. She may seem to be there, in that screen corner, but that’s a technical illusion. The camera is your visual connection to her, and so, when you speak to her, look straight at the camera. Do the same when she’s speaking to you.
6. Don’t be too uptight; but also be careful not to enrage the many uptight people around you. This has been a grim, humorless and puritanical time. Francesca Smith, a city commissioner in Glendale, California, seemed to be trying to add a tad of good cheer when she raised a wine glass while seconding a motion to adjourn a three-hour meeting that had dragged on till 8:30 pm. For her trouble, critics denounced her, and the City Council voted to ban alcohol when any official business is conducted.
One of the harder lessons of the pandemic has been that, no matter how sensible you think you are, some colleagues will judge you as not being sensible enough. Some will see you as not doing enough to heal social injustice, others will judge you for not being as careful as they are about mitigating the coronavirus or about just being as serious. You’ll need to find ways to blow off steam, but make sure you’re doing so with a friendly cohort.
7. Respect others’ time, more than ever. Not every 60-minute videoconference needs to run the allotted time. Some colleagues have such meetings booked, back-to-back, all day and all week; and since it’s considered rude for them to be late to their next meeting, give them a few minutes to respond to a few emails, stretch their legs or run to the restroom. This, again, is about keeping yourself disciplined while extending grace and courtesy to others.
8. Listen for the pause. “If you have to call in to a Zoom meeting, time your questions or comments for a pause in the discussion or when a facilitator calls on you,” Putnam says. “This lowers the odds of how often you speak over others who have signaled they’re about to speak.”
9. Land the Plane. “Agree on next steps and action items,” Dyment says. “Whether meeting live or in person, if action items are not completely clear, be the person who uses David Allen’s classic ending question from his book, Getting Things Done: ‘It’s been a good discussion. Before we end, what are our very next steps?’ No one wants to spend a precious hour batting around ideas and coming away from the experience not knowing exactly what should be happening next. It feels like a waste of time.”