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How to prepare for a return to the office: 'People's social skills are really rusty,' cautions etiquette expert

People are "just not used to carrying on a conversation the way that they did before the pandemic."

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Twenty/20

Sooner or later, those who have been lucky enough to be doing their jobs from home for the better part of two years are going to need to start preparing to go back to the office.

Many of those workers aren't ready to resume once-routine office interactions like casual, face-to-face conversations: "People's social skills are really rusty," says Jodi Smith, an etiquette expert and president of consulting firm Mannersmith.

"So many people have been used to being on Zooms with lots of [attendees]" that it's easy to get distracted and multitask, Smith says. "People are talking and typing on their computer at the same time" and not totally present.

So when people see one another in person, professionally or personally, those interactions can be awkward.

"There's a pause, because they're just not used to carrying on a conversation the way that they did before the pandemic," Smith says. "It'll come back to us when things get better, but I think we need to add a little bit of extra grease into our conversations" during early days back at the office.

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It's unclear how soon workers might have to put their social skills back into practice: As the delta variant surged across the country, many large employers reconsidered their back-to-work plans. Some, like Microsoft, pushed their return date back indefinitely. And by Thanksgiving, omicron forced employers to reassess yet again. In early December, other tech heavyweights like Google and Meta (parent company of Facebook) amended their plans for workers to return to the office in January.

Google moved its date from January 10 to some yet-to-be-determined time in 2022; Meta will continue with plans to fully open its doors on January 31 but will give individual employees the option to delay their return for 3 to 5 months.

Ahead of your return to office, whenever it is, here are Smith's best tips to brush up your social skills.

Extroverts: 'Take a breath' to avoid overwhelming colleagues

Extroverts in particular are likely to be really excited to finally see co-workers again when it happens, but it will be a smart decision to temper some of that excitement. "Remember to pause and take a breath," Smith says. You "don't want to overwhelm other extroverts or people who are introverted."

She uses an office meeting to illustrate what that tempering might look like.

"It's the first staff meeting that everybody's in the room together," she says. "Everybody's giving a little update on the stories they're working on, or whatever projects they happen to be doing. Make sure as an extrovert not to jump in and talk over somebody else, even if you're excited for what they're doing. Let them finish their sentence."

[You] don't want to overwhelm other extroverts or people who are introverted.
Jodi Smith
Etiquette expert, Mannersmith

If you're used to leading conversations, lead them in a way that invites other people to participate, Smith says. For example, at the end of a meeting, ask if anyone wants to add any last thoughts, not as a way of putting anyone on the spot, but making sure "everybody had some airtime."

"If you realize that Susie over in the corner hasn't said anything, give her the opportunity," Smith says. "Invite her into the conversation."

Introverts: 'You cannot run a marathon the first day you put on running shoes'

Introverts will likely need to dedicate some effort in steeling themselves for working in close physical proximity to others, Smith says. She likens it to a runner preparing for a big race.

"You cannot run a marathon the first day you put on running shoes," Smith says. "You have to start building up" over time.

Now that more companies are delaying their back-to-work plans, this is a great time to be doing that warmup. There are plenty of low-stakes, low-Covid-risk social activities that introverts can do to train, Smith says.

"Start finding ways to have face-to-face conversations leading up to when you need to return to the office, she says. "Go for a walk with somebody around the block. Get a cup of coffee, sit in the park, and talk to a friend one-on-one. Have a longer meeting with somebody you want to see."

Go for a walk with somebody around the block. Get a cup of coffee, sit in the park, and talk to a friend one-on-one. Have a longer meeting with somebody you want to see.
Jodi Smith
Etiquette expert, Mannersmith

Smith also points out that many introverts likely won't be happy upon their initial return to the office, and that's totally fine. Be aware of those feelings and know that they are normal.

"Don't expect to go into the office for eight hours and feel OK," Smith says. "Go in for two hours one day, then work the rest of the day from home, build up to it in whatever way you can so that you're not running that marathon on the first day back in the office."

And remember, whether you're an introvert, an extrovert, or someone in between, we will all need plenty of grace in the year ahead.

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