Dan Poliwoda got a glimpse of office life when he was hired as a summer law student at Dickinson Wright LLP’s Toronto location in 2019. Back then, he wore a suit to work every day, spent lunches and the occasional happy hour with colleagues, and tried to make a good impression by spending long hours at his desk.
But now, as he prepares to start at the firm as a litigation lawyer next month, he is not sure how he will dress, or how much time he should spend at the office, or even whether it will be acceptable to invite co-workers to lunch.
Eighteen months away from typical office life has proven to be enough time for workers to reflect on whether the unwritten rules of North American corporate culture still make sense. As the general attitude toward personal health evolves, traditional workplace etiquette is evolving along with it, said Julie Blais-Comeau, a Montreal-based etiquette expert and author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility.
“Etiquette can sound like something that is stagnant, but in essence it’s a snapshot of what a group decides is mutually agreeable,” she said. “It evolves. Postpandemic, safety and security at work will be top of mind.”
When many of the 3.1 million Canadians who switched to remote work last year return to the office, they may struggle to figure out what now counts as acceptable behaviour. They will need to contend with varying levels of personal comfort with in-person activities among co-workers, changing office policies, and a lack of non-verbal cues from mask-shrouded faces.
Here’s how things could change.
Dress for the context, but don’t underdo it
The few times he made it to the office in the past year, Mr. Poliwoda dressed a step down from the typical shirt-tie-and-blazer guideline, because the number of interactions he was having with clients and colleagues had massively decreased.
People got comfortable dressing down during the pandemic, but whether the tendency has reduced wardrobe expectations in the workplace remains to be seen. For now, the only garment sure to be appropriate in all situations might be the face mask, especially when meeting in common areas.
Several large Canadian workplaces told The Globe and Mail they have issued no new dress-code mandates, but in some cases a shift to casual dress was already under way.
Karen Pastakia, a senior partner in Deloitte’s consulting business, said her office started gravitating toward a flexible dress policy a few years before the pandemic.
“Use good judgment in terms of the context that you’re walking into,” said Ms. Pastakia, who works at the multinational firm’s Toronto branch. “I’m not going to turn up in shorts if someone I’m meeting is going to turn up in a suit.”
Ms. Blais-Comeau said that two competing forces could influence dress codes as people return to work: a gradual move toward looser rules that might not always require business attire, and a collective urge for people to break out the best outfits from their closets for the first time in months. When in doubt, she added, it’s still better to dress up than down.
“Pandemic or not, in person or not, the principle shouldn’t change: We should always dress for the context,” she said. “You want to be perceived to belong on a team, and proper attire says ‘I’m on that team.’”
How often should I come in to work?
Before the pandemic, working long hours was seen as a virtue in many North American workplaces, but those who switched to remote work last year could walk into a changed culture as they gradually return to their desks.
“Previously, there was an assumption that if someone wasn’t in the office, they weren’t working,” Mr. Poliwoda said. “But now I think work has extended past the workplace.”
Data from Statistics Canada collected during the pandemic challenge the value of spending long days and late nights at the office. Only 3 per cent of respondents reported being less productive since starting to work from home, as opposed to 32 per cent who found themselves to be more productive. Eighty per cent of new remote workers in the country indicated they want to work at least half their hours from home after pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Ms. Blais-Comeau said employers will have to do more than simply allow employees to work from home – they will also have to breed a type of workplace culture that encourages them to do so. Ellen Austin, a 27-year-old human resources consultant at the Bank of Montreal, said her office offered work-from-home options years before the pandemic, but that not going in still felt wrong.
“It’s this panic, especially with people our age, that you don’t want to appear as lazy or not doing your job,” she said. “What if people judge you for working from home too much?”
At Deloitte, Ms. Pastakia said she feels the temporary pivot to online work forced a shift in office values – one that could be here to stay as people return to in-person work.
“It’s much more about the outcomes you’re delivering as opposed to the hours or time you spend sitting in a seat.”
TALKING ABOUT COVID
It’s probably best not to ask your co-workers if they’re vaccinated, unless they’re your friends.
Many Canadian workplaces encourage, but do not require, vaccination. That could entice people to inquire about the inoculation status of their colleagues, but Ms. Blais-Comeau said that such questions could be seen as invasions of privacy – especially if the person asking is an acquaintance, rather than a friend.
“Ask yourself: Is it that you are concerned for them, for yourself, or just curiosity?” she said. “If you are concerned, volunteer the information and observe their body language and see if it says something.”
Don’t go for it, at least for now.
At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged handshakes, hugs and fist bumps in the workplace. Mr. Poliwoda thinks it’s just a matter of time before those habits come back.
“Our workplace is very collegial. We used to shake hands and high-five … it’s just so natural,” he said. “I think there is going to be a human urge to touch hands again.”
Ms. Blais-Comeau said she believes that human tendencies for touch are powerful, and that the handshake will probably be instinctual upon return. For the time being, however, she said it will probably be appropriate to normalize a new gesture to show respect.
“Take your right hand, put it on your heart, say it’s really nice to see you,” she said. “It’s probably best we don’t shake hands.”
THE COFFEE CHAT
Keep having them, but offer options based on comfort level.
Like many young professionals, Ms. Austin has cemented relationships with superiors and potential employers over coffee. When she was forced to move those chats to Zoom, she found that something was missing.
“It’s not the same social element,” she said. “It’s nice to meet someone away from your work desk for a conversation for 20 or 30 minutes.”
Ms. Austin is now hesitant to ask co-workers out for coffee, because she wonders if it’s appropriate from a public-health perspective. Mr. Poliwoda feels the same way.
“I am conscious that some people aren’t okay with that yet, especially senior people. So I still wouldn’t do it.”
Ms. Blais-Comeau said professionals should give their peers both virtual and in-person options when organizing coffee chats, to account for varying comfort levels. She also said it would be a mistake to stop proposing informal conversations, as some colleagues probably crave social interaction and could be more open to meeting up than ever before.
“People are so looking forward to network, and I think eventually we will have even more luncheons, more coffee chats, more networking events than before the pandemic.”
Should I make a point of attending all meetings in person, if I have that option?
Ms. Austin is expecting her workplace to offer a mixture of in-person and virtual meetings by the fall. She said she likes the hybrid model, because office meetings are better for critical planning, whereas virtual meetings remove any feeling of “us versus them” between local workers and colleagues in other cities. But, once both meeting types are available, she’s not sure whether managers and executives will still be supportive of those who prefer not to be physically present.
“I do think companies will have a hard time, as some leaders will have different expectations,” she said. “Even if a leader says you can take meetings from home, if your manager says you have to come to the office you will follow that.”
Ms. Blais-Comeau said that if companies adopt hybrid meeting models they will have to stand by them, because favouring in-person meetings could coerce employees into coming to the office even if they are not comfortable doing so. Despite the difficulty of striking that balance, she said, organizations may want to consider resuming in-person meetings soon, to promote efficiency.
“What I’m hearing is that, since going online, there are a lot more impromptu meetings put on one’s calendar on shorter notice to compensate for the lack of conversations,” she said. Having meetings in-person could decrease their frequency and save time, she added.
Whether or not organizations move forward with remote meetings, it is important that leaders carefully gauge the comfort levels of employees, Ms. Blais-Comeau said, and caution should guide most return-to-work initiatives.
“At the end, our guides are things like benevolence, empathy, mental health,” she said. “Whether you are an employer or an employee, it is rarely bad etiquette to ask about something.”
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