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After a year of WFH, many workers will soon face a new challenge: learning to be around colleagues again

Returning to the office will mean behavior modification

Vicki Gray, owner of New Chapter Home Improvement in Cambridge, led a meeting outside. She said communication will be key for returning workers.
Vicki Gray, owner of New Chapter Home Improvement in Cambridge, led a meeting outside. She said communication will be key for returning workers.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

After spending more than a year learning to work from home by themselves, many workers in coming months will face a new challenge: learning to be around colleagues again.

As employees trickle back to long-dormant offices, they — and their employers — will return to spaces that look and feel different: from new desk layouts, to rearranged meeting rooms, to advanced cleaning protocols. Many people will likely remain remote at least part of the time. But the most substantial changes may have to do with how people interact.

COVID-19 has brought about a heightened awareness of personal space and boundaries. It has also highlighted differences among even close friends and family about how best to manage health risks. Whenever people return to in-person contact with colleagues, the specter of the virus will complicate the normal rules of office etiquette, creating new dynamics and reinforcing the importance of some old ones.

“It may take time for certain people to adjust to the new way of operating,” said Vicki Gray, owner of New Chapter Home Improvement in Cambridge, where workers have been on the job for most of the past year. “Just be mindful and patient, because this pandemic has put a lot of people in a different place mentally.”

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Asking people about their health is still weird

One of the most difficult questions for people coming back to an office might be how to talk to colleagues about health concerns.

COVID-19 has been a shared experience. It’s natural to want to discuss it. And your co-worker’s health information may have a bearing on what you can do in proximity to each other. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who are vaccinated can gather freely.

Conversation about health protocols might come easily, according to Daniel Post Senning, a great-great grandson of Emily Post and cohost of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.

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“For many people, it is the thing they would be most interested in talking about with you, so it doesn’t have to be a big deal, and it’s not that you’re anticipating stepping on toes,” Post Senning said.

But other people may not be willing to share as freely, he said, and that’s OK. Health can be a private topic. If people don’t volunteer information you think you need, he said, you can make clear why you’re asking.

For example, you could tell them it’s important to you that everyone feels comfortable going out for lunch together, so you would appreciate knowing whether they’ve been vaccinated.

“Make those good intentions explicit,” Post Senning said, “and that gets everybody on the same page.”

Respecting physical space on a new level

Tom Ward, a longtime member of the Iron Workers Local 7 union who has been working at construction sites through most of the pandemic, said he has adjusted fairly well to most on-the-job physical distancing requirements.

But there’s one change that’s been harder than others: handshakes and other kinds of warm physical greetings are off-limits. Ward has to find other ways to express his happiness at seeing a long-lost colleague.

“It’s tough to stay 6 feet apart. It’s a big part of [work] in my mind — people know that about me: the solidarity part of it,” Ward said. He hasn’t found a satisfactory replacement: “Just yell, from afar, I guess,” he said.

While some office workers have not been to work in-person for more than a year, people like Ward whose presence is required on the job have already absorbed some of the cultural changes that await the rest of us.

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Gray, of New Chapter Home Improvement, said the return to the workplace has involved a heightened awareness of physical space. Tell someone if you have to come near them, she said, and make sure they’re comfortable.

“We always tell people, just communicate it: ‘Hey I need to reach over and get this paintbrush, or when you’re all set, I need to get that bucket that’s right behind you.’ ”

At the office, that increased attention to people’s personal space could persist, even after the pandemic is over.

Meetings will never be the same

After a year of having to limit most personal contact to short interactions, many people may return to offices feeling a little squeamish about spending long stretches in a room with others.

That may put pressure on bosses to keep meetings shorter. Few people are likely to complain.

“I’ve never left a meeting and said, ‘I wish that was two hours longer. That was a real miss,’ ” said Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot in Cambridge.

She said HubSpot ― whose employees remain almost entirely remote ― is thinking about meetings and other workplace customs as broadly as possible. Ultimately, the company expects some people to primarily work from the office, some to remain at home, and some to go back and forth.

The question, Burke said, is, “What’s the workspace we want to go back to and the workforce we want to create versus reacting to the things that have changed overnight because of COVID-19?”

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And where meetings are required, some businesses are trying to be creative to make sure everyone feels safe. Gray’s company has its staff meetings outside of its Cambridge shop, for instance.

Post Senning said that returning to the office will be as much about knowing your own comfort level as it is about respecting other people’s.

Asking someone to come to lunch is fine, but it’s also fine if they don’t want to do that yet. Post Senning said it’s important not to take someone else’s choices personally — if they wear a mask where one isn’t required, for instance.

And if you feel uncomfortable, you can explain why in a way that makes clear that your position is not a comment on anyone else’s hygiene or behavior.

“This goes back to classic etiquette. Knowing how to say no and set boundaries well is not rude,” Post Senning said. “Sometimes saying no quickly and clearly is the best way to go.”

And one thing will never change: You still shouldn’t microwave fish or burn popcorn in the office kitchen — even after you’re vaccinated.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.