Hard times cause hard feelings over office etiquette

Longer hours and job insecurity are blurring the boundaries between home and office – and not everyone approves

As cutbacks take effect and jobs disappear, one way to keep a business alive is to find something to sell to the anxious office worker. Technology and pressures of competition are changing our habits, blurring the old distinction between home life and office life, as stressed office workers take work with them wherever they go and bring their domestic routine into the office.

Greggs, the bakery chain, is one of the firms that has found a smart way through the recession by offering instant breakfasts to people who head for the office on empty stomachs, anxious to be seen at their desks. The majority of Britons – 60 per cent, according to one survey – still think breakfast is part of a ritual you perform before you leave the home to start the working day. However, there is the fast-growing percentage, particularly men aged 25-34, who see their lives as too rushed to set aside time for breakfast at home – or indeed a cooked meal at lunchtime – and treat eating as a refuelling exercise performed while at work.

This is not generally very healthy, because it usually involves eating a narrow range of fast foods and dropping crumbs that attract bacteria. One UK survey, in June, found that 40 per cent of those taking part ate at their desks, but only 7 per cent cleared up afterwards. A more alarming study by a US microbiologist came upon an average of 21,000 bacteria per square inch on desks.

People not only eat and drink, but also listen to music, shop online, pay their bills and write personal messages at work. This is one of the reasons that the characteristic sounds of an office have changed. Once, the principle noise was the clacking of manual typewriters. Now it is more likely to be the clink, clatter and slurp of someone having a rapidly consumed meal while staring at a terminal, or the irritating buzz of an iPod that is turned up too loud.

Another activity that used to be confined to leisure time was taking exercise, but now it is common for office workers to incorporate a session in the gym or a jog around town within their working day. That involves changing clothes and taking a shower, two activities which in the old days people never normally did outside the home.

It is increasingly common to see young women doing their make-up or plucking their eyelashes on the train on the way into work – an activity which their mothers performed in front of the mirror at home.

As if by way of compensation, one thing people do much more of at home is work. Last week was Commute Smart week, a campaign organised by Work Wise UK and backed by the TUC, which tries to get employers to help reduce rush-hour congestion by letting people vary their hours and work more at home.

"People don't have to conform to the culture of 'presenteeism' which we have had for the last 100 years. Smarter working reduces the necessity for people to sit at a desk all day," Phil Flaxton, the chief executive of Work Wise, said. Sadly, according to Richard Taylor of the Recruitment Society, the financial crisis is making employers less receptive to letting employees leave the office. "The vast majority of organisations do like people to go into work, where there is more control," he said.

Changing habits have opened market opportunities for food and drink retailers looking for ways to beat the recession. In February, Greggs opened an assault on the breakfast market with a special early-morning menu, including bacon rolls, which quickly turned into its biggest selling item. It has shifted seven million in eight months. Last month, Greggs launched something more adventurous – takeaway porridge.

"We did a lot of research into changing habits of people traditionally having breakfast in the home but increasingly having it on the go, and it seemed to be something we could be a part of," Scott Jefferson, Greggs' customer marketing director, said.

Breakfast in a pub would have been out of question until recently, but this year J.D Wetherspoon began opening all its pubs at 7am, and offering free wi-fi, so that customers can could drink coffee, eat a full English breakfast and surf the net on the way to work. Even Pizza Express has dipped a toe in the water by opening premises in Richmond, west London, where the menu includes a breakfast pizza topped with free-range egg, pancetta and bechamel sauce.

But while an office may smell more of food than it ever used to, there is one smell that has disappeared for good. Twenty or 30 years ago, people worked amid the smell of tobacco smoke, and within recent memory, most offices had a designated smoking room, which stank like an old ashtray. While so many other domestic activities have crept into the workplace, smoking indoors is now something that is done only in the privacy of the home.

Golden office rules

Don't leave debris from a meal in sight

No one wants to look at the fried egg-stained plate from which you ate your breakfast – and wipe up stains from desktops, especially those that your colleagues may use.

Don't eat unsuitable food

If you must eat at the desk, choose fare that can be eaten by hand, or something that needs a fork. Avoid spaghetti, curries and dishes swimming in gravy.

Don't be nosey

Don't stand over people while they are writing personal emails. In the old days, if someone was writing a letter on notepaper, you would know that it was none of your business.

Don't sweat in the office

If you must cycle to work, or go running before or during office hours, have a shower before you return to your desk, not after.

Keep smelly shoes to yourself

Leaving the trainers you have been using for jogging under your desk simply isn't nice.