Workers of all generations agree on one thing: They have no idea what the right rules at work are anymore.



Shorts to the office on a 90-degree day? Slacking your boss to ask for a mental health day? Working from home for a day to catch up on laundry and meal prep? Putting a block on your calendar for a midday nap? If you aren’t sure whether these decisions would fly at your workplace, you’re in great company. 

A Harris Poll survey on behalf of Fortune recently surveyed 1,200 knowledge workers, and found that the vast majority of them (86%) believe workplace norms and expectations have shifted since the pandemic began. Those who work in a hybrid setting were the most likely to feel a shift, followed closely by fully in-person workers, with fully remote workers feeling the least amount of change—likely because they’re not in the office to see it.

These concerns are hardly unfounded; their bosses don’t even know what to tell them. Most managers (62%) whom Harris Poll surveyed said they struggle to define which employee behaviors count as acceptable in the new world of work. 

Not the least of their concerns: What a “flexible” workplace looks like, what to wear when they do come to the office, how acceptable mental health days or sick days are, and how to foster strong connections while working across locations and time zones. 

“I am unsure of how many days I can work from home versus having to come into the office,” one Gen X worker told Harris Poll. “I want to receive clarification but my company makes it vague.”

The same uncertainty goes for short breaks. “I wasn’t sure if it would be okay to step away from my desk for five minutes to load the dishwasher,” another Gen X worker said. “In an office setting, I step away for five minutes to get coffee, [but I’m] not sure if it’s viewed the same.”

Same old problems

Some may argue that things have been up in the air since Gen Z came onto the scene, asking for things like four-day workweeks and sweatpants in the office. But Gen Z can’t take all the blame—and it wouldn’t be good to blame them either way, given that they’ll soon make up the majority of the U.S. workforce. Employees of all ages admitted to being unsure of what to talk about with their coworkers—what’s fair game, what’s off-limits, and what’s even interesting at all. That mainly comes back to the fact that “workplace norms” today are essentially unrecognizable from what they were pre-pandemic. 

Generational divides still persist amid the widespread confusion, though. Gen Zers and millennials, more so than their older coworkers, told the Harris Poll they believe that it’s fine to wear headphones all day, take a midday gym or nap break, or even leave work early if all the tasks are done. 

Additionally—and perhaps unsurprisingly—the younger a worker is, the more they prefer discussing work or asking a question over instant message or email than in-person or over Zoom. Even so, younger employees grasp the fact that in-person socializing can be crucial to building connections, especially if they spend most of their time remote. 

Granted, each workplace has approached things differently. So while one company, like Atlassian, might have a renewed priority on distributed work and asynchronous hours, another, like Goldman Sachs, might be holding out for a full office return. Some companies still fall somewhere in the middle, mandating in-office days or core hours, while failing to enforce them—or allow for the exceptions or changes that workers want. 

Some other positive changes, according to the survey respondents, are a general increase in mental health awareness, a deepened commitment to work-life balance (especially for parents and caregivers), and a focus on avoiding burnout or hustle culture. One millennial worker told Harris Poll that childcare issues have become more understood, though “parents are struggling to find and afford childcare, so when last minute things come up, employers may be more lenient.”

“It is now acceptable to take mental health days, use your sick days without feeling guilty, and be encouraged to work in your most comfortable setting, instead of always coming into an office in business attire,” one millennial worker told Harris Poll. “It is once again realistic to have your own style of work and not just the social norm.”

Still, though, some workers believe not enough has shifted. They told Harris Poll that overworking, burnout, and opposition to flexible work arrangements persist in their workplaces. Some say lack of trust among managers that workers will still do their jobs diligently, regardless of where they log on from, is a major ongoing issue. 

“Ultimately, employers need to stop assuming employees will cheat the system and start treating employees as humans with lives, priorities, and needs outside of their jobs,” a millennial respondent said. 

In any workplace, as Apple engineering lead Julia Grace presciently wrote on Twitter/X in 2017, one of the biggest sources of chaos and frustration is when a decision must be made, but no one’s sure who has the authority to make it, or who will be held accountable for it. The bottom line, bolstered by the Harris Poll results, may be that rules themselves—for both bosses and workers—are less important than knowing they exist. 

This article is part of Fortune’s New Normal at Work quartet in conjunction with the Harris Poll.

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