Hot desking, tea rounds and surviving meetings IRL: the new rules of the office

After two years of lockdowns, offices are almost unrecognisable. In many of them, staff are returning under a hybrid model, working from home a few days a week and coming in for the others. Some organisations slashed their floor space during the pandemic, making what is left feel distinctly cramped, while others have removed desks, and look a lot like departure lounges. A lot of us are hot-desking for the first time in our working lives, without a desk, chair, computer or pot plant to call our own.

And people have changed, too. Much to the disgust of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, after two years of WFH we have got used to wearing jogging pants, talking to our pets, cooking our own lunches, picking children up from school and doing mid-morning naked yoga while also getting our work done. So, as the commuter trains start to fill once more and the mug cupboard gets its first proper action since early 2020, what are the rules of this new office life?

How do I survive all these meetings? At least when I was Zooming I could pretend the wifi had gone down.

“When it comes to meetings, we should be having less of them,” argues Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, and co-author of Remote Workplace Culture. “If you have them, have them quick and have them late. Instead of having it at 9 o’clock where it can go on until 12, have it at 11.30, because everyone gets hungry at 12.30. Three-hour meetings are useless. Reach your goddamn decision and don’t have game-playing.”

You can also set an alarm on your phone to go off 10 minutes into one of those scheduled informal “chats” that can fill the soul with dread. Once your phone starts vibrating, you can claim it’s an urgent call to do something – anything – else.

And if someone corners you when you’re trying to wrap up for the day? “If someone was hovering around my desk, I’d just explain that I want to go home and see my kids,” says Cooper. “But I’d add that I’ll give them a call and talk properly another time.”

Everyone in my office stinks – perfume, gym, feet, cigarette smoke, aftershave, fruity vape clouds, breath. How do I cope? Should I tell them? Might they not realise?

The onion armpits, the stagnant gym bag, the Hoover-bag breath: it is sort of amazing anyone ever sleeps with their colleagues. “If you’re in a position of responsibility and they are in your team and it was becoming a problem for business – say they were stinking out meeting rooms or clients were saying something – then I think it would be worth saying something, as long as they are your junior,” suggests etiquette expert Jo Bryant. “I don’t think you can start telling your boss they smell – it’s not going to go well.”

But how exactly do you tell a colleague that they hum? “I think it would be worth saying: ‘Somebody noticed a smell the other day in a meeting, so I’m just asking everybody to double-check that jackets and shirts are clean.’” In other words, make it vague and make it anonymous. “Explain that you’re just doing a team-wide thing – everybody’s checking, because something has been said; you can’t say by who.’”

And if it’s your boss? My primary schoolteacher mum always swore by a dab of tiger balm under your nostrils, Olbas oil on your collar or mentholated chewing gum to block out the stench of other people’s bodies. Or maybe you should invest in a really heavy-duty face mask.

The office chair is killing my back. Can I ask for a better one? And how do I stop colleagues from fiddling with the levers while I’m away?

Alison Green, author of Ask a Manager, points out that you are well within your rights to ask for a better chair if the current one is causing you physical discomfort. “Frame it in terms of ergonomics, and ask for an ergonomic assessment, if that’s a thing your workplace does. As for stopping colleagues from messing with it, that can be a losing battle. You can always try asking them to stop – but if they need to use that chair when you’re not in, they need it to fit them just as much as you need it to fit you. The real problem may be that your office needs more chairs.”

I miss my spouse, children, dogs etc. Is it OK to Zoom them from the office?

Modern etiquette, explains Bryant, is all about causing the least amount of friction. “Before the pandemic, we would have gone to a breakout area, waited until lunchtime or gone out of the building for a few minutes to make a phone call; exactly the same rules should apply to video calls. The exception to that rule might be if it was late in the evening, the office was quiet, you were having to work late and you want to say goodnight to the children. But in normal, busy office hours, it should be avoided.”

That’s no fun. Is it at least OK to walk around the office while I’m on the phone? I want to hit my 10,000 steps.

“If you see people just walking around – as if they’re in their sitting room or walking down the street – that’s disturbing for other people,” Bryant says. “If you were that busy, you wouldn’t be wandering around. It’s the ‘busy’ people who are always doing miles around the office, calling it multitasking and telling everyone how busy they are. There’s no need to draw attention to yourself in that way.”

If your office has hot-desking, how do you reserve your favourite seat (by the spider plant, with the view of the train line, out of view of the colleague who harrumphs whenever you open a packet of crisps) without getting in at 7am?

“We’ve seen firms try to do hot-desking before, and one of the ways people tried to retain a little bit of ownership was almost like a dog cocking their leg – they’d keep it disgusting,” says Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work, presenter of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast and former vice-president of Twitter in Europe. “I think that’s a classic performative bit of status. A low-status person definitely wouldn’t dare to leave their space looking dishevelled.”

Unless your workplace has a formal booking-in system then you have to accept that you’re not going to get your favourite desk, mouse, or chair, says Bryant. “If you’re hybrid working, in a team situation where you know you’re doing two or three days and know who you’re sharing your desk with, I think you could leave your notebook or pen neatly on the desk. But nobody wants to sit down in front of pictures of your children or novelty pencil sharpener. If you’re hot-desk sharing or hybrid sharing with someone senior to you, then clean out every time. Also, don’t leave anything around that could be personal or data-sensitive – be sensible about it.”

Is my “professional tracksuit” going to cut it at work? It is black and it does have a waistband – but it also has quite a lot of elastic and some fairly indelible porridge marks.

“A shirt or a suit makes some people feel more comfortable,” says Cooper. “Personally, I haven’t worn a suit for a year and a half and in that time I’ve written five books.” Cooper points towards the fact that the old model of hard shoes and shaved faces didn’t seem to make us more productive. “If we were so efficient pre-Covid, in the formal environment we had, why was productivity per capita bottom of the G7 and 17th out of the G20? I’d say our environments weren’t relaxed enough. If you’re customer-facing and you think your customers or clients want you to be formal, that’s one thing. But I think we need to lighten up.”

What do I do if someone on a nearby desk starts coughing? Is it rude to move seats? Should I offer them a sweet? A lateral flow test? A mask?

“I think I’d ignore it to start with,” advises Bryant. “If it didn’t go away, I’d ask if they were feeling OK, hint, hint. If it carried on, at the end of the day I might say: ‘Do you think you ought to stay at home tomorrow because it’s horrible for you to have to be in such a dry, air-conditioned environment with your cough.’” Put it as a concern for their comfort, rather than your own, and highlight the fact that, hopefully, many of us are now more able to work from home. As for sniffing, my personal advice would be to follow the lead of my old classmate during our GCSE exams and wear earplugs.

Is it ever appropriate to microwave fish in an office kitchen?

My first ever office – in Leeds – had a working kitchen with a hob in the basement and I thought nothing of cooking a full stir-fry down there during my lunch break. I even grated the carrots. Another colleague ate tinned mackerel at her desk. “To some extent, we forgot that being in an office meant the occasional smell of someone microwaving fish,” Daisley points out. “Or the challenge of dealing with the person next to you chewing gum all day. The mini-frustrations or hell that other people represent. We’re just coming to terms with it again.” You could always, if really tortured, put an Out of Order sign on the microwave, turn it off at the plug and go back to your joyless cold sandwich feeling smug.

Can I ask someone who’s off sick to join our Zoom call? It’s not going to kill them, surely?

“If they’re off work because they’re sick, it’s an absolute no,” says Bryant. “If they’re off work because they’re doing something like childcare, or waiting in for a plumber, then I think the pandemic has opened up the concept that we can log in from anywhere and do our jobs more remotely than we thought. If people aren’t incapacitated themselves, and are able to join the call from home, then I think that’s fine. As long as you’re not encroaching on some private emergency or crisis. There are boundaries.”

What do I do if I need to burp, fart, scratch, yawn or sneeze during a meeting? I can’t turn off my mic and camera any more?

Bodies are such chaotic, animal things. Even when they are dressed up in a navy polyester blazer and put in a swivel chair. “We all need to relearn the techniques we used to use to handle these moments, before going remote,” Green advises. “Sneezing is generally recognised as uncontrollable; it’s going to happen. But if you have to burp, fart, or scratch yourself somewhere indelicate, ideally you’d briefly excuse yourself from the meeting. Yawning is trickier. It can be just as uncontrollable as sneezing but can give the impression that you’re bored or disengaged. Drinking water can help but if you really can’t hold it in, try to be discreet about it. You want it to be as subtle and as far away as possible from a loud, back-stretching yawn.”

I don’t wear a mask in the office but one of my colleagues does. Should I mask up when I approach them for a chat? If there’s a group of us in a small room, should we all put masks on?

There are no longer any real rules about this, which means each organisation must create its own guidelines and each member of staff is responsible for how they act. But what are the medical implications?

“It very much depends on whether you work with anybody vulnerable, who might be at higher risk,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and clinical director of Patient.info. “If it’s a relatively young, relatively healthy, all-vaccinated group of people and there are 10 of you, the chances of anybody being infected at any one time is probably one in five or so, which means there’s an 80% chance you’d be wearing face masks all day for ‘no reason’. Saying that, if you work with people who are older, more vulnerable and particularly if they have suppressed immune systems for any reason, then the risks are not remotely insignificant.” You can usually spot if someone in your office is older but whether someone has an underlying health condition can be impossible to judge. “I don’t think it’s fair to put the onus on that person to talk to everyone in the team,” Jarvis continues, “so perhaps have a chat with your line manager.” That is, after all, what bosses are for.

As for the type of mask you wear, Sarah’s answer is wry but pertinent: “It does need to have at least two layers. But frankly, a fairly cheap, two-layer cloth mask is a great deal more effective if worn over your nose and mouth than the best FFP mask in the world when it’s only worn beneath your chin.”

How do I tell my manager that I want to keep working flexitime? They don’t have kids and only have a 15-minute commute, so I just don’t think they understand.

Ideally, you’d point to how well it has been working already, Green suggests. “Explain that it’s been a major boon to your quality of life not to have to spend as much time commuting, and talk about what you’ve done to ensure it hasn’t affected your work. If you haven’t already been doing it and thus don’t have that data to point to, another approach is to ask to do it as a limited-time experiment, such as for six weeks, and then revisit it after that so that your boss has a chance to see that it works.”

Are tea rounds still allowed or do we all have to do the lonely caffeine walk to the kettle solo, now?

I once worked with a woman who remembered whose mug was whose by lining them up along the counter from who she thought was most leftwing to most rightwing, while she boiled the kettle. You could, alternatively, reduce the chances of cross-infection by asking for a washing-up sponge and some detergent. “The tea round was a wonderful, very gentle assertion of these mini bonds of connection between us,” says Daisley, sounding wistful. “In the past few years we’ve got our work done tactically, and we’ve maybe detached ourselves from some of the office idiots, but one thing we’ve definitely done less in the past two years is laughed. The late chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks talked about ‘simcha’. It’s a Hebrew word that translates as joy, but it’s also a participle of ‘we’. Every time we have meaningful moments, they become part of who we are, they have simcha running through them. In a very small, British way, the tea round had that simcha to it.”

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