From dressing appropriately to eating at your desk, the modern work environment has thrown the rules around office etiquette into question. Brush up on your manners with our handy guide.

With ‘out of the box’ concepts such as treadmill desks, collaboration rooms and nap spaces creeping into offices, combined with our growing reliance on social media for work and play, the rules around how to behave in the office can seem a bit blurry at times.

“Etiquette has moved with the times, as it needed to, but there are still some situations where individuals need to consider whether they are becoming too casual with etiquette and the office is certainly one of them,” says Paul Russell, a workplace psychologist and founder of Luxury Academy London, who has worked with companies in the UAE on etiquette issues. “A laissez-faire attitude towards hierarchy is one possible result of etiquette becoming more ‘loose’, but there is still a strong societal leaning towards manners and politeness and this would include due deference to superiors in a work situation.”

Attitudes vary, so consider the culture of the company you work for when it comes to communication.

“For some, a quick ‘thanks’ as a sign off in an email is enough, while others will take on a more traditional ‘letter-writing’ approach,” says Helen McGuire, Co-Founder & MD, Hopscotch, a recruitment company that champions flexible work for women. “As a general rule of thumb, it’s always better to be cautious, particularly where client meetings, interactions with superiors or interviews are concerned and take a slightly more formal attitude to start with. It’s much easier to dial it down than dial it up, and first impressions count for a great deal.”

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While we may be capable of having entire conversations with emojis in our personal lives, it’s important to reignite the art of conversation once we reach our desks.

“In the modern age, we’ve made certain shortcuts; speech is less verbose generally, we often email rather than pick up the phone and this is perfectly fine and acceptable but does have an impact upon not only our communication skills but our ability to develop relationships with others,” says Paul. “Remember there is no substitute for building rapport by talking to people and developing this into strong working relationships.”

Open dialogue

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As open plan offices become more common, we have to be even more mindful of behaving respectably.

“The current trend for open plan offices can be tricky to negotiate,” says Paul. “You are required to work productively in close proximity to others who might be quite different to you, and there are no closed doors to hide behind. In these instances, etiquette becomes even more important. Think about the basics such as your volume when talking on the phone, habits that might annoy others such as constantly eating at your desk, and different personalities and working styles.

“You may be able to work very easily while conducting a lively conversation about the weekend, but this might not suit those around you. Similarly, if you find others exhibiting these types of behaviours, demonstrate your preferred working style by remaining polite and friendly but showing that you, for example, need to concentrate and others will gradually understand this.”

“Distractions such as too much conversation, other people’s phone calls or meetings and colleagues shouting across the office are all too common and seriously unhelpful to concentration, focus and effectiveness at work,” agrees Helen. “Use break away spaces if you need a face-to-face with a co-worker or group, keep personal conversations and questions to a minimum as it can lead to awkward situations or too much noise and please think twice before bringing in last night’s curry for your lunch. An office that smells like a takeaway restaurant is never a good thing.”

Social graces

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Many of us use social media to speak with clients, source new business or go about our day to day work – there’s no getting away from it – but we do need to be careful of letting our personal feeds encroach on our work time.

“Be aware of your company’s outlines on social media matters and ensure that you and any direct reports stick to them rigidly,” says Helen. “Same goes for personal phone calls, particularly if you’re calling your mum in Australia on the work phone, which is a definite no-no.”

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When it comes to dressing the part, it’s entirely appropriate to come to work suited and booted in the more corporate worlds of finance, banking and legal services. In industries such as media and entertainment as well as those with a more creative lean, the dress code can be far more flexible.

“While we’d never advise going so far as flip flops or beachwear to the office, it’s safe to say the more informal approach is becoming far more common,” says Helen.

If in doubt, take a style cue from your superiors and bear in mind any cultural sensitivities that should be noted. Ultimately, being courteous to others is paramount.

“It always helps to take into consideration that many work environments are somewhat like microcosms of the outside world and made up of all sorts of personality types, backgrounds, cultures and religions,” says Helen.

“Not everybody celebrates Christmas and neither does everyone want their birthday shouted about or celebrated at work. Make the effort to get to know and understand your colleagues, junior and senior and be open to office events, coffees and lunch with that person you’ve only ever said a quick ‘hi’ to in the lift. You never know where it may lead and it will help foster a positive environment in which to work every day.”

As Paul summarises: “The foundations of etiquette should stay firm, that is to be polite, considerate and courteous to others at all times. A good quote to remember is that manners will open doors that the best education cannot.”

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Words: Faye Rowe
Images: Getty