Feeling awkward back at the office? Tips to navigate greetings, distractions, productivity

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Working with colleagues in-person again can feel weird. How do you talk after not seeing each other for a year and a half of the COVID pandemic? To say hello, do you hug, shake hands, or bump elbows? 

“I remember even figuring out how to use the elevators, sitting in a seat for the whole day, not being able to just get up whenever I wanted, feeling like people were looking at my computer screen,” says Rachel Feintzeig, author of the “Work and Life” column for the Wall Street Journal. She recently went back to the office in New York after working from home in Philadelphia. 

“I was really productive at home, but it still just felt so weird to be in an office,” she tells Press Play. 

Talking to and mirroring colleagues

“You can be like, ‘It's great to see people, but it's kind of weird to be back,’ or ‘this time of day, I used to be eating lunch with my kids.’ You can kind of talk about what we've all been through. … It's also nice because everyone's kind of been through this weird thing,” says Feintzeig. 

You can also mirror the other person, she notes. “If you're at an office happy hour, and someone else is wearing a mask, you can put on your mask. If someone seems like they're taking a step back, like they want a little distance, I mean, just kind of be aware, and understand that people might have different comfort levels than you.”

Someone’s not wearing a mask and it bugs you? 

Try the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach, advises Feintzeig. 

“You can say, ‘I have a kid at home who can't be vaccinated yet, I have a high-risk family member. Can you just put on a mask?’ You can also say … ‘My kids are in school, they have a ton of exposure, I don't want to get you sick, it's for your safety to put on a mask.’”

If people resist, suggest an alternative, but don’t single them out like they’re bad people.

“You can say, ‘I totally get it. I know it's frustrating. Instead of having this meeting in this conference room, maybe we just go back to our separate offices and have a Zoom call.’ Give people a way out.”

Physical contact: handshakes, elbow bumps, hugs

Feintzeig says you should just ask the other person if they’re cool with shaking hands or not, and if you do go in for a handshake and they pull back, then simply apologize.  

You can profess your own awkwardness too. “It makes other people feel better about themselves, and makes them like you more if you kind of take the fall in that way.”

However, people overall have transitioned away from handshakes and towards elbow bumps, as Stanford and Chicago researchers have shown, she says. “Even though we know that COVID doesn't necessarily spread that way, I think it's just a change in how we relate to each other.” 

When it comes to hugs, she says one etiquette expert told her that no one should have been hugging in the office to begin with. “A lot of this stuff has been kind of awkward, it's just more awkward though.” 

The bottom line, she says: “If you really feel that desperate hugging urge, at least ask. But the general advice would be no.”

Chatty colleagues in an open office plan: How do you still get work done? 

You need a signal, says Feintzeig. “If you're in an open office plan, put on headphones, you can have a little flag that you raise … outside your cubicle to kind of signal that your head’s down on something.”

If someone comes up to you, tell them you’re busy and ask them to come back when your flag is down, she advises. That’s so you’re reinforcing your signal and buying yourself more time to focus. 

She notes that some people are seeing less productivity as they’re back at the office. “They felt like they could really multitask at home and get more out of every minute. And they didn't have the commute. And now it's weird being back, it takes more time to get adjusted. I think there is a hit to productivity.”

The role of managers

Protecting their own time is a big issue for managers too, Feintzeig says, so they can have office hours when people are allowed to chat with them. 

And for other hours, she says managers need to trust workers and acknowledge that things are different now as people are back in their office seats. “You are going to have to give up some things that you … took for granted at home, like the fact that you can't reach people during their commutes. They are reading on the subway now.”