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COVID-19 may end office handshakes – so what might replace them?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
TOPSHOT - (L-R) President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, France's President Emmanuel Macron, and President of the European Council Charles Michel bump fists during an EU coordination meeting in advance of the start of the G7 summit in Carbis bay, Cornwall on June 11, 2021. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - (L-R) President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, France's President Emmanuel Macron, and President of the European Council Charles Michel bump fists. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

The way we work has changed in the last 18 months – and that includes how we act around our colleagues, managers and clients. Before the pandemic, shaking hands was the customary way to say hello, goodbye and make an agreement. But now, given the gesture is a surefire way to spread germs, the office handshake may be on the way out.

The handshake might be a polite greeting, but studies show that it might not be so pleasant. According to research from the University of Colorado, we carry an average of 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species on our hands. We then touch our faces every few minutes, transferring the germs to our eyes, nose or mouth.

So will handshakes be one of the many office habits banished for good as a result of Covid-19 – and if so, what will we do instead? And how else has the pandemic changed our workplace traditions?

“As people remain conscious of coronavirus and how their actions may spread it, it is unlikely that handshakes will return anytime soon,” says Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR. “That said, handshakes have been an integral part of human interaction for centuries and are unlikely to be scrapped forever. It may take a while, however, for it to become the norm once more.” 

Read more: How to help employees adjust to hybrid working

Many of us are used to shaking hands, for example, when greeting a potential employer in a job interview. According to one study, the average person shakes around 15,000 hands in their lifetime. With the action so ingrained in our workplace culture, it may not disappear forever.

“Traditional handshakes may disappear in the short term, but will possibly return in the medium to longer-term, particularly where people know each other,” says Kim McClatchie, Head of HR at William Russell.

“There is something human about that touch and verbal greeting when we meet someone we know and have not seen for a while. If not a handshake, then perhaps a smile with a nod with direct eye contact to show respect and personal acknowledgement.”

It’s also possible that other actions may replace hand-shaking too, Price adds. As awareness of infectious diseases grows and people actively try to reduce the spread of infection, hand-shakes and kisses may become less popular. Instead, there may be a future where we high-five and fist pump.

“At the start of the pandemic, we saw the emergence of elbow and/or feet bumps,” he says. “Currently, it seems that elbow bumps have overtaken feet bumps as the ‘new normal’ greeting style. As for whether it will ‘replace’ handshakes, this is yet to be seen.”

Richard Evans, Forbes 30 under 30 honoree and careers mentor at The Profs, says greetings can depend on different cultures, countries and traditions too. “Many cultures do not traditionally shake hands, with bows, kisses and even finger clicks being the norm in parts of the world,” he says. “The most ubiquitous greeting gesture I have observed is the simple head nod, and simple usually wins in the long run.”

Read more: How to adjust to working alongside others after 18 months of solitude

Aside from handshakes, the way we communicate with our colleagues and clients has changed too. From home-working to video calls instead of traditional meetings, the way we work has transformed as a result of Covid-19. 

“There has been an impact of working from home in that interaction between teams has reduced,” says McClatchie. “At the moment, our staff tend to communicate with the people they need to, rather than the everyday contact we used to have when bumping into each other in the office. Communication and collaboration between departments, individuals and companywide is not quite at the level it was.

“New starters have taken longer to integrate and train, and so having some days back in the office on a regular basis from October onwards will hopefully begin to allow these relationships to continue and grow again.”

However, there has been an increase in the relationships with overseas colleagues, McClatchie adds. “This is because we have used Microsoft Teams extensively, rather than the phone. This has built on those relationships, with colleagues feeling they know each other more now, and definitely contact each other more regularly.”

Watch: What to ask in a job interview

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