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3 new rules for social interaction in the workplace

Now as workers make plans to return to the office, we’re once again faced with the need to adapt to new surroundings and experiences.

3 new rules for social interaction in the workplace
[Source photo: Prostock-Studio/iStock]

There’s a lot about work—how we think, what we feel, the decisions we make—that takes place beyond our head. Many of us have been raised to believe that our brain is the center of all our thinking and doing. We’ve grown up with the belief that training the brain is singularly responsible for how productive we can be as individuals. We also attach brain training to what makes some people successful and others less successful.

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The research of Barbara Tversky, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, challenges this long-held assumption that knowledge originates in the brain or “mind.” Her research demonstrates that spatial thinking—or our actions—underpin our thought processes. It is through our bodies doing that we can draw meanings.

I’m far from alone in suggesting this entrenched celebration of “mind over matter,” of “head over heart” does a disservice to our actual ways of knowing and the wealth of embodied knowledge—the knowledge we gain through doing—that most of us simply take for granted.

If the past 18 months has taught us anything, it’s that each of us has the ability to adapt how we work, which isn’t to say it was smooth or painless or that the requirements to do so were equally distributed. Our bodies had to acclimate to new surroundings and challenge their learned ways of working—desks became kitchen tables; colleagues became spouses, children. and pets; home became the office. Now, as offices begin to reopen and employees are asked to return to the workplace, we are once again faced with the need to adapt to new surroundings and experiences.

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We talk a lot about changes to the physical workplace to help ensure a greater sense of safety and well-being for workers. Regardless of the approach a company takes, whether hybrid or a full return, this experience is best viewed through the lens of employees. People have been changed, and those returning to work are not the same as when they left. Taking care to better understand the range of pulls and pressures faced by your employees, and crafting employee experiences to address these, will separate the most sought-after employers from those with limited attraction.

For those of us heading back to a fixed workplace, there is a degree of excitement, anxiety, and hesitation: How will I greet my teammates, can we engage in meaningful ways, what will a socially-distanced workplace feel like, and what will be gained and what may be lost? The workplace our bodies remember navigating is not the same workplace to which they’ll return. To help alleviate the worker unease around potentially interacting in unnatural ways, consider these actions for your workplace.

Confront conflicting feelings with communication

In preparation for returning to the office you might be thinking, I won’t shake hands when I greet my teammates—which doesn’t mean you won’t feel awkward if it’s your customary practice to do so. It’s difficult to place overrides on our embodied ways of relating to others that come naturally to us. With health concerns still paramount, alleviate the disconnect you might be feeling by addressing what’s missing in the moment. Your coworkers are likely sharing the same discomfort at a lost hug or handshake, and by acknowledging that, you can strengthen your bond in an alternate way, replacing human touch with spoken connection.

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Don’t shy away from in-person interactions

Once you arrive at the office, what were once fairly automatic practices (i.e. entering the building, gathering in a conference room for a meeting) now are bound by new protocols for checking in, and perhaps limited meeting-occupancy rules, and flow arrows prescribing your routes. It might be easy when faced with these new procedures to retreat to your desk and avoid interaction. But to do so robs the in-person experience of the inherent value it still offers. Meet outside when possible to gather as a group, or schedule regular moments to stroll. The success of a hybrid experience hinges on encouraging yourself to get up from your desk and engage in safe and deliberate ways.

Prioritize understanding and acceptance

While new ways of doing things will likely feel awkward, the reality is that you won’t be alone. It’s important to take account of these “altered states” and recognize that it’s okay. As an employer, create channels for associates to bond as they come up with new ways of connecting, and spotlight the creative ideas. Perhaps you challenge yourselves to cover off-on updates during a 10-minute walking meeting. Or, break up large group meetings by having attendees rotate between conference rooms, speed-networking style.

I’d suggest that the main rule for social engagement during this time of strange return is to be kind to yourself and respectful of others. People are coming back to the office having had distinct personal experiences. Like all the best moments in the human experience, it will require creative adaptation to changed environments and care as others do the same.

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Martha Bird is a business anthropologist working in ADP’s Roseland Innovation Lab.

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