Now that many businesses are starting to transition back into the office after pandemic shutdowns, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a whole new set of rules to navigate. These rules can loosely be referred to as “Covid office etiquette.” We’re not just talking about cutting in line for the hand sanitizer station, here. There’s more on the line than just politeness; we’re dealing with matters that affect people’s health and well-being in a very immediate way.

Thus, even if you’ve worked in the same office for years, working within the new normal often requires taking a step back and re-evaluating some old habits. Since many of us have found ourselves in need of a primer on Covid office etiquette, read up on these tips for a smooth and safe return.

1. If you’re sick, ask to work from home or take a sick day.

Going to work sick has never been a good idea, but it’s now more urgent than ever that anyone with symptoms stays home. Unless you’ve taken a test, you don’t know whether that sore throat could be Covid — and even if it’s not, we can assure you that no one you work with wants to catch it!

If you have symptoms but feel well enough to work, ask your manager if you can work remotely for the day. At the same time, don’t feel guilty for taking a sick day if you need it! Now is also an important time to rethink relentless scheduling and give yourself time to rest when you can. One important note: Make sure to tell your employer if you have any symptoms associated with Covid. Since Covid can spread from people who haven’t developed symptoms yet, your employer might have people who’ve been in close contact with you take a rapid antigen test like the Abbott BinaxNOW™ Covid test. You should also get tested, either via a PCR test from a doctor’s office or with one of the many rapid Covid test kits for sale.

2. Think about how to make office lunches safer.

Office lunches are an essential part of building camaraderie, but many people still aren’t comfortable with crowding into a small break room or restaurant booth. The best choice is to eat outside if you can since we now know that the virus spreads much less readily outside. Lunch al fresco is also a great way to get some fresh air to revive your workday. If you can’t eat outside, use your best judgment. See if you can find a large, well-ventilated eating space that doesn’t require people to squeeze in together. Rethink going out for tapas or other arrangements that require people to lean in close and share food. However, if you’re confident that all of your coworkers are vaccinated and your exposure risk is low, an in-person indoor lunch might still be fine — it’s all about appraising risks realistically. 

3. Avoid close physical contact unless you know someone is OK with it.

Think twice about handshakes, hugs and other forms of close contact unless the person on the receiving end has specifically told you they don’t mind. Some people may still prefer to maintain physical distancing, and that’s totally OK. Check if your office has a default policy on physical distancing since some are still requiring it. In addition, it’s still not a bad idea to reduce close physical contact, purely as a precaution. Replacing high fives with elbow bumps or even just standing a little farther back when you talk can help everyone breathe a little easier. Don’t forget to use digital tools, too: A Slack message might replace dropping by someone’s desk, for example.

4. Follow your company’s mask policy, and consider wearing one when you’re in prolonged close contact.

Any time your workplace requires you to mask up, do it. It might seem pointless to you, but it definitely isn’t to the person next to you who might have an autoimmune disorder that you don’t know about. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to mask up in a situation where it’s not required. Experiment with some different types of masks to find one that’s comfortable for you to wear over long periods of time. It’s a good idea to always have one in your office or desk drawer so that you can put it on if you need to. Many companies even distribute branded masks to their employees to foster a sense of solidarity and togetherness, so see if you can score some swag! 

5. Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer often.

The CDC emphasizes hand washing as a key way to prevent Covid and other germs from spreading. In fact, washing your hands frequently has always been a key piece of good office etiquette since it stops the spread of all kinds of germs. However, it’s become especially important as workers have come back to the office. Make sure you’re washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. It’s especially important after you use the bathroom and before and after you eat. It’s also a good idea to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with you for circumstances where you can’t easily wash your hands. Use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol.

6. Remember that you’re not working from home anymore.

We’ve mostly talked about habits that pertain to Covid safety because that’s the number one priority as office work gets back in session. But, on a level of simple interpersonal courtesy, it’s also true that many of us picked up some habits during remote work that would be better left at home. Whether it’s putting your bare feet up on your desk as you work or leaving takeout containers lying around your office, remember that most normal rules of what’s not appropriate for work still apply. And if you’ve discovered that you absolutely can’t get work done without Elton John on full blast, maybe now is the time to start looking for a remote job!