Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
7/29/2014
12:56 PM
David Wagner
David Wagner
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

Doing Business Without Handshakes

Handshakes make us feel comfortable in business settings -- and spread germs that make us sick. Perhaps it's time for a new custom.

Consider this an early warning for the flu season: Stop shaking hands! In a little more than two months, your co-workers will be facing a germy gauntlet of doorknobs, subway poles, bathroom stalls, and even family members. If you want to help your colleagues stay healthy, spend the next eight weeks eliminating handshakes and hugs, learn to limit the high fives, and try your best to switch to all fist bumps.

Why am I sharing these tips now? Well, partially to give you time to break habits, but mostly because a new study says that you spread 20 times more germs by handshake than by fist bump. You need to make changes not only with your team, but also in the way that you do business, because the handshake is surprisingly valuable.

The study, conducted at the Institute of Biological, Environmental, and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, asked volunteers to wear rubber gloves dunked in a solution of e coli. The volunteers then gave each other a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump. The fist bump was found to be 20 times more hygienic than the handshake and 10 times more hygienic than a high five.

The study didn't test this handshake, but I'm guessing it was 100 times worse than all the others.

All kidding aside, there are two competing sides to this issue. One estimate places the cost of sick workers to the US economy at $576 billion. Thirty-nine percent of that figure applies to workers who are sick but still show up and are less productive. Doing anything you can to keep your team healthy can save your company money and improve productivity while keeping key folks at their desks.

[Keep your team healthy and become an office hero. Read How To Be An Office Hero: 3 Myths, Busted.]

On the other hand, the handshake is a valuable business tool. There's a reason we greet colleagues and partners with handshakes and conclude business deals with them. The handshake is hardwired into our brains. Shaking someone's hand doesn't just make you trust someone more (it has actually been known to lower perception of risk in aggressive business deals); it literally triggers happy feelings in your brain.

A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience studied the value of the handshake in a business setting by showing people animated clips of mock business meetings. Handshakes were included in some of those clips, but not in others. The researchers used a functional MRI, among other equipment, to measure how participants' brains responded to the transactions. When a clip involved a handshake, areas of the brain associated with finding people competent and trustworthy were stimulated.

All people conduct an approach/avoid assessment when seeing a new situation. The study found that a handshake triggered the approach response more often, and a lack of handshake triggered the avoid response. Most intriguingly, watching two people shake hands triggered the same part of the brain that's triggered when a person is being physically touched. This feeling is associated with comfort.

In other words, the handshake is a major part of business success. We have no idea if a fist bump carries the same value. Perhaps it's just simple human touch of any kind that does it. Perhaps the closer contact of the handshake provides that feeling of trust.

Business is better with handshakes, but is it some subset of $576 billion better? If we all agreed on the new norm of the fist bump, would it even itself out?

There's no ready answer to any of these questions, which is why I'm giving you the rest of the summer to think about it. One thought might be to eliminate handshakes on your team but keep them for customers. But trust within your team is important, too. Another thought is simply to keep a polite distance and not initiate any contact. Let's face it; you aren't going to greet new business contacts with a fist bump. They'll think you're crazy.

What do you think? Shake hands and face/spread an onslaught of germs? Avoid contact? Fist bump? Wave? What would you do?

In its ninth year, Interop New York (Sept. 29 to Oct. 3) is the premier event for the Northeast IT market. Strongly represented vertical industries include financial services, government, and education. Join more than 5,000 attendees to learn about IT leadership, cloud, collaboration, infrastructure, mobility, risk management and security, and SDN, as well as explore 125 exhibitors' offerings. Register with Discount Code MPIWK to save $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Threaded  |  Newest First  |  Oldest First
Thomas Claburn
0%
100%
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/29/2014 | 1:12:19 PM
or...
I suggest just washing your hands. That way, you can maintain social customs without conveying illness.
David Wagner
100%
0%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/29/2014 | 1:15:56 PM
Re: or...
@Tom- Sure, and actually I should have mentioned that. Thanks for bringing that up. But I wrote under the assumption that there are times when you just can't either because there is no where around to do it, time, forgetfulness, etc.
anon5606509966
0%
100%
anon5606509966,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/29/2014 | 2:33:07 PM
Re: or...
Wow.  Someone certainly has plenty of time on their (unwashed) hands. 
Bhori
100%
0%
Bhori,
User Rank: Ninja
7/29/2014 | 3:22:48 PM
Re: or...
@ David: I would suggest saving $576 billion by speding few dollars on hand sanitzers and ofcourse washing hands before everytime we eat. Risking trust doesn't sound a good idea. Also, in my part of the world we don't shake hand with opposite gender, so almost 25% of the risk is already reduced :)

 
H@mmy
100%
0%
H@mmy,
User Rank: Ninja
7/29/2014 | 5:53:22 PM
Re: or...
Mutual trust and respect is created by shaking hands, that plays important role in business society. Not shaking hands is not a good idea. 
jastroff
50%
50%
jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
8/1/2014 | 11:15:22 AM
Re: or...
I agree about mutual trust/respect if the cultures recognize it.

 

But, next time I see @dave, fist bump it is.
nomii
100%
0%
nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 7:14:38 AM
Re: or...
@David a nice article. It really brings something which most of us do not consider important. What I will start doing now is to watch every little thing from a different persoective abd try to find the hind side of every aspect. I believe shaking hand is definitely a confident boster and feels that to avaoid the buisbess loss it better to keep it to those whom you definitely want to do buisness with. For rest of your office workers it should restrict to greetings only.  :)
H@mmy
100%
0%
H@mmy,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 7:36:14 AM
Re: or...
I disagree over here. Running business is not a one's men show. You may not discriminate your workers. it is their efforts that makes your business flourish. So you can not avoid them as well and if you do that then are going to be less productive.
ChrisMurphy
50%
50%
ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
7/30/2014 | 10:14:47 AM
This is REALLY hard to do
I've had a cold for two weeks. Last Friday I was at an all-day editorial conference, and I made it a point not to shake anyone's hand -- "I have a cold, so I'll spare you the handshake" I said about 50 times. It felt awkward, and there was a temptation every time on my end to just shake hands. 

But I will say -- 90% of the time, the response I got from peopel was identical: "Thank you." They said it out loud that they appreciated it. So while awkward on my end, everyone appreciated it.  
Ashu001
50%
50%
Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 12:29:40 PM
Re: This is REALLY hard to do
Chris,

That was most considerate of you -Why not just Hang a Board over your neck-Explaining the issue?

LOL!!! Just Kidding!

I don't know if you are following the Latest International News but it seems Ebola and the Plague are both back with the bang today.

The solution for both these issues is the same;Non-Contact and Isolation.

I am surprised that such News does'nt find more Coverage in MSM in America today.

Regards

Ashish.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 3:19:30 PM
Re: This is REALLY hard to do
@Chris- Ha! I've had that situation, too. I had to meet an extreme VIP (can't share who it is). I mean this was the biggest meeting of my life at that point. I had a cold. So I spent the day before guzzling all sorts of medicine and vitamins trying to get better. And then the morning of the meeting I swallowed a whole medicine cabinet of things so I didn't cough on the VIP and used so much hand sanitizer that I probably rubbed off my fingerprints.

The funniest part? The VIP came into the room, shook my hand and promptly coughed all over me and the room. She coughed for an hour into her hand and then she reached out and shook my hand again at the end of the meeting. 

*That* is why you can't just count on handwashing to save the day. :)
PedroGonzales
50%
50%
PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 4:07:11 PM
Re: This is REALLY hard to do
that is a really gross story david.  I guess we should become more like the Japanese and bow our heads before we meet someone. Whatever happen to politelly warning someone, one has a cold before rejecting their handshake.
Ashu001
50%
50%
Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 12:37:34 PM
Re: or...
H@mmy,

It seems you have'nt quite met the One-Man Show Organizations where everything works exclusively at the Whims and Fancies of the founder-CEO.

Trust me in those companies Professionalism usually tends to go out of the window at the first Sign of Trouble.

They need tons and Tons of Training if you ask me[And Employees who work there need Tons and Tons of Courage&Fortitude to boot].

Regards

Ashish.
nomii
50%
50%
nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 5:22:06 PM
Re: or...
@H@mmy you  must have misunderstood my post. I am not asking to be discriminative but developing a culture which might be both beneficial as well as productive. I just gave you an example. In no way I want to disriminate between your worker which will definitely make you less productive. Do you think without handshakes the company will not flourish. I really have my doubts and thinks that it is very much possible.
tzubair
0%
100%
tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 2:35:01 AM
Re: or...
"I suggest just washing your hands. That way, you can maintain social customs without conveying illness."

@Thomas: Or how about having a wearable technology on your hand that automatically sanitizes the hand after every handshake? This may be particularly useful when you're in a conference or an exhibition.
asksqn
100%
0%
asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
7/29/2014 | 5:57:28 PM
Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
I really hope this article was a joke.  You know what really helps to prevent the spread of germs?  A public service announcement that advocates washing of hands with hot/soapy water for at least twenty seconds after **each** time one uses the restroom.  It is a fact that one in five people do **not** wash their hands.  Also, an assiduous usage of hand sanitizers also works really well.  
Bhori
100%
0%
Bhori,
User Rank: Ninja
7/29/2014 | 7:26:48 PM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
It is a fact that one in five people do **not** wash their hands. 


@asksqn: Then we desperately need some technology that may detect and expose those one in five. They are risky for others health. Or something that doesn't let someone out of rest rooms without washing hands for 20 seconds :)
tzubair
100%
0%
tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 2:42:21 AM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
" It is a fact that one in five people do **not** wash their hands."

@asksqn: This fact, coupled with the other facts about handshakes that David mentioned, makes me even more freaked out about handshakes. The next time I'm in a large gathering and have plenty of people coming to me to meet, the only thing I'll be thinking is which one of these is the "fifth" one!

nomii
0%
100%
nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 7:10:27 AM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
@tzubair nice. I am thinking what will happen if you got your count wrong or your first is actually the fifth one.    :)
Ashu001
50%
50%
Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 12:45:24 PM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
Zubair,

I could'nt start Laughing when I read your post here.

My Recommendation?

Always carry a Hand Sanitizer with you for use because it can help kill majority of common Germs you are afflicted with in these situations.

Can't really avoid Bugs can we today?

 
nomii
100%
0%
nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 7:08:23 AM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
@Asksqn I believe that it is not how one can made people to wash hands or make them understand its consiquences. I believe it should be made second nature to the people. I feel that its difficult to wash hands afetr every 10 to 15 min as you will be doing something on average. Either you need to be available in the vaccinity of washroom all the time or carry one along   :)
Susan_Nunziata
50%
50%
Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 7:55:58 PM
Re: Is This From the Onion or the Daily Currant?
@asksqn: Gross, but true. Maybe we should all start carrying those CSU UV lights that detect bodily fluids and subject each person we meet to a blast of light before we shake hands. Or, even better, use those swab things that they use at the airport security to detect any traces of suspicious chemicals on one's hands. If we can do that, surely we can have a swab that detects viruses.

Might ruin the warm-and-fuzzies of the typical business meeting, though, if we ask people to swab first, shake later.
Gary_EL
100%
0%
Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
7/29/2014 | 7:23:12 PM
Come on now!
I think that we, as a society, spend way too much time worrying about this sort of thing. Maybe that's the reason why so many children come down with food allergies and autoimmune diseases. In a hospital setting or around people with autoimmune conditions - that's one thing. But, otherwise healthy adults not shaking hands? - I don't think so. If you want to improve people's general health, why not try something novel: sleep 8 hours a day, exercise, and stop overeating.
zaious
100%
0%
zaious,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 2:43:48 AM
Bumpy Ride Ahead
Then, there is going to be a lot of fist bumps. It is really amusing to imagine tow CEO's from two companies fist bumping each other -it would be so cool. Meeting a new group and fist bumping all would be a nice experience. I hope everyone bumps me gently and our knuckles stay in the right place. 
zerox203
50%
50%
zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 7:51:03 AM
Re: Doing Business Without Handshakes
Ha, this reminds me of something funny. One year at Penny Arcade Expo in Boston, attendees were advised not to use handshakes (precisely because there was a flu going around). Instead, they were offered an alternative for how to greet others. Obviously, this was intended partially as a joke, but surprisingly, most people followed the "rule". The folks running the convention made a point to say afterwards that (at least among their staff) there was a noticeably reducded amount of post-convention sickness. Not to read too much into an isolated incident (I'll say that I didn't get sick either), but hey, I guess there's some merit to this idea!

As for everyone poo-pooing Dave's fist bump idea, I hear you, but I think you're sort of missing the point. Of course we should wash our hands often (I don't remember Dave saying we shouldn't), but there are considerations other than just that. The study scientifically proved that handshaking is less sanitary than other forms of physical contact (presumably this applies even if you do wash your hands). It's a fact (according to this study). Obviously, we're all still going to use handshakes (at least sometimes) regardless. I think the point was just to raise an interesting question about an age-old custom and ask 'would we get rid of it if there was a good enough reason to?'. Apparently we wouldn't.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 3:23:19 PM
Re: Doing Business Without Handshakes
@zerox203- Thanks for the support. Yes, that was my point. 

I admit that I've written about more important things, but the social nroms around business matter. 

At any rate, I love your story. I can totally imagine an entire conference vibing, at least for a day or two, on a special secret "handshake." There is real value in that kind of exclusiveness. Maybe a team air shake for all the times your team forgets to wash its hands would be valuable not only for keeping healthy but building teamwork.
SachinEE
50%
50%
SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2014 | 1:02:44 PM
Re: come on now
There are easier ways through which germs can be transferred from one person to the other. Shaking hands in a business environment is very important in fact, it is more than just a hand shake but it is also an important symbol. What you can do is to carry a hand disinfectant with you. I mean that is why they were designed in the first place.
D.M. Romano
50%
50%
D.M. Romano,
User Rank: Moderator
7/30/2014 | 1:33:59 PM
Sacrifice...
I honestly see no reason to eliminate the normal forms of greetings given the customs and norms of a given culture. Germs? Unless we're on the cusp of an Ebola outbreak or a zombie apocalypse, it just seems silly and in some sense crude to think otherwise. Utilize technology when necessary to speed up business and bring down cost, but never sacrifice relationships. 
Susan_Nunziata
50%
50%
Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2014 | 7:57:45 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
@DM Romano: You are once again the voice of reason here. We have survived this long with the hand-shaking ritual, I suppose it will take more than a few pesky germs transferred during a handshake to bring about the end times. 
glenbren
50%
50%
glenbren,
User Rank: Moderator
7/31/2014 | 1:25:57 AM
Re: Sacrifice...
"Mutual trust and respect is created by shaking hands"

I never realized how important a handshake was! I've never been a fan of shaking hands, even before I knew it could kill me. I always found it kind of a fake and unnatural thing to do, that you're then judged on. How about a good nod, why wouldn't that work?
Susan_Nunziata
50%
50%
Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
7/31/2014 | 11:34:27 AM
Re: Sacrifice...
@Glenbren: My guess is that it has something to do with the nonverbal communication that happens in a handshake, from the posture to the contact. Touch is a powerful communicator. Funny thing is, I've found that it's not unusual here in California for hugs to be exchanged in lieu of handshakes once you've reached a certain level of familiarity with a person. (Not in a creepy way). 
glenbren
50%
50%
glenbren,
User Rank: Moderator
7/31/2014 | 2:27:14 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Here in Quebec we do the kiss on both cheeks thing once you're familiar.
impactnow
50%
50%
impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2014 | 10:26:06 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Two cheeks could be a double source of germ spreading--maybe a double fist bump will  keep everyone healthy in the winter!
glenbren
50%
50%
glenbren,
User Rank: Moderator
7/31/2014 | 10:56:10 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Don't you think a fist bump is too casual for business encounters? I still think we could just nod or bow like the Japanese do. It's respectful, and you don't have to dash off to apply hand sanitizer.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/4/2014 | 1:12:39 PM
Re: Sacrifice...
Don't you think a fist bump is too casual for business encounters? I still think we could just nod or bow like the Japanese do. It's respectful, and you don't have to dash off to apply hand sanitizer.


@Glenbren- Well, the interesting thing is that something is as formal and respectful as society decides it is. If we as a group we started heading towards the fist bump in a decade or two it would be so normal people would forget that we used to shake hands. The first time I got hugged in a business setting it blew my mind. I've noticed it occuring more regularly. I'm *almost* used to it.
D.M. Romano
50%
50%
D.M. Romano,
User Rank: Moderator
7/31/2014 | 8:07:19 AM
Re: Sacrifice...
@Susan - Exactly. Now, should this Ebola virus thing start taking on the likes of the movie Outbreak, then sure, we might scale back on the physcial handshake for a season and take on the bow of the Japanese. 
impactnow
50%
50%
impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
7/31/2014 | 3:17:13 PM
Reciprocal bumps
 

Dave I once worked for someone who would only fist bump. It was his standard greeting I have never personally initiated a fist bump in a professional setting but it's worth thinking about. I would be concerned about offending a client or associate. I think you need a certain level of familiarity with the person to initiate the fist bump. Sanitizer may be the other answer!
Technocrati
50%
50%
Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
8/3/2014 | 6:50:14 PM
The "Howie Mandel Syndrome "
Thank you David for providing some figures to support what I would call the "Howie Mandel Syndrome". The handshake is so baked into societal norms - you look past the fact that you could be getting a major amount of germs during this 5 sec ritual.

I am all for the fist bump, and so far you will only see this in hipster business matters.    Interesting stuff no doubt.

Looks like Howie was light years ahead of most of us.
batye
50%
50%
batye,
User Rank: Ninja
8/4/2014 | 1:22:21 PM
Re: The "Howie Mandel Syndrome "
interesting point, as everything changing in time... approach of doing things changing to... how I see it
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest, Dec. 9, 2014
Apps will make or break the tablet as a work device, but don't shortchange critical factors related to hardware, security, peripherals, and integration.
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Archived InformationWeek Radio
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 7, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program!
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.