How office etiquette can drive productivity

Bad behavior in the workplace is easy to joke about. The movie and television industries have made millions laugh over the years with various tales of office high jinks — from “Nine to Five” in 1980 to the cult classic “Office Space” in 1999 to more recent TV hits such as “The Office” and “Parks and Rec.”

But, in real life, breaches in office etiquette aren’t quite as funny. Excessive noise and chatter can distract and irritate employees. Uncertain policies about business-appropriate dress codes can create awkwardness and resentment. Out-of-control gossip can lead to distrust and personality conflicts.

Yet there’s a flip side as well. That is, if you can foster an environment of positive office etiquette, the resulting good feelings and supportive culture can actually drive productivity.

Noise in the air

Now that typewriters have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and fax machines are no longer shrieking like pterodactyls, workplaces should theoretically be peaceful oases of calm. But, be it exuberant conversations or sassy ring tones, there’s still plenty of noise in the air.

Does that matter? Aren’t workplaces supposed to sound busy? Yes and no. Cornell University published an article in a 2001 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology finding that workers in noisy environments had noticeably higher levels of the stress hormone epinephrine in their systems than employees in quieter offices. The workers dealing with lots of noise were both more stressed out and less likely to seek out ergonomic adjustments to their workspaces. So they were anxious and uncomfortable.

As you walk around your offices or other work areas, what do you hear? Total silence isn’t the goal — that could make staff just as uncomfortable as noise. But you want employees to exercise etiquette that strikes the right balance between productive, socially acceptable sounds and all-out chaos.

What specific steps you should take depends on the problem. If loud devices are at issue, ask employees who wish to listen to music or other audio to wear noise-canceling headphones. (Naturally, you need to add a caveat that workers can’t be so zoned out that they don’t respond to phone calls or requests from co-workers.) And consider implementing a “phones on vibrate” policy, if noisy ring tones are disrupting the environment.

If conversations are the problem, look into how your facilities are arranged. Can you set aside some small conference rooms or study carrels where employees might retreat to silence when necessary? If not, perhaps encourage employees to go to designated meeting areas for conversations that will likely last more than, say, 10 minutes. Be prepared to bite the bullet and speak privately with “loud talkers,” who may not be aware of how far their voices carry.

Dress policy particulars

In sharp contrast to office noise levels, proper attire is a silent productivity killer. If someone is either dressing inappropriately or blatantly flouting a stated dress policy, it can distract other workers, foster resentment, and lead to gossip and even arguments.

The most direct way of dealing with clothing etiquette is to create (or update) an organizational dress policy. Before doing so, however, hold a management-level discussion regarding your organization’s reasons for defining attire. Talk about — and even debate — why you want staff to dress a certain way and whether the policy truly jibes with your culture.

When articulating your policy, be sure to provide examples. For instance, rather than only telling staff that jeans aren’t allowed, list types of casual pants that are acceptable (such as corduroys and khakis). This not only will help employees better understand what they can and can’t wear, but also give them a sense of freedom due to having several options.

Furthermore, address the consequences for employees who breach etiquette. Let them know what will happen if they’re dressed inappropriately. Consider giving written warnings and other measures for minor infractions; and enforce this policy consistently and in writing to avoid discrimination claims.

The flow of gossip

“Don’t gossip” has been an office etiquette axiom since prehistoric tribes first built cubicles inside their caves. And yet it happens — and will continue to happen. Why? For many, gossip is a bonding mechanism. If you trust someone enough to share a secret with them, the makings of a relationship must be present. So employees talk — and confide —and, well, gossip.

Although you should continue to discourage gossip, smart organizations also learn to use it to their advantage. For starters, in most offices, the identities of the most active, influential staff members are pretty clear. Once these individuals are identified, encourage your managers to channel timely, relevant organizational information to them. Be sure to convey both the decisions being made and the rationale behind them.

The goal here isn’t necessarily to encourage gossip. Rather, you’re trying to increase the chances that, when hushed conversations do take place, employees are exchanging accurate information and, you hope, telling each other the whole story.

After all, gossip tends to flow the most freely when employee anxiety and uncertainty are high because of lack of information. If a change is on the horizon and it hasn’t been formally communicated to your staff, you can safely assume the rumor mill is grinding away.

Of course, it’s just as imperative for you to listen as it is to speak. What’s going around the rumor mill is a good indication of staff concerns, where your formal communications might be falling short and what the current level of morale is. Keeping your ear to the grapevine or water cooler (or whatever metaphor you prefer) can yield important information for better managing and motivating employees.

Culture and environment

These are just a few general areas of etiquette to consider. We haven’t even mentioned such workplace classics as: 1) Don’t steal other people’s food from the fridge! 2) Don’t reheat anything that’s going to have the entire office reaching for air freshener! and 3) For goodness’ sake, if you finish the coffee — start a new pot!

So much of office etiquette comes down to your organization’s distinctive culture and working environment. Performance Dimensions Group would be happy to assess your culture and environment and offer our experienced insights into what “etiquette tweaks” could make your staff more productive. Feel free to contact us here.