It wasn’t just an office elevator I recently found myself facing. It was a workplace etiquette dilemma, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic.
Masked and hand-sanitized from a nearby dispenser, I stood in a deserted office lobby that once bustled with workers, waiting for an elevator.
Two strangers walked in the building, chatting. A third followed — all downtowners slowly repopulating offices like this one. They headed for the elevators, too.
But wait. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we should consider limiting how many people get on an elevator together in the time of COVID-19. The CDC even advises against people talking while they ride.
And so, my dilemma. Should I feign a phone call? Say I’ll just catch the next one? Risk offense by declaring outright that I’d rather ride solo?
What’s a person who is reasonably polite — but also leery of being trapped in a box with people in a pandemic — to do?
“I wish I could say there was a manual on COVID etiquette, but there’s not,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “As an etiquette expert, I’m having to make up these rules as we go along.”
As bosses decide whether and how employees return — to scheduled “hoteling” desks? to first-come “hot desks?” — workers get to grapple with good manners in the time of coronavirus.
That desk-sharing option, for instance, “really requires us to think about the other person,” said Boston-based Rosanne J. Thomas, author of Excuse Me: The Survival Guide to Modern Business Etiquette. For starters, take your coffee cup when you go.
Though some workers may be looking forward to familiar faces, the CDC advises employers to “discourage handshaking, hugs and fist bumps.” (Will anyone miss the awkwardness of a fist bump?) We’ll have to dress like grown-ups again, and not just the parts you see on Zoom, with no breaks for walking the dog or throwing in a load of laundry.
“It’s going to be an adjustment just as it was an adjustment to work from home,” said Thomas. “Now we’re going to have to adhere to some rules again ... it’s going to be a shock to the system.”
Other office staples will also likely change: Big live meetings. Water cooler gatherings. Office birthday cakes. Can you even imagine, after all we’ve learned about droplets and spread, eating a piece of cake over which someone just blew out candles?
There are thornier questions. What about co-workers who aren’t masked where masks are required? How do you handle someone who encroaches on that invisible 6-foot perimeter you’ve carefully cultivated?
Options include maintaining your distance, respectfully expressing concern and talking to a boss. Specific company guidelines on these matters are beyond helpful.
“Etiquette is situational — you have to weigh your relationship with that person,” Whitmore said. “If you can solve it in a simple, non-combative manner, then try.”
Courtesy and empathy, the experts agreed, are important as we figure out this next phase.
“Maybe just go overboard,” said Thomas. “Show respect like you’ve never shown it before.”
I told the experts both about a suggestion I heard for how to deal with someone, such as a restaurant server, wearing a mask below the nose. (I’ve heard this called snorkeling, or going nose commando.) You tell the person nicely that it appears their mask has inadvertently slipped.
“I absolutely love that,” Thomas said. “It gives them the benefit of the doubt and it avoids a confrontation.”
As for my elevator dilemma?
“Just say to someone, ‘Please just go ahead, I’ll get the next one,’” Thomas said. “You don’t need to offer an explanation.”
For the record, I took the stairs.