By Stephanie Vozza
When my youngest son was a preschooler, he had a knack for knowing when I was on a call for work. It didn’t matter what I did to prepare or circumvent an interruption—he would suddenly require my immediate attention. He once hijacked an interview I was conducting with a prominent senator by throwing a tantrum. And during a call with an important publishing executive, he loudly announced that he had to go to the bathroom.
It’s hard to maintain a level of professionalism when you work from home, especially when you have young kids or pets. Back then, not everyone was tolerant of my situation—especially that senator—but COVID-19 has put us all in the same situation, juggling work and family while trying to appear competent. And things are loosening up as a result.
“What does professionalism mean when our personal lives are in turmoil?” asks Jason Wingard, dean and professor of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University and author of Learning to Succeed: Rethinking Corporate Education in a World of Unrelenting Change. “Many of us are working from basements and kitchens. We’re caring for kids and, in some cases, parents. And we’re all experiencing this surreal time together.”
“Being on Zoom with leadership teams sitting in odd places like attics with dogs barking and kids walking in—on one hand it’s weird, and on the other hand it’s refreshing,” says Mike Robbins, author of We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging.
But the longer we all stay home, the more casual our professional interactions will likely become:
THE NEW PROFESSIONALISM
While corporate culture has been evolving and relaxing over the past 5 or 10 years, COVID-19 is accelerating the process for industries that have stuck to traditional formalities, says Robbins.
“A lot of tech companies already had employees working from home and had established a remote culture,” he says. “Now that everyone is doing it, people are less judgmental. It used to be that people in the office could complain or be annoyed by distractions in the background of someone who worked from home. Now everyone has to juggle the two.”
Seeing a more complete picture of your coworkers can promote empathy and understanding within teams. “Maybe we’ll all feel more comfortable sharing insights of our lives in a way we hadn’t done before—more than simply a picture of our family on our desk,” says Wingard.
Working from home has also forced people to be more creative and flexible. “On video you can’t hide,” says Robbins. “For the most part, moving toward a more casual view of being professional has benefits for everybody. You can relax and be more of yourself. If you feel you have to put on a suit, you may be less authentic.”
The more authentic you feel in your work environment, the freer you are to create, says Robbins. “You don’t have to hide who you are personally when you come to work,” he says. “You can bring your whole self, which is better for you as an individual and better for the team as a whole.”
New ideas around professionalism could reduce tensions later. “When we do end up going back to work fully, it may feel easier to bring our kids or pets to the workplace or to leave work early to take care of family things,” says Robbins. “We’re proving that our personal and professional lives are intersecting and productivity not being compromised.”
THERE ARE DOWNSIDES
While loosening up the definition of professionalism has benefits, it also presents some dangers. Keeping personal and professional lives separate is easy when you have to physically commute from one to the other, says Wingard.
Originally posted on Fast Company