With most people aspiring to work in a relaxed office environment where bean bags and doona days and bringing your pets to work is considered the norm. While this new generation of workplaces is great for staff, how is a relaxed environment perceived by customers and clients? Are they tempted to think that a relaxed attitude translates to a sloppy approach to work? And how can the optics around this be managed?
Now, more than ever, ensuring your staff follow proper business etiquette rules is crucial to projecting a professional image and ensure your business relationships are nurtured to be functional and productive. The difficulty is: how do you establish accepted corporate etiquette in your enterprise? How can you ensure that proper business etiquette is followed without getting all Big Brother and disallowing individual approaches to relationship building? What is the best way to ensure that your staff mind their business manners? In this post, we outline common business etiquette faux pas — and how to fix them.
1. There is no such thing as fashionably late
We’ve all been there. Patiently waiting for a colleague or client to turn up to a meeting that they called. Five minutes passes, then 10 minutes. Everyone starts looking at their watches, and sighing impatiently. The thing is that tardiness creates a poor impression. If you someone doesn’t care about being on time to a meeting, what else won’t they care about? See where this is going?
Solution: we all know that time is money, so if colleagues are perpetually late, start fining them — with the fines going to a charity that your business supports. If it’s a client, build tardiness to meetings into the billing cycle. Guaranteed they will rarely be late when they have to pay the penalty.
2. Have you met…?
Studies show time and again that the one word you love hearing more than any other (and yes, that includes the word free) is your name. No one wants to be anonymous — unless it’s on purpose. And it’s awkward and uncomfortable being in a meeting, workshop or a social occasion where you don’t know anyone’s names — and they don’t know yours. How are you supposed to network if you don’t know who you’re talking to?
Solution: Build introductions into your business rules of etiquette and ensure introductions are always made when people congregate. Use icebreaker questions if need be and make introductions fun. And name tags, while old school, help those who are visual to remember other people’s names in large groups. And don’t forget the Great Business Card Swap of 1999 — people still carry them around!
3. That’s not how you say it…!
With diverse, multi-cultural workplaces, and clients and colleagues working together from all over the globe, there is a high likelihood you may encounter names that are difficult to pronounce. Your tongue may be tripping over consonants and vowels that are not natural to you. The thing is: no one wants to hear their name mispronounced. It’s almost an insult.
Solution: When you first meet someone and you didn’t quite catch their name, it’s perfectly fine to ask: how do you say your name? No one will mind repeating their name so that you can get it right. And if you’re still not sure, ask them to spell it. A visual cue works wonders with pronunciation.
4. That’s not how you spell it…!
On the subject of names, how often have you received an email or a message with your name misspelled? Or your surname used as your first name? Grinds your gears, right? The bottom line is that misspelling names, while common, is a rule of etiquette that you don’t want to break. It puts people offside immediately, and they are so annoyed that you misspelled their name that they won’t receive the contents of your message favourably.
Solution: Check and check again! With everyone having their names in their email block or business cards — or even on social media — there is absolutely, positively, definitely no excuse for misspelling someone’s name. And if you do, and they call you out — apologise immediately! And correct your mistake.
5. Two little words
What are two little words that pack a big punch, especially in business? Thank you. Your mum was right — saying thank you is good manners, even in the business world. Telling someone thank you has a big impact in building and maintaining that professional relationship. It signals that you value the effort that person made to help or assist you. You can even use thank you to shut down unwanted criticism or an argument — no one will argue with a thank you.
Solution: A thank you doesn’t need to be fancy — a simple message via email or common communication channel is all that’s really needed. You can write a note or send a gift, but it’s not necessary. You do need to make sure you say your thank you in a timely manner otherwise it loses its salience. And make sure it’s sincere — not ingratiating.
6. The hardest word
While saying thank you always makes a positive impression, saying sorry can turn a negative situation into something salvageable. Contrary to popular belief, apologising doesn’t indicate weakness: saying sorry shows accountability and ownership of a problem or issue that didn’t go according to plan. However, it’s one of the hardest words in the English language to say. People just don’t like to admit they they were wrong.
Solution: If you personally have an issue saying “I was wrong” you can do it in a soft way by saying: “I apologise” or “My apologies”. The key is to make it sincere and really mean it because fake apologies can be spotted right away. Make sure you follow your apology with an action, otherwise your apology is meaningless and manipulative.
7. Take care
With so many channels for communication, and the expected turn around for a response is instant, it’s tempting just to fire off a message without proofreading or checking grammar. It’s the content that matters, right? Wrong. If you send a business communication that’s full of errors, assumptions are made about you — the writer — and your employer, if you have one. The assumption is: if you can’t get basic spelling and grammar correct, what other, more important details will your business get wrong?
Solution: While spell check isn’t the silver bullet to fixing poor spelling and bad grammar, it’s better than nothing. At least run your email or document through the spell check before you send or print it. If you know your written English is poor, invest in training, or make sure someone with good written English edits your work.
8. Wide open spaces
Unless you have the luxury of working from home, you probably work in an open plan office, shared space or hot desk. The nature of open plan offices means that noise travels, especially human noise. And noise can be annoying and distracting. Introverts are more likely to be sensitive to noise than extroverts. Shared spaces also mean that some of your colleagues are minimalists and some are hoarders. Like noise, the hoarders are more likely to annoy the minimalists than the other way around.
Solution: If you know you are a loud talker, use your inside voice, or meet in an office or take yourself outside for conversations. This goes for phone conversations too. If you’re bothered by other people’s noise, use noise-cancelling head phones. Set your phone to vibrate (or silent) so that you don’t disturb others with your Disco Inferno ring tone. Keep your desk neat, tidy and clean — and don’t encroach on your workmates’ space. Bottom line: proper business etiquette is about being considerate and the golden rule.
9. Airing dirty laundry
With noise carrying in open plan offices, gossip can also spread at the speed of light. Rumours can go viral in next to no time. Supporting your colleagues when they are going through a difficult time professionally or personally is to be congratulated, but intimate details of issues or situations are best not discussed at your desk within earshot of your neighbours.
Solution: If a colleague is upset or needs to vent, proper professional etiquette is to book a meeting room, or go to a comfortable cafe and vent. If you’re an extrovert, you probably have no trouble expressing yourself, but spare a thought for introverts who aren’t as open and may not be comfortable with over-sharing. Pay attention to social cues and stop talking when eyes start to glaze over. And don’t start or spread rumours. It’s a workplace, not high school!
10. Dress code
The workforce has embraced casual Fridays — and in some offices, casual every days — but don’t think for a minute you can wear the ripped, stained tee-shirt you’ve had since you were fifteen, or distressed jeans that are more air than denim. On a day-to-day basis, pay attention to your personal hygiene. No one wants to sit next to Smelly Sammy — and that goes for overuse of cologne or perfume. Dress and smell are the first things that people notice about you — and you can make a favourable impression, or not.
Solution: Always dress as if you are going to meet a potential client and need to make a good first impression. It might be stating the obvious, but your customers, clients — and boss — might interpret your casual dress sense as a casual attitude to your work. So put your best foot forward — sans the Toms — and go easy on the cologne. Rules of business etiquette dictate that you never leave the house without deodorant or brushing your teeth.
11. Don’t delay
Deadlines are there for a reason. They ensure that work gets done on time and on budget. Deadlines make sure that everyone — colleagues and clients — know exactly what needs to be delivered, and when. Without them, productivity grinds to a halt and nothing gets done because there is no point, no purpose. When deadlines are missed, its uncool at best, disastrous at worst and its one of the biggest etiquette errors you can make because it will put your colleagues, customers and clients offside.
Solution: If your deadline is tight and you have neither the resources or capacity to meet it, negotiate. Many businesses have “fake” deadlines so that there’s wriggle room if people are late delivering. If you know you’re a procrastinator or a last minute kind of person, keep your team informed every step of the way — and keep your promises to meet your deadlines. Meeting deadlines is about trust.
12. Nice doesn’t date.
We’re not talking Tinder or Match.com here. We’re talking about how being nice never gets old. It’s not old-fashioned to say please and thank you and wait your turn in the Starbucks line. Holding the lift door open for someone is a nice thing to do. It makes people feel good. Paying a compliment — even to a complete stranger — often brightens someone’s day. It takes no time to be nice, and can change the world — or at least your office space.
Solution: If you’re not naturally inclined to be nice, you may might need have some therapy on your empathy gene. Look for situations where it’s easier not to be nice, and do the opposite. Train yourself to be nice. And if someone is nice to you, say thank you! Nice does not mean weak!
Managing perceptions, creating a favourable impression of yourself and your organisation and ensuring your work culture is productive are the main benefits of maintaining proper business etiquette. If your business manners are poor, welcome to disrespectful and chaotic workplaces — and no one wants to work in that kind of environment.
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