Setting aside the fact that you used to be able to hold an opinion within being “cancelled” (see tolerance) and before the inevitable comments about “sweeping generalisations” (always fantastic for a lawyer) I recognise that what follows does not apply to everyone or every industry. However, the more clients and contacts I speak to, particularly but not exclusively within traditionally office-based environments, the more of a trend I seem to see and I cannot help but wonder….
Has remote working killed professionalism or at the least put a very serious dent in workplace etiquette? In short……have we forgotten how to behave?
Tolerance, bullying and stress
Workplaces are mostly more diverse, inclusive and supportive than they have ever been. But bizarrely what appears to have come with increasing tolerance to the differences in human beings is a distinct lack of tolerance for the differing opinions of those differing beings. Offence is taken so very easily. Instructions or directions which were previously regarded as bog standard people / line management, such as a requirement to do your job (and do it well) during your working hours, are frequently now regarded as aggressive or “bullying”. However carefully delivered, any criticism however constructive, seems to be perceived as causing intolerable stress, resulting in grievances, bulling claims or absences signed off by an overworked GP. Bare minimum Mondays are apparently actually a thing!
Yes, stress is bad for you. But being required to do your job with a reasonable degree of professionalism and to an acceptable standard should not be a source of stress. If it is, you are very simply in the wrong job. Managers should not be afraid of managing to ensure deliverables are met and customers / clients get what they pay for. It is, after all, called work for a reason!
Equally I am not suggesting that the very real issue of workplace stress should be minimised nor that any form of bullying should be condoned. But, it seems to me that the threshold for accusing managers or colleagues of “bullying” or “offensive behaviour” when they are simply managing, including by requiring you to work when you are supposed to (and yes, that often includes Mondays) has been dramatically lowered – and one has to question whether that is a good thing for productivity or professionalism.
Do we really live in a world where we need to re-frame “bullying”? Yes, bullying should always be assessed by the impact it has on the bullied BUT equally surely those optics need a degree of objectivity. Not long ago I spoke with someone who informed me that one of the teams within their business had been assessed by an external evaluation as operating at approximately 40% productivity. That’s not working. That’s taking the …. ahem! Yet, when a newly appointed team lead tried to reset working patterns and reframe expectations, they found themselves faced with a collective grievance for bulling. The basis of the complaint? Being required to work at full workload capacity rather than the level they had been previously! Yes, really!
I am all in favour of personal expression (unless you are my kid and you spray your hair purple just before school #truestory). Equally no longer being required to be fully “suited up” is a relief. But sometimes it seems like employers actually need to say “please people – do actually dress” even if you are working remotely. Surely employers should not have to point out to people that joining a workplace call in gym gear or clothes that look like you are running to a shop hungover on a Sunday morning is just not ok. I recently advised an employee (during their working hours whilst they were working remotely for their employer) on a settlement agreement only to notice they were in their PJs. Seriously! How is that ok?
Some people seem to have forgotten that conveying a professional image is important (and equally so when working remotely if you are going to be joining video conference calls). It doesn’t have to cost a fortune but yes, other peoples’ opinions of you do count especially if they will be deciding whether to give you business or decide your pay increase. Whether people should be judged on appearance is a whole other debate (and not one I am brave enough to enter) but whether we like it or like it not, human beings tend to judge others on impressions (otherwise the advertising industry would not exist) count for a lot!
Perhaps people do take offence more easily or perhaps they are just empowered to be more vocal about offence being caused (which absolutely has to be a positive) but equally it seems that some people have forgotten that just because sometimes your workplace is your home, that does not mean that you can act like you are at home in your workplace. Context does matter!
Setting aside whether anyone actually wants the crass jokes, flippant “funny” (not funny) put downs at home either, they certainly have no place in the workplace – whether that workplace is in an office or any other environment. In a “working from home” world it seems that some people have simply forgotten how to behave in a professional workplace. Clients have recounted language and phrases being used that I don’t think I’ve heard since the playground and certainly would never have thought I hear in a workplace.
For all the inclusion and diversity training businesses engage in, standards seem to have slipped and people have forgotten that “harassment” can be a single act that causes offence and that “you didn’t mean to” or “were just recounting something someone said” doesn’t cut it.
I recently heard the tale of someone who lost their job because they recounted a story concerning their behaviour outside of the workplace. Yes, the protagonist probably shouldn’t have done what they did originally but why on earth did they think it was appropriate to replay the scene for colleagues to “check whether it was offensive”? Surely if you need to check, you probably shouldn’t be saying it…..
Most workplaces have no issue with LMK, TBH or FWIW shorthand (I am guilty of all) in teams chats or emails with colleagues but just like clothing there is a time and a place! Appropriate language will always depend on the industry, the role and an employer’s expectations but in working from home some people seem to have lost the ability to “read the room” and target language appropriately! Just because someone might be sitting on their sofa working from a laptop, language still needs to be appropriate to the recipient’s circumstances not the writer’s. Given the generational differences in appropriate language, and the diversity of generations in the workplace, what works for colleague A will not work for colleague B or indeed client C. Individuals either develop a style that works for everyone or tailor their communications accordingly. I wouldn’t have thought that needed pointing out but according to a number of clients it really does.
Rant over ….
What can employers do?
Setting aside the risk of collective grievances (see above) it is on employers to set workplace culture, define workplace standards and if necessary to reset expectations. Some employees will have started work for the first time during the chaos of covid lockdowns, when proper onboarding was less streamlined, if it happened at all, but others seem perhaps to think that because working from home is more relaxed, working from work should be too.
If you feel that your workplace is struggling then consider resetting expectations (and explaining why you are), rolling out appropriate training, and thereafter enforcing the message – using disciplinary procedures where appropriate.