Little things mean a lot in today's chilly workplace

The Baltimore Sun

Let's all agree that between downsizing, shareholder anxiety and increased demands for productivity, the corporate workplace isn't exactly a barrel of laughs these days.

You put in your eight hours or more in a gray cubicle, hunched in front of a computer, your neck aching, your carpal tunnel kicking in, the phone ringing, the boss barking, another boring meeting looming, your soul corroding a little each day.

You're a living Dilbert cartoon -- if you call that living.

And I can't help you with that.

Hey, I have my own problems, OK?

But there's one little thing you can do that'll endear you to your co-workers and at least keep up morale in your corner of the salt mines.

It's a simple thing, too.

Except all too often, people fail to do it, which can lead to bruised feelings, emotional detachment and a workplace environment that's chillier than having Barack and Hillary over for cocktails.

OK, here's the nice thing you can do: When a co-worker returns from a week's vacation, take a moment to welcome him or her back.

No one's saying you have to make a big deal about it.

Just acknowledge that the person's been away, that's all.

Ask what he or she did during their week off and whether they had a nice time.

If the person went somewhere neat on vacation, listen to the CliffsNotes version of their trip.

And if he or she didn't have a good time, listen to a couple of horror stories about the canceled flight, the lost luggage, the hotel room from hell, the rip-off cabbie who charged 75 bucks for a 20-minute ride, etc.

It won't kill you.

And it'll make your co-worker feel better. It'll make him or her feel valued.

It lets them know someone cares -- a feeling, you may have noticed, that's glaringly absent in today's corporate workplace.

Even if your colleague didn't go anywhere and just hung around the house all week spreading mulch, say something like "Have a nice week off?" before you get down to work.

OK, I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking: C'mon, you killed a bunch of trees just to put that in the newspaper?

You're thinking: Who wouldn't welcome back a colleague who's been away for the week? That's just basic civility in the workplace.

And you're right -- it is.

Except you'd be surprised at the number of people who don't get that.

You'd be surprised at the number of people who work side by side with someone for years and never say a word when the person's about to go on vacation -- or a word when he or she returns.

There's a word for colleagues like that, too.

And the word is: clueless.

OK, there's also another word. They're self-absorbed, too.

On the other hand, in the interest of presenting both sides of this, there are those few people who, strangely enough, hate being asked about their week off.

Or at least they hate being asked about it over and over again on their first day back at work.

A former copy editor here at The Sun used to return from vacation and stick a picture frame on her desk that contained a list of stock responses to questions co-workers invariably asked on her first day back.

So the list would contain responses such as "Yes, it was wonderful" and "No, we didn't go anywhere," saving the woman from having to describe her vacation for everyone who came by.

Stroke of genius?

Maybe. Her co-workers didn't seem to mind the list of stock responses. It didn't make her the office pariah or anything.

She just had a thing about people asking about her vacation.

Still, for the most part, people like to be acknowledged when they return to the office after a week off.

So do the right thing.

When a colleague comes back from vacation, ask if they had a nice time.

Don't think of it as this touchy-feely game you have to play in the workplace these days.

Think of it as a simple gesture that most people would appreciate.

A simple gesture that will start the other person's work week off on the right foot.

Besides, the way things are in corporate America right now, we could use a lot more touchy-feely stuff, anyway.

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