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Social norms

Workplace Principle 4: Increase Adaptability

If an organisation decides to move towards a new way of working, like activity-based or hybrid, it’s important to consider the social norms in place at the office. 

Social norms at a workplace can either push people towards positive behaviours, or act as barriers. Establishing good social norms falls under the workplace principle Increase Adaptability (you can read more on that here). 

Norms around availability

When working from the office, how available to others should an employee be?

In an office where the norm is for employees to steadily be available to their team, clients, and managers, it might be more common to stay in one place rather than moving to a different workspace. In cases like these, flexibility is perceived as a threat or barrier to work as it is seen as making it more difficult to get a hold of colleagues if they move to another space – and in which quiet spaces are considered the most problematic as they make people unreachable.

Norms around constantly being available to others can hinder flexibility.

To make sure flexibility isn’t seen as a threat, you can work to increase availability with the help of technology like chat tools. Moreover, you can also evaluate what level of availability the job requires. After how long does unavailability become a problem? How is the work affected if an individual is unavailable for 1 hour, 2 hours, or half a work day?   

Depending on where the line is drawn, you can use this time marker as a frame of reference for employees to check their chats and inboxes to see if anyone has tried to reach them. An hour is usually a good guideline, partly because we’re used to it as one hour meetings are common, and partly because it’s good to take a little break after focusing for a whole hour.

Agreeing on conventions

Other norms that can arise have to do with conventions and to what degree they are followed. If some people start to break the agreements, others might follow suit. Eventually you’ll reach a state where those helpful structures you created at the workplace disintegrate and the workplace stops functioning in the way it was intended.

That’s why it is important to uphold positive behaviours through different initiatives. This is especially true directly following a change, as new habits haven’t been established yet.

Re-evaluate conventions over time

While it’s important to agree upon workplace conventions and follow them, it’s equally important to approach them with a flexible mindset and change what isn’t working. 

Sometimes employees stop following agreements because they aren’t functional. For example, a lack of private spaces can cause people to hold pre-booked digital meetings in a place they aren’t allowed. Worrying that there won’t be a new desk available can cause the clean desk policy to be broken. 

If agreements aren’t functional, you’ll get some defectors pretty quickly. In these cases it’s good to take a step back and brainstorm if there’s something that needs to be changed to catalyse desired behaviours.

Maybe more information is needed, or training initiatives or re-arranging the furniture. Maybe the space feels too cramped or too open, depending on what it is intended for. Talk to employees and get their input on why the space isn’t getting used as intended. If you can reach a mutual solution with employees, the chances of the change being successful increase.

Further reading

Considering social norms is an important part of developing a strong workplace strategy, as they bolster employees’ adaptability to a work environment. Other ways to do so are by following the 30 second rule, enabling seamless tech connections, and practising nudge theory at the office. 

This article is based on the five principles for the development of a workplace strategy that we at WeOffice use to create bespoke workplace strategies. You can read more about them here.

References are taken from the book Workplace Strategy for the Flexible Office by Aram Seddigh. For more information on the book and workplace strategy in general, click here.


Seddigh, A. 2022. Arbetsplatsstrategi för det flexibla kontoret : metoder, verktyg och case med fokus på hybrid och aktivitetsbaserat arbetssätt, Stockholm, Blue Publishing.

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