Working from home: The 12 new rules for getting it right

From video-conference etiquette to triple-checking your emails, here are some do's and dont's to help you navigate the new digital workplace.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Maintain eye contact, offer a firm handshake, dress appropriately: the basic rules that define a professional attitude at work are well-established, and office etiquette evolves only slowly. 

But with the office effectively moving online, many codes that make up business etiquette have now been shattered. Many of us barely bat an eyelid at impromptu Zoom interventions from young children or pets. Casual calls with team leaders have become a regular occurrence, and virtual pub quizzes are replacing after-work drinks.

So what cues can we give over a video-conference to show that we are paying attention? How should we replace water-cooler small talk? Is this the end of the universally dreaded business luncheon?

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

Of course, the recent advent of startup culture has already triggered a culture change toward more laid-back practices, replete with bean-bag chairs and less formal attire. But it remains that COVID-19 brought about an abrupt shift in the way employees behave at work – now in their homes, rather than in the office.

And while most organizations switched their staff to remote working almost overnight, the new codes that are emerging are here to stay. Three quarters of CFOs, according to Gartner, intend to shift some of their employees to remote work permanently

While there might be hundreds of best-selling business etiquette handbooks out there, not many have anticipated such a radical turn of events. But experts are already thinking about the digital etiquette of the future – and here are some of the do's and don'ts of the remote business space that they have already identified.

1. Don't always jump onto video meetings

Video conferencing is an easy go-to solution to replace meetings, and since they don't require commuting, Zoom and Teams links have been quickly filling up every gap in employees' calendars. 

But the trend is reversing, according to Julien Lesaicherre, director of global sales at Workplace by Facebook. "People initially wanted to replicate what they were doing in the office using video conferencing, but at some point, you develop video-conferencing fatigue," he tells ZDNet.

Because of the artificial nature of digital interactions, it is hard to remain consistently engaged via virtual tools. The urge to schedule video meetings at every hour of the day, therefore, is likely to transform into increased use of soft collaboration tools where possible.

2. Do prepare an appropriate environment for video calls

In the first few months of the pandemic-induced global WFH experiment, colleagues and managers have typically been forgiving of Zoom mishaps, but as the trend settles in, a degree of professionalism will be expected, even from employees' virtual selves.  

"You're letting people into your house, so be mindful of your surroundings," Sampath Sowmyanarayan, Verizon president of global enterprise, tells ZDNet. "Things we have in our houses might not be endearing or funny for others."

Rather, Sowmyanarayan recommends buying some basic equipment to improve your home set-up. It's worth investing, for example, in budget lighting or an external mic.

3. Don't think switching your video on is a must-do

Some employers will encourage the use of video during a meeting, in which case they should let their staff know; but generally speaking, Sowmyanarayan argues, employees won't lose credibility points for keeping their video off when they wish to. 

"The fatigue is much worse with the video on, rather than when the call is strictly audio," he says. "So I tend to tell people, 'you're the boss', so they don't get forced to do something they don't want to do." 

4. Don't do things you wouldn't do during a face-to-face meeting

Remote working doesn't change some elements of corporate professionalism. "Don't expect that colleagues, clients, and managers should always be easygoing in terms of dress code, tone of voice and punctuality in the remote workplace," Herman Tse, professor in the department of management at Monash Business School, tells ZDNet.

And although there is a screen now separating you from your colleagues, don't take this as an opportunity to prudently check emails or scroll Twitter during a video call, because others can tell when you are multi-tasking, even if virtually. You wouldn't check your phone in front of a co-worker giving an in-person presentation – so there is no reason to act differently online.

5. Do make calls as short as they possibly can be

With 30-minute slots being the default option when setting up a calendar meeting, calls that could take a couple of minutes now last for much longer than necessary. "There is work that needs to be done around calendar norms," Sowmyanarayan adds. "Things that take two minutes should take two minutes."

Before setting up a day full of half-hour meetings, therefore, remember how long those chats would have taken in an office. More often than not, you will find that a shorter call is far more appropriate.

6. Do make sure you use the right platform for the right message

In many cases, it might not even be necessary to set up a Zoom link at all: some messages are better delivered through other platforms. "It's not only about how you show up but also knowing where you show up," says Brian Van Wyhe, executive director at IT services company TEKsystems. 

Video conferencing is only one of the tools that can be used, and it should by no means be the go-to solution for every single piece of information that you need to communicate. In fact, with video fatigue settling in, instant messaging and file sharing apps will also feature high on the list of alternative options. 

It is up to managers to define a strategy around collaboration tools, of course, but employees should make sure that they stick to it. A good old phone call can often do a better job than an unclear email or a never-ending video conference. 

7. Do triple check your messages before sending them

Ensuring your messages are clear, concise and polite has been a rule of thumb ever since businesses started adopting email. And with WFH increasingly becoming the norm, checking your written correspondence is only becoming more important. 

Tse says: "In the digital world, the same written message and tone of voice can be acceptable in one place, and considered inappropriate in another." You won't immediately get the chance to pop into your co-worker's office to clarify the last email you sent – so make sure you get it right from the start.

8. Do keep high performance standards

A global pandemic comes with a degree of angst, and over the past few months, managers have rightly been understanding when confronted with lower productivity and motivation within their teams. But while performance management has been on hold, it will inevitably be back on the horizon at one point.

"Be your best remote self," says Tse. "People may feel skeptical about the productivity of remote workers, but we should demonstrate the same level of motivation and commitment when working remotely compared to working in an office setting."

In other words, managers will eventually expect the same level of productivity from their employees, whether they are remote or in-office. Standards should not differ based on your physical location.

9. Do hold on to the water-cooler chat moments

Office life is also paced by weekend catch-ups next to the coffee machine and lunchtimes shared with your co-workers. "Greater efficiency comes from building breaks in-between meetings," Sarah Roxborough, HR director at video-conferencing company Poly, tells ZDNet. "This is not just to have some actual time to work, but also to refresh, recharge or just stretch your legs."

It is easy, at home, to slip into a habit of being constantly online and productive; but managers won't expect you to let go of in-office informal moments just because you are now remote. Do not hesitate, therefore, to consistently take a lunch break or allow yourself a coffee slot in the morning. 

10. Do expect increased casual communication with your manager

Verizon's Sowmyanarayan explains that managers will have to find virtual ways to replace the act of "dropping in on people" to casually catch up or check in. "We don't have this right now, and as a result I feel like I need an hour or two a day just to randomly call people and catch up on things," he says. 

Sowmyanarayan estimates that he engages two to three times more with his teams as a result of the switch to remote working. Do expect, therefore, managers to double down on engagement and coaching via alternative means, be they phone calls or others. 

11. Do prepare to interact with unexpected colleagues

The giant WFH experiment has helped signal the end of top-down communication, according to Workplace by Facebook's Lesaicherre. Leaders have been jumping on new platforms that can bridge between teams, with methods ranging from live Q&As to virtual fitness sessions to build motivation.

"People who had never actually seen the face of their CXO got the opportunity to see them every week and ask them questions," says Lesaicherre. "You're working from home, far from your colleagues, but at the same time you've never been closer to them."

Attending a virtual Peloton class together with your company's CEO, it would seem, has never been closer to becoming a casual weekly occurrence.

12. Do keep an eye on your e-reputation

As remote working becomes widespread, employees' online image is only going to gain prominence. Some basic rules still apply: use a professional picture to go with email, stay polite and positive, or send thank-you notes for assistance.

New norms are likely to develop, however, as companies adopt virtual platforms to create informal links between employees and teams. Workplace by Facebook, for instance, lets workers create profiles to share when they joined the organization, what groups they are part of and what team they belong to.

"Contextualizing individuals is key, as we don't have the opportunity to meet face-to-face," says Lesaicherre. It is worth spending time curating your virtual self, therefore, to come across as professionally as possible. You can forget about oversharing your holiday pictures to your Workplace profile, for starters. 

You should also think about how to keep in touch with clients. Even though restaurants are tentatively re-opening, it might be too early to start setting up lunch meetings just yet, for some. 

According to TEKsystems' Van Wyhe, you should rather rethink your entire virtual communications strategy to effectively recreate in-person meetings and events. "For your customers, find new ways to share your insights and start conversations through podcasts, webinars and blog articles," he says. In the digital etiquette of the future, therefore, getting creative certainly wins you some brownie points. 

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