By Melissa Powell Sheppard

The first widely distributed reference on etiquette was written in 1922 when Emily Post authored “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home”. While many things have certainly changed in business since this book was published, several of the principles remain timeless. Her definition of etiquette is “a collection of norms by which all personal contacts in life are made smooth, a polish used in all encounters that reflect respect and courteous consideration of other people’s interests and feelings.”

Applying Emily Post to our work lives

We spend a significant amount of time with our colleagues, in some cases more time than with our own families. It is not unusual to become so comfortable and familiar with one another that being casual becomes quite normal. That said, being casual can also make it easy to overlook the respect and courteous consideration we often give those with whom we are not so well-acquainted.

There are many forms of etiquette in business that are worth reviewing, however, three come to mind as having a great deal of impact: meetings, interruptions, and gossip.

Meeting etiquette

Meetings are an inevitable part of business for many people (often the number of meetings are too many and their length too long, but that is another issue all together). To help meetings be as productive and meaningful as possible, everyone should keep these helpful hints in mind:

  • First, turn up on time as often as possible. Be genuinely apologetic when you do arrive late.
  • Second, whether you are leading the meeting or just occupying a seat at the table, don’t complicate your message, speak simply and straight forward. If you feel the need to make your point five different ways, you are likely not being clear in any of them.
  • Third, in every case, responding to email and sending texts during a meeting is a passive aggressive behavior that shouts, “This meeting is not worth my time!” Be respectful of the meeting and your fellow colleagues.

Dealing with interruptions

Technology creates connections across the globe and allows for easy access to the office during non-traditional hours of business. However, this constant connection has also become an interruption and distraction to our work. Our office environments have changed the way we interact as well. In many workplaces the walls have been lowered, turned to glass, or removed all together. This change means there are more people in fewer square feet of real estate. While this can have a positive effect on collaboration, it often has a negative effect on the number of interruptions we experience in a day. While a bit of self-control can remedy interruptions created by technology, those that come from colleagues are much more complicated.

A study at the University of California, Irvine found that, on average, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and five seconds. It then takes around 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to where they left off. This means we’re actually spending more time getting back to where we started, than we do moving forward.

We often become a detriment to each other unintentionally because sitting in plain view makes asking a quick question irresistible. After all, how could you know if someone has the time to talk if you don’t ask? To help yourself, and those around you, consider creating a sign, or some sort of indication, that you would like to work in a focused state for a specific period of time. Just be sure to include the time you will be available again. And remember, don’t post a sign then start up a conversation.

‘I’m rubber and you’re glue’

Talking about situations or people at work is not necessarily a bad thing. Sharing in other’s success, expressing concern for a co-worker, or asking for help can be very positive experiences. Assuming your conversations are positive and valid. However, if your intent is to take pleasure in a colleague’s error or weakness, or to do harm to their character or reputation, there is something you should know. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests the old adage about ‘rubber and glue’ holds surprisingly true. When you speak negatively about others, those you are speaking to associate the negative words with you. It’s called spontaneous trait transference. The phenomenon states that people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Fortunately, this works both ways. When people speak positively about others, those traits are also associated with them.

It’s important to keep in mind that design can only do so much to encourage good etiquette in the workplace. The most important thing is to create spaces that are true to your company’s culture and values, and where staff have the options and flexibility to create their own “best” work environment.

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