November 17, 2020

How the Pandemic Challenges Workplace Etiquette

By Crystal Mendoza

By: Anonymous


Quarantine has taught me a lot about resilience, friendships, and remote desktop. There have been highs and lows as I have learned how to navigate my own anxiety and gradually implement strategies to keep up my motivation, recognizing when I need to take a moment to recharge. However, now that it has been 8 months since the first lockdowns in March, I’m not so focused on catastrophizing and am able to be really keyed into my numerous weekly video meetings. While it is great that we are still able to connect this way, I’ve noticed some alarming trends in these meetings. We are all getting more comfortable working from home, but I am concerned that we may be forgetting that “work from home” still means “work,” and our behavior and dialogue should reflect that.

Before this pandemic, we already knew that men tend to dominate meeting discussions and that both men and women are more likely to interrupt a speaker if it’s a woman. Unfortunately, I think this trend has only worsened as we have moved to virtual meetings. It is much harder to interrupt someone when they are talking on a virtual platform or to even indicate that you would like to speak next. You may raise your hand from your rectangle (or use the “raise hand” feature in the platform), but the person speaking may not be using a view where they can see everyone in the meeting. Most virtual conferences have a moderator that monitors the audience, so this is not so much a problem then as it is during lab meeting or a project planning session. To make it worse, audio doesn’t work the same online as it does in a conference room. Raising your voice to be heard over someone may just be clipped and not heard at all, and if you are a woman, the higher pitch of your voice may go unnoticed. The most egregious infractions though are those of colleagues who do or say things they would not normally do when working on location. I haven’t personally heard any flushing in the background of any calls, and no one has absent mindedly disrobed on camera, but such careless acts do occur and are totally unprofessional for a work call. No, what I have witnessed is people talking religion or politics, commenting on the appearance of colleagues and their homes, or expressing opinions of a colleague’s ability which are rooted in racist, sexist, or ageist stereotypes. Just because you are at home does not mean you can talk to us like we are “buddies.” The lessons we learn in harassment workshops apply to virtual meetings too, in case anyone has forgotten.

This social skill regression is not limited to conference calls and video meetings:  I am even seeing changes in how people write their emails. More and more often, I am receiving emails from colleagues with no greeting, no signature, just a To Do List or an attached document to review. Maybe this habit is excusable when you are sending rapid fire emails back and forth on a topic, but certainly the initial email should include some sort of salutation? I have not seen so many of my lab mates in-person in months, and I hope they are doing well, so I say as much when I reach out to them via email for the first time in a while. At least say “please” when you’re sending out laundry lists of tasks, and send back “thank you” when people send back their updates and progress. I understand these niceties may have seemed repetitive or insincere in “the before-times,” but we should be mindful that this is the primary way to show your appreciation now. Expressing thanks via email probably won’t make anyone’s day, but not showing any gratitude at all will definitely start to grind away at the motivation of your coworkers to do what you need them to do.

In times like these, we are learning just how much we lean on each other. Please be respectful of your coworkers: give them time to respond, try not to interrupt them, and call out others when they are being rude. A good strategy is to remind your team of proper virtual etiquette at the top of a call. One other thing to remember is if you cannot avoid a meeting overlapping with mealtimes mute both your camera and your mic while you eat. If you must say something, do not do it while you are chewing. Try to look presentable if your camera is going to be on, but absolutely do not comment on the appearance of someone else on a call. Times are rough for everyone right now – recognize it. Tell your team you appreciate them and are proud of what they have been able to accomplish in the last eight months despite all the obstacles COVID19 has put in your way. Wash your hands, wear your mask, and stay safe.

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