As we ease out of pandemic protocols, the New Normal won’t be the same as the Old Normal—nor should it be.
We’re slowly returning to the office, or at least some of us are going back some of the time. We’re beginning to travel to conferences and business meetings, although not quite as often as before. Virtual job interviews appear to be here to stay, but at least one in-person meeting is preferred by many candidates and hiring authorities, if possible, before making the final hiring decision.
So, how should we conduct ourselves when, at long last, we come face-to-face with others in the business world?
Dealing with a crowd
After more than two years of working alone at home, I recently attended two business conferences requiring travel, hotel stays, and spending many hours in enclosed spaces with lots of people. Mask mandates just started to ease around the country and were lifted within days of my arrival at each location. Both conferences required proof of vaccine status but, being a cautious person and coming from a locale still maintaining indoor masking requirements, I opted to stick with my KN95s—and was almost alone in doing so.
I ate my meals outdoors whenever possible, and went for an elbow bump over a handshake or hug, even though I was thrilled to see colleagues from around the country after such a lengthy period of social distancing. Organizers of one conference provided optional name-tag banners to proclaim one’s choice of greeting mode: hugs, fist-bumps, elbow bumps, and so forth. But, in the heat of the moment, not everyone noticed or paid attention.
Each encounter, which pre-pandemic was handled spontaneously, now required a quick and conscious calculation. What am I comfortable with? And what are the other person’s preferences regarding social distancing, masking, eating/drinking venues, and physical touch/choice of greeting? After a couple years of near isolation, the rituals around interacting now can be nerve-wracking.
Do you shake that hand?
With covid protocols relaxed, there’s some awkwardness as people try to figure out how best to greet each other. Some people will offer an outstretched hand but others may not want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
During most of my decades-long career as a legal search consultant, I advocated for good eye contact and a firm handshake as the best way to start and end an interview or networking meeting. But, early in the Covid lockdown I admonished everyone to ignore that previous advice.
In my blog post, “Stop! Don’t Shake that Hand!” I wrote: “When you shake another person’s hand, you have no idea where that hand has been, and you’re exposing yourself to the very real danger of picking up viruses and bacteria. Therefore, to protect yourself and others, keep your hands to yourself!”
We now know that the virus spreads via airborne particles, not physical contact in most cases. (That danger can be minimized with regular handwashing and use of hand sanitizer, anyway.) So hand shaking’s real risk is from the lack of social distancing. If you’re shaking hands, you’re quite close to someone, at least momentarily, and you’re likely to remain near that person in conversation for a period of time.
What about masks?
Many people ditched face masks the instant they weren’t absolutely required. (Remember the news footage of airline passengers gleefully stripping off their masks mid-flight?) Others feel more comfortable continuing to wear them whenever in close proximity to others or in a crowded indoor space. It’s a matter of personal preference and depends upon the individual’s risk profile.
At minimum, we should continue to wear masks, avoid touch, and physically distance when suffering from a cold or the flu. Mask-wearing is long established in other cultures as a means of respecting and protecting others rather than ourselves. The practice probably will be an occasional part of our lives for years to come, depending upon individual and community circumstances—and those seemingly never-ending covid variants.
When you meet someone, remember that the rules of engagement have changed. Before automatically extending your hand for a shake or going in for a hug, stop a moment and assess the other person’s comfort level with social distancing and touching. You can even ask, “How about a handshake?”
My choice to wear a mask and stick with elbow bumps at the recent conferences was met with little reaction until, at the end of one, I joined a group on a restaurant balcony and unmasked to enjoy a drink and some hors d’oeuvres. A colleague teasingly exclaimed, “Look, she’s got a face!” Everyone laughed, including me. And I put my mask back on when I headed inside.
One positive aspect of the pandemic is that it allowed us to pause and think about how we and others feel about touching and social distancing. As the post-pandemic business environment evolves, we must continue to pay attention to how people want to be treated—and respect their choices.