Paul Butler: Workplace manners

Paul Butler

The world of work hasn’t changed as much as I believe some people think it has — at least in the 30 years I’ve been working within it across various parts of the world.

Technology, of course, has been the most significant agent of change. I remember at one of my first jobs there was just one computer in our office which was the Apple II. We used floppy disks (remember those?) and fax machines. Hardly anyone had a cellular phone. In fact, I remember the first time my father used my brother’s cell phone and his question as he handed the brick-sized mobile device back to my brother was: “Why would someone ever need a mobile phone with all these call boxes around?”

Technology has enabled people to speak virtually across the world and for free! We can now host webinars and conference calls with hundreds of people for a fraction of the cost we could ten years ago, let alone thirty years ago. The micro-chip has enabled us to work from home and virtually anywhere with anyone at any time.

Yet, the more technology varies the way we work together there are certain workplace principles which dictate human interaction that remain a constant. For example, the concept of trust hasn’t gone out of fashion and nor do I predict its demise anytime soon. We still have to listen just as well today as we did yesterday. The need to work collaboratively with our fellow workers, is just as important across the world wide web as it was in the field or factory during the agrarian or industrial age.

I’d also propose the universal acceptance of what is determined “good and bad manners” in the workplaces of the world hasn’t changed that much. There’s still an etiquette we have to align with at the business lunch or dinner table. Today’s professional has to exhibit just as much self-control to not take too much wine (or beer or liquor) as their predecessor. Being drunk on your employer’s expense account or worse still on the customer’s account is still bad form.

Speaking with one’s mouth full of food is abhorrent to nearly all cultures but still seems a fine art many of my American friends endeavor to master! Slurping one’s hot beverage may be cool at the cabin but not so much at the corporate coffee pot with your co-workers. Picking or biting one’s finger nails is universally still, received as a message of nervousness and just doesn’t instill confidence in the person watching you dine on your cuticles.

Today it’s just as important to take your cue from a woman in the workplace as it was thirty years ago. Whenever I meet a female client or coworker, I still look for the social inference as to whether they want to hug, shake hands or just use the timeless universal welcome of a head nod with a, “Hi!”

Even though technology has trained us to move at the speed of sound, I have still found its effective to use someone’s name on an email, text or instant message. Why? Well, we have to remember we get things done through and with people — we’re not just robots colliding in virtual corridors trying to get stuff done. We’re all in the people business.

Looking someone in the eye whether in-person or on-screen still builds and sustains workplace rapport. Doing what you say is still the currency others will take to the bank. To refrain from gossiping about others is still a manner the majority of people appreciate and admire.

In summary, I suggest that workplace manners are just as true of a constant even though technology has dramatically altered in the environment in which we exhibit those manners. Yes, good workplace manners are timeless character traits I don’t see changing anytime soon.

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