Ten old-school office skills that still matter

In a madly electronic world, personal contact still matters.
In a madly electronic world, personal contact still matters. Photo: iStock

In today's plug n' play workplaces – in which high-tech spaces are filled with huddles, hangouts, dashboard meetings and workflow talkfests – is there still a place for simple, old-school office skills?

Yes, according to a number of corporate commentators and company executives who acknowledge the relevance and value of many commonsense business practices of the past.

No, that's not to seriously suggest a return to the whisky-imbibing, chain-smoking, secretary-harassing practices of Mad Men. Instead, it's an acknowledgement that a back-to-basics approach to professional etiquette will never go out of fashion.

Here are 10 tried and true strategies that still make a lasting impression today.

1. Keep it simple, stupid

"Direct communication is an all too rare commodity in the modern workplace," says Dan Gregory, a behavioural strategist, panelist of TV's Gruen Planet and co-author of Selfish, Scared & Stupid (Wiley).  "Instead of hiding behind corporate-speak and political correctness, sometimes all that's required [to resolve a roadblock] is an honest conversation. I once did some work with a public utility where an issue that could have been sorted out easily with a simple "No Entry" sign ended up so convoluted and confusing it was ridiculous."

2. Program in rewards

"Modern business is so wrapped up in buzzwords such as 'meaning' and 'purpose', it sometimes gets forgotten that people are motivated by rewards," Gregory says. "Rewards are much more than just money. They can range from the simplest form of acknowledgement - one of the greatest employee engagement strategies is asking the question, 'What do you think?' - to more formalised recognition in terms of position, title or increasing status."

3. The fear factor

"The intimidation of former years where the boss yelled at you and threatened to fire you can shut us down; whereas instilling an appropriate, modified, low-level fear - whether it be to hit a deadline or to come up with a novel idea or pitch for a new piece of business - can still be incredibly stimulating and culture- building," Gregory says.

4. Seal the deal with a handshake

Jennifer Taylor, faculty head at the Australasian College Broadway, says human touch is a powerful tool. "In the world of conference calls and electronic interaction, many people are losing this form of unspoken communication," she says. "A handshake builds bonds and demonstrates a sense of camaraderie between two people by releasing oxytocin, a chemical which tells the brain whether it's safe to trust the other party. In the past, the oxytocin in our system ignited by touch was a way of entering into a contract. In today's technology-rich business environment, the power of touch has never been more important -- or more underestimated -- as the foundation for confidence and cooperation."

5. Show gratitude

Andrew Margan, owner and head winemaker at Margan Wines, advises making time to properly thank clients and suppliers for their support. "It's so important not to give up on meeting them face-to-face to save time.  Make them feel special and appreciated by taking them out to lunch at least once a year," he says. "And remember to acknowledge business milestones or Christmas with a nice gift such as a good bottle of wine."

6. Pick up the phone

Vic Sacco, the managing director of Uniden Australia would rather deal with a real person than an email. "While email is a great tool, nothing beats phoning or better still, face-to-face or Skype interactions, to build rapport with business contacts," he says. "The audible tones, facial expressions, eye contact and body gestures offer a deeper, more personal connection. It's easy for confusion to brew from long-winded e-mail threads and it can be far more efficient to clarify an issue with a quick phone call. This also gives you a reason to say 'hello'."

7. Respond ASAP

"Answering emails and phone calls promptly shows colleagues and external contacts they are top-of-mind. As a rule of thumb, I always try to reply to calls and emails within a two-hour window, even if it's a simple acknowledgment that I've seen your memo and will get back to you," Sacco says.

8. Turn off and tune in

"Picking up your smartphone to text or check emails during a meeting is as disrespectful as answering a landline call would have been in the past.  Be courteous: put your phone on mute and make use of your out-of-office alert.  Nobody needs to hear back from you instantly or queue-jump the people who are right there in front of you," Sacco advises.

9. Put pen to paper

Clive Scott, the general manager of Sofitel Melbourne on Collins hotel, says a personal letter adds a feel-good factor.  "People still love to receive handwritten correspondence, especially by mail, and they really appreciate the time and effort involved," he says. "On any given day, up to half our guests find a welcome gift in their room together with a special card with a handwritten message which acknowledges loyalty, an anniversary or a birthday. Compared to a [generic] typed note or "With Compliments" slip with a scribbled signature, a personalised note shows genuineness and care."

10. Get names right

"Don't be afraid to ask how a person's name is spelt, and pronounced, in order to get it right. This shows respect," Scott says. "We train staff to listen carefully and then type [unusual names] phonetically into the computer.  Guests are greeted by name, and I address back-of-house staff by their name too. In any business you have to recognise that each person is unique and not just another customer."