Modern Life

8 tech etiquette rules for the modern workplace

Expert tips on the new tech rules at work, from when to use emojis to putting your best foot forward on social media.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — August 28, 2019

Danielle Belanger was presenting slides on projected airport traffic growth to colleagues and clients when the chat window popped up, on a massive scale, on the conference room screen: “How was your date with Dimitri?” her best friend had innocently asked. Belanger, a former consultant from Boston who’s now a nurse practitioner, had neglected to turn off her messaging app when she fired up her personal laptop for the presentation, leading to the cringe-worthy moment.

“It seems funny now, and I was lucky that it happened in front of clients with whom I had good relationships,” she says. “But, as a young woman trying to be taken seriously in a professional environment, it was frustrating.”

Other professionals aren’t as lucky. In Sacramento, attorney Neal Lutterman angered a judge when he forgot to silence his cell phone during a trial. “My ringtone was Barracuda by Heart,” he says. “That’s hard to ignore.”

With smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other devices now almost always by our side, tech slip-ups in the workplace have become more common, which means being savvy about using your personal tech at work is a necessary part of office life. New communication pitfalls are emerging as more employees are working remotely, collaborating with colleagues from different backgrounds and age groups, and adding new devices and services to their daily routines. At best, poor tech manners can lead to uncomfortable, embarrassing situations at work. At worst, they color someone’s reputation or sour professional relationships.

“The manners we see change the most rapidly are those around communication,” says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of manners maven Emily Post and co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th edition and Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online. “The smartphone has become such an integral part of the way so many people live and interact. It’s put stresses on our social systems and structures.” Understanding the new norms and rules of professional communication in the digital age can help you avoid embarrassing tech-related situations. 

Of course, a lot depends on your company’s culture and your job itself, whether it’s collaborative or more independent, and that will help dictate what technology is acceptable to use and when. But here are eight basic tech etiquette rules to follow at work.

Eric Chow

Shut off your cell phone

It can be tempting to zone out by checking personal email on your smartphone or scrolling through Facebook during a team meeting. Resist, says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. When you’re on your personal device, you send a message that the meeting and work aren’t your priority. 

Gottsman says to turn off and put away your phone or smart watch during meetings unless you need them for the presentation. Even putting a device on vibrate can be a problem, she says, because you’ll want to look when you feel the vibration. When you text during a meeting, “you’re sending the message that you’re impatient or distracted, or both,” Gottsman says.

Be mindful about taking personal calls. People who roam around an open office plan gabbing on their cell phones distract colleagues. Personal calls are still personal even if you’re not at your own desk.

Be mindful during conference calls

You wouldn’t crunch a bag of potato chips during a department meeting or send out a flurry of personal tweets. So, don’t do it during a conference call, says Gottsman. A general rule for video calls is to imagine you’re in an in-person meeting. Be especially careful if you’re calling in from home.

“Don't be cranking around with your dishes or flushing the toilet in the background,” Gottsman says. Employees dialing into a conference call from home should also dress for it. If you have to adjust the camera or grab a document from across the room, you don’t want colleagues or clients to see you in your pajama pants.

When connecting from a public space, be mindful about who can hear you and see your screen. Technology like HP Sure View protects sensitive information on your screen by making it hard for onlookers or shoulder-surfers to see from the sides.

Eric Chow

Know your email etiquette

Email subjects should clearly communicate the point of your message, Gottsman says. She also advises to be cautious when using the Bcc or blind copy features. You run the risk of the person who’s blind copied responding to everyone, she says. “There’s secrecy in blind copying. A cc feels more upfront.”

Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore says her biggest pet peeve is the “Reply all” function because it overloads people’s inboxes. One insurance company employee hit reply all to an email from a colleague and accidentally sent a customer a note that said “We could easily convince the customer to buy it — even though the customer doesn't need it.” D’oh.

Think about whether everyone who’s on the email thread needs to see your response, Whitmore says. You can also use Gmail’s “Undo Send” option if you make a mistake. Excessive punctuation, like writing in all capital letters or using multiple exclamation points, is also a no-no, as is sending work emails at all hours.

“Not everybody wants to get your email at three in the morning,” says Whitmore. It can be perceived as demanding or encroaching on boundaries. Write the email at 3 a.m., but wait until traditional working hours begin to send it. Most email clients also now have a function you can use to schedule when you want your email to go out.

Also, stick to professional fonts (we see you, Comic Sans) and forgo email sign offs with cute quotes or bright colors.

Think before adding an emoji

Emojis can soften the tone of requests you make of your employees or colleagues. But, they also create the potential for misunderstandings. One recent study found that using smiley faces in work emails makes readers perceive the sender as less competent. It’s safest to use emojis with colleagues you know well, says Senning.

If you must add an emoji, stick to the basics. “You can be perceived as unprofessional and even juvenile depending on which ones you choose,” Whitmore says.

“There are all kinds of places where we connect instantaneously through these powerful devices. You have to be really careful.”

—Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert and great-great grandson of Emily Post

Keep notifications in check

If you’re using your personal laptop for a work presentation, build in time to disable notifications that might pop up. For Belanger, who received that mid-presentation question about her date, it was an instant message, but it could also be Facebook alerts or even calendar reminders.

Your personal laptop’s screen saver might also automatically pull personal pictures from your iPhotos, says Senning. “There are all kinds of places where we connect instantaneously through these powerful devices,” he says. “You have to be really careful.”

Don’t friend-request your boss

We spend most of our days at work, and that’s where we build our relationships. So, friending a co-worker on Facebook might feel natural. But it’s also a risk. You might see a picture from their personal life that makes you uncomfortable. If that’s the case, “there’s nothing wrong with unfollowing someone,” Gottsman says.

Do not friend-request your boss, she adds. It can put them in an uncomfortable situation. If your boss friends you, and you don’t want to accept, that’s fine. Tell them you use Facebook only for immediate family. Instead, connect with your boss and colleagues on LinkedIn.

When F2F is better than screen-to-screen

Senning says part of good tech etiquette is knowing when not to use it. Relying heavily on email presents a genuine challenge to our ability to empathize, he says. 

The written word is great for “who, what, when and where,” he says. But “when we get into the ‘whys,’ we’re better served to pick up the phone or get together.” 

For issues that are sensitive or could impact the relationship between colleagues or between a supervisor and her direct report, it’s better to meet face-to-face. It doesn’t have to be formal, a quick coffee or a “walking meeting” often works wonders to facilitate clear communication.

Say you’re sorry

Inevitably, despite our best intentions, embarrassing tech mistakes will happen. “Technological tools are extremely helpful,” says Gottsman. “They make our job and life easier. But at the same time, they can complicate matters because we don’t use them right, or we get too comfortable. We need to use technology responsibly and politely.”

If you make a mistake, own up to it, Senning says. Remember even though you’ve got so much powerful technology at your fingertips every day, you’re only human, and so are the people you’re communicating with.

“If you make a mistake, and you’re not being dishonest, most things are forgivable and survivable,” he says.