Bad working from home habits are causing problems in the office

As employees return to the workplace, habits reinforced by over two years working in isolation are leading to inappropriate behaviour

Felix the cat may not have objected to scruffy attire or a nasty whiff of body odour when his owners were working from home, but lapses in personal hygiene and failure to observe the basic office dress code are not going down well in the post-pandemic workplace.

These are not the first behavioural hiccups to have emerged since business life started getting back to normal. Many people are on a short fuse as a result of what they’ve been through and this has led to conflicts over big things such as common working days, unusual things such as employees complaining about fellow workers snoring at their desks because they’ve been used to taking naps when working from home, and unacceptable things such as unpleasant personal habits, that went unnoticed on Zoom, being brought into the office.

But while there may be a “get over it” element to some of the readjustment, there are also instances of more serious lapses in office etiquette. These include inappropriate behaviour and comments directed at colleagues which have spiked since workplaces reopened.

“Sexual harassment allegation queries have increased by 50 per cent which we believe is linked to employees returning to site-based environments,” says Moira Grassick, chief operations officer of HR and employment law advisory firm, Peninsula Ireland.

“Many of us have spent the last two years working from home and conducting meetings via video conferencing. This can often feel a lot more casual than being with other people in an office environment and to some extent the normal boundaries between people have dissolved. Now that employees are returning en masse, there may be a need to relearn appropriate workplace behaviour,” Grassick says.

What’s happened to create these inappropriate exchanges is bad habits reinforced by time, in this case two years of distorted reality. On top of this, people are returning with behaviours adopted to help them cope with the personal fallout from Covid and some of these coping strategies include mood altering dependence on drugs and alcohol.

A report from Drinkaware, published in April 2022 but looking at drinking behaviour in 2021, shows a significant shift in alcohol consumption in the period. This includes an increase in binge drinking and 61 per cent of the sample saying they drank to help them cope during 2021.

The report notes, “when the data from 2021 is viewed alongside the 2020 data, it reveals which behaviours formed in the initial lockdown have transformed into established patterns of new rituals towards alcohol. Of most concern is the increase in binge drinking, particularly among males and young adults aged 18-24 years. Specific cohorts in the Irish adult population report higher patterns of alcohol consumption, namely households with younger children and men.

“Low mental wellbeing is a worrying issue identified for over half the young adult cohort and families with teenagers.”

What’s becoming abundantly clear is that the workforce today is not the same as the one that left two years ago. Consequently, companies need to ensure their employee assistance programmes are up to scratch, while line managers may require post-pandemic training to reinforce the importance of continuing to check in with their teams and to be more alert to tensions simmering under the surface.

Grassick says now is also a good time to remind employees about workplace policies and that organisations need to address any serious issues that may have arisen during the lockdown. “It’s important to ensure that employees have been adequately briefed around dignity and respect in the workplace and know what behaviours are and are not acceptable with no ambiguity. In relation to workplace social events and company-organised get-togethers in particular, caution must be exercised in terms of risk,” she says.

“If an employee comes to you to try to resolve an issue informally, it’s important to be open to that, but they may also feel they have to raise a formal grievance if the circumstance requires it,” Grassick adds. “A formal grievance will require the complaint to be submitted in writing which can be traumatic for those involved so it’s important to provide proper support to all parties. If a formal complaint regarding any allegation of sexual harassment or conduct around discrimination is received, it needs to be treated with immediate action in terms of a process and structure to investigate the complaint fully and correctly.”

As a HR consultancy, Peninsula is privy to some of the more challenging situations companies have faced in terms of dealing with poor conduct. These include the exchange of sexually explicit photos between employees on work accounts, physical violence between workers, dealing with cohabiting employees where domestic violence is present, employees pilfering inventory and selling it online, employees delivering drugs on the side and employees who kept disappearing on company time to practice the Jerusalema dance.

Grassick says that bad behaviour aside, one of the other most pressing issues for employees is the cost of living, and while companies want to help, many don’t have the resources to fund pay increases.

“We haven’t had that many queries about salary benchmarking. Instead we are seeing companies looking for alternative ways to help employees make ends meet. For example, teaming up with local businesses to get discounts for employees. In fact we have a service called Bright Exchange which is a closed marketplace for our clients that aims to help businesses that have struggled during the pandemic with free marketing support and discounts and perks for their employees.”

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business