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As pandemic restrictions lift across the country, many people will be seeing their colleagues in person again for the first time in a long while.patrick chu/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Handshake, or no? Morning muffins at the coffee station or not? And what about masks?

As pandemic restrictions lift across the country, many people will be seeing their colleagues in person again for the first time in a long while – and it may be a bit weird.

“Don’t rush into it thinking that things are going to be the same because they aren’t,” says Louise Fox, an etiquette expert and owner of The Etiquette Ladies.

Here are some guidelines for post-lockdown office etiquette for workers and their bosses:

For employees:

Be considerate

“Go back with an open mind and have some forgiveness in your heart that people have struggled just as you may have,” Ms. Fox says. “The basis of all etiquette is respect and consideration for others and a large part of empathy.”

Mind your business

“As brutal as that may sound, you are responsible for your own health,” Ms. Fox says.

She says that there are certain rules in place and other measures left to personal choice. For example, companies should have clear rules, but some people may be wearing masks, and some may not. Some may be comfortable in closer quarters; some may not.

“I don’t think we need to be asking others if they’re vaccinated or not vaccinated,” she suggests. “Don’t get into those discussions at work. That’s not the time for it.”

If you’re concerned, keep your distance or wear a mask, she suggests.

“People have changed since you last saw them … and I think we have to be mindful that we don’t have all the information,” she says. “Err on the side of kindness and err on the side of caution.”

Read the room

Our handshaking days may be over, at least for now and at least with some of our colleagues, she suggests.

“Use your social intelligence and see if that person’s comfort level warrants a handshake. Maybe not,” Ms. Fox says. “That’s really the essence of good manners, is to make others feel comfortable.”

Remember: you’re not in your living room

After many months of working in the privacy of our homes, our manners may be out of practice, Ms. Fox says.

“I started swearing,” she admits with a laugh. “I was alone a lot, and it just seemed to come out of my mouth and now it comes out when it shouldn’t come out.”

Remember the mask is off, literally and figuratively, and some of the habits formed at home aren’t appropriate at the office.

Don’t be a hero

Employers never did want sick employees coming in, says Janet Salopek, president of Calgary-based human resources consultancy Salopek and Associates Ltd. That will be even more the case in the current environment.

“Now more than ever, people do not want you at the office if you’re not feeling good,” Ms. Salopek says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be productive still and work from home.”

For employers:

Employers should have some clear guidelines and lay out their expectations to employees returning to in-person work, Ms. Fox says.

“You have a whole workforce of people coming back with all kinds of different issues, problems, worries, anxieties and, if you don’t have some clear guidelines of what their expectations are, you’re going to have a much more stressed out, unhappy, dissatisfied employee,” she says.

Public health requirements vary across the country and from sector to sector. The onus is on employers to stay informed, adds Matthew MacLeod, a senior occupational health and safety specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupation Health and Safety.

Have a plan

Mr. MacLeod says employers should have a plan that outlines measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Workers should be trained on these plans to understand the control measures and procedures they are to follow when they return to work,” he says.

Each workplace is unique and there is no single effective measure to guard against the spread of COVID-19, so employers should take a layered approach, Mr. MacLeod says.

General tips include good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and routine cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch work surfaces, he says. Employers may also want to implement policies on physical distancing and masks.

Improved air ventilation and filtration, physical barriers between workspaces and more physical distance in the workspace are also effective measures, he adds. Mr. MacLeod also suggests communicating procedures that limit risk, limited occupancy, COVID-19 screening and vaccine policies that comply with public health requirements.

Where possible, working remotely is one of the most effective controls and employers may want to use a phased-in or hybrid approach, he adds, rather than having everyone return at once.

Provide mental health support

Many people have experienced stress, fear, anxiety and other challenges throughout the pandemic, Mr. MacLeod says.

“These emotions may continue or even increase as people return to the workplace,” he says. “It’s definitely important for employers to take this into consideration, involve [employees] in the return-to-work process, and ensure that they have resources and support available to help address mental health.”

Ms. Salopek says her firm is doing a lot of work with clients adjusting policies to this new world of work.

“We’ve never done more policy review than we’re doing right now,” she says.

Public health requirements for employers vary depending on where they operate across Canada. There are legal obligations linked to those health and safety issues as employees return, she says.

Provide a safe and inclusive workplace

“As people come back into the workplace, they’re not going to be feeling all the same way about masking and the comfort about going into a boardroom, for example,” Ms. Salopek says.

Employers need to ensure no employees feel pressure to do things they’re uncomfortable with.

“Be respectful that everybody has different opinions and also create some options for people as they come back to the workplace,” she says.

That may include joining meetings virtually rather than in person or gathering in a larger space if necessary.

Consider a dress code

Business on the top, pajamas on the bottom has become the norm for at-home work attire, Ms. Salopek says.

“We’ve gotten used to the fact that we put on a nice top but we wear our pajamas on the bottom as we go into our Zoom calls,” she says. “People like the flexibility of not having to get dressed to the tens to go to the office.”

Employees and employers alike will need to review the office dress code, which may need updating, she says.