Before the coronavirus, we swarmed to our offices, dressed to impress and pressured to behave like decent, considerate human beings. Now, beds are the new desks, pants are optional and passing gas freely might as well be a requirement. Gone are the days when we cared about our image in the workplace, because we work from home and have no one to impress.
This is fine for now, but what happens when we return to our offices? Will we bring these bad habits with us? Will we wear our pajamas to work? Will we burp openly and throw potato chips in our mouths while blasting heavy metal for everyone to hear?
For insight on the lasting effects of prolonged isolation, I turned to someone who has been dealing with it long before the pandemic struck — Melissa Miller, an oceangoing research scientist who regularly spends months confined at sea.
“There are certainly some adjustments when I return from an at-sea assignment, but it’s more about home life than office life,” Miller explains. “The people I work with in the office and lab also go to sea, so it’s normal enough when someone comes in during weird hours for the first week because they’re still on Japan time, or they start to drive on the left side of the road before realizing their mistake. We also work in shared spaces on ships, and etiquette is even more important out there, because we’re trapped with the same people in a small space, sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with more people than we’re used to at home.” (If you live with a roommate or partner, you may feel the same about quarantine.)
Nonetheless, Miller does expect the rest of us to experience a bit of culture shock when we return to our offices. “Comfy clothes and farting whenever we feel like it are easy things to get used to,” she admits. “I’ve certainly gotten used to comfy clothes and the short commute to my laptop. If and when I have to go back to waking up earlier and sitting in traffic, I’ll be grumpy about it. Though, thankfully, my work clothes only entail jeans and a T-shirt, so I have it better than others.”
But just like we adapted to working from home when the pandemic struck, Miller suspects that we’ll adjust to working in an office again fairly quickly. “My husband knows that I’m going to be a bit weird for a few days [after returning home from a research trip],” Miller says. “I spend the months at sea thinking about my happy place, which is being on my couch with my husband, dog and cats, with a glass of wine nearby. So, when I’m finally there, it feels surreal, and I can’t appreciate it right away. It takes a few days to adjust.”
Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore also believes that we’re more than capable of leaving our bad habits at home when we head back into the office. “Etiquette boils down to respect for other people and how your behavior affects others, so when we’re back to a ‘normal’ situation, people will gradually ease back into their regular routines,” she tells me. “I don’t think the habits they’ve adopted at home will necessarily translate to work, unless, of course, they were always like that. If anything, people are going to be more conscientious of their coworkers, because of the heightened awareness of the pandemic going on around us.”
That said, work in general might look different when we return, and therefore, Whitmore says companies may need to implement new policies that focus on things like manners and hygiene. “They’ll need to put procedures in place to keep their employees safe, and that might mean somebody in HR has to come up with a section in the manual that addresses things like personal hygiene, eating at your desk and those kinds of things,” she explains.
Her fellow etiquette expert Diane Gottsman agrees. “It will be a good time for management to come together with their teams and reinvigorate everyone — perhaps mention some little idiosyncrasies that, pre-COVID, were bothersome and discuss next steps moving forward,” she says.
We may need to do our part, too, by priming ourselves for being in the workplace again. “When we were younger and school was getting ready to start, we’d look at our wardrobe, lay everything out, try everything on and get really excited,” says Elaine Swann, who is also an etiquette expert. She recommends doing the same when we return to work. “We’ll be able to make that shift fairly easily. We just have to be very conscientious.”
Mind you, all of this depends on if we ever go back to our offices, which may never happen for some of us. “I think my first few trips out of the house without a mask will feel very weird,” Miller says. “Hugging friends, letting them take a sip of my beer and sharing food will be other benchmarks. Maybe it will feel weird forever, or some of these things won’t return now that we’re all more aware of how easily viruses can spread. Ultimately, though, people have short memories, so I assume a lot will go back to normal.”
For the office, that likely means a similar period of weirdness to start, but not the death of workplace etiquette. As Whitmore said, etiquette is about having respect for others, and the things we do alone at home won’t necessarily translate to what we’ll do when we’re back in an office with other people around. Unless, again, you were lacking in the manners department before all of this began.
“Once a slob, always a slob,” Whitmore says.