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Three quarters of Brits want to be touched less at work

A handshake is the UK’s preferred workplace greeting. Photo: Cytonn Photography/Unsplash

When it comes to the workplace, Brits are uncomfortable with close up contact – from hugs to cheek kisses – and some would even like it to be banned, according to new research.

In a survey of over 2,000 Brits by job board Totaljobs, three quarters (76%) of people said they want physical contact in the office to be reduced, and 43% went further, calling for an outright ban on some interactions – from the workplace kiss (27%) to wishing hugs were a thing of the past (15%).

Not only did a third (30%) of workers say they experience an awkward greeting at least once a month, a fifth 22% said they have had what the described as a “greetings clash” – incidents including accidental kisses on the mouth due to “ill-timed air kisses” (13%) and headbutts (12%).

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A quarter said they have been hugged without permission, almost a fifth said they have been unexpectedly kissed (19%), and one in seven (15%) said they had received an unwanted chest touch after opting for a handshake.

A quarter said they are so concerned about workplace interactions they go out of their way to actively avoid “awkward” colleagues or clients.

The survey found the nation’s preferred choice of workplace greeting is a firm handshake – with two seconds or less of direct eye contact to leave us truly in our comfort zone.

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But, interestingly, while nearly half (45%) of workers in their forties and fifties said they like handshakes, only 35% of those in their twenties said they favour them, with two in five (41%) preferring no physical contact at all when greeting colleagues or clients.

While hugs were found to be universally unpopular across all ages, almost one in five (18%) employees in their twenties said a hug is their preferred office greeting – in contrast to just 5% of workers in their forties and fifties.

Kisses were deemed a total no-no, with over a quarter (27%) of workers calling for them to be completely banned.

Sexual harrassment

Jo Hemmings, psychologist and leading body language expert, called attention to the impact of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements on workplace propriety. 

“The recent #MeToo movement has encouraged people to start speaking out – including in the workplace – and has led to a plethora of changes in how we engage with colleagues,” Hemmings explained. “It has empowered people – both male and female – to speak out about abuse or discomfort with less fear of repercussions.

“It’s clearly a highly complex, embarrassing, even humiliating subject, and we all have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong. It is important for companies to step up and offer much-needed guidance for staff around the rules of engagement in the workplace.”

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Two in five (41%) of men who greet people differently based on gender said they do so in an attempt to not make people uncomfortable. Another quarter (28%) claimed they interact with women differently so their interactions “are not perceived as sexual harassment.”

Half of women said they prefer no physical interaction at work – from men (51%) or from other women (53%).

Despite having concerns over workplace behaviours, workers are unsure what is expected of them when interacting with clients and colleagues. Two thirds (68%) called for clearer guidelines on what is considered appropriate. But, shockingly, only one in seven (15%) have received any guidance from their employer in the last year.

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What’s more, a third (33%) of Brits said their well-being has been affected following an awkward greeting, and 15% said replaying uncomfortable interactions in their head has negatively impacted their productivity, costing as much as one valuable hour of the work day.

Alexandra Sydney, marketing director at Totaljobs, said: “Whether it’s an unwanted hug or a mistimed kiss on the cheek, our research suggests that workplace greetings have the potential to stray beyond awkward and could have a real impact on job satisfaction and productivity.

“It’s clear boundaries need to be set in the workplace, that promote a comfortable working environment and don’t impede on the working day. It stands to reason that feeling comfortable at work is closely aligned to feeling happy.”