When her employer gave her the go-ahead to return to the workplace last summer, Denise Charles was ready to go. The Mineola, Long Island, resident wanted to get out of her house, clean up the office she left 16 months earlier and get back to coaching clients from MTN Matchmaking’s headquarters in Melville.
“I’ve been training for an event like this my whole life. This is my Olympics,” said the self-confessed germaphobe. She showed up at her employer’s Mineola office wearing an N95 mask and latex gloves, carrying Lysol and a door pull.
Though she was delighted to see her boss, Maureen Tara Nelson, Charles kept her distance. Nelson, on the other hand, hugged one of her other long-term employees. “She’s like family,” she said. Even so, greetings at initial meetings come via fist bumps or “that elbow thing.”
Welcome back to the confusing workplace of 2021. Despite what you might read or hear in some places, a majority (two out of three) of employees say they feel comfortable returning, according to an October study conducted by Morning Consult.
Yet workers are expressing a whole spectrum of feelings about it, according to Thomas P. “Mr. Manners” Farley, an etiquette expert who is currently teaching a course, “To Shake or Not To Shake,” to corporate managers.
“It’s important to be mindful that some people think that all the precautions being taken are ridiculous, while others are absolutely petrified,” he said.
Etiquette experts say that you should be mindful of your own boundaries as well as those of your co-workers.
“If a co-worker comes closer to you than you are comfortable with, suggest, ‘How about we take a step back?’ ” said etiquette expert Elaine Swann of the Swann School of Protocol. “It’s important to know what you’re comfortable with and to look for cues from co-workers when you first meet them again.”
That wasn’t necessary for Alex Terry, the workplace experience manager at Bark, a subscription gift box maker for dogs. When he initially biked to the office from his home in Harlem last winter, there was hardly anyone there. He couldn’t wait to return. “I like noise and I like to be around people,” he said.
The first co-worker he encountered was his boss Dana Rosenkranz and her dog, Carl. Terry didn’t have to worry about whether he should greet her with a hug, a handshake, a foot bump or a wave. “At Bark, everyone always goes for the dog. I got to give Carl a big belly rub,” said Terry.
Derek Rippe, Bark’s director of toys, has been popping into the office around three times each week. “I always sign up to go in ahead of time. You have to be vaccinated and you have to make a reservation,” said Rippe. Dozer, Rippe’s 130-pound bull mastiff, is usually by his side.
The first Bark employee Rippe encountered was Melissa Seligmann, vice president of Bark Home. When it came to greeting her, “We nodded at each other. I’m so out of practice with social, I don’t know what’s acceptable,” said Rippe, who is looking forward to having more of his colleagues and their dogs return. “Back in the normal world, we had the best office,” said Rippe.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Christian Giordano, president and co-owner of Mancini Duffy, a full-service design firm. The management of the Chelsea-based company left no stone unturned when it came to making the office safe for its employees in June 2020. They installed temperature takers at the headquarter’s two entrances, hand sanitizer, masks and one-way interoffice travel lanes. The company even built an app to assist with the return.
Bolanle Williams-Olley, CFO and co-owner of Mancini Duffy, found returning a little more awkward, though. Saying hello to her co-workers felt uncomfortable.
“I’m a hugger, so I had to learn to use words to communicate that,” said Williams-Olley. A mother of two kids under 8, she is always on her toes since she doesn’t want to risk bringing anything home to her children. “I don’t take off my mask,” said the CFO.
While no employer we spoke to is demanding that workers return to the worksite before they feel comfortable, there’s the thought process that you could be missing out on something if you stay away. Maybe it’s a laugh while having coffee, meeting someone who was hired after last year’s quarantine began — or learning a new dance.
“I’m trying to get everyone to do the Funky Charleston,” said Alex Terry.
How to Avoid Awkward Situations
Don’t be judgmental
Even if you believe masks are unnecessary, don’t pass judgment on co-workers who wear them. “There might be people who think masks are silly, while the fears of others may be magnified,” said Farley.
Let your feelings be known
If a co-worker goes to give you a hug you don’t want, “say, ‘I’m not hugging just yet, but so glad to see you,’ ” said Swann.
Avoid conversations about vaccinations
“The chance of you convincing a co-worker to get vaccinated is zero percent. The chance of you annoying them is 100 percent,” said Farley.
Make sure you are ready to return
If you’re not, “explain that you’re not completely settled yet and the reason why. Maybe you’re waiting for your youngest child to get vaccinated,” said Swann. However, once the condition that’s keeping you from being willing to return to work is resolved, you should be prepared to go back.