How to Maintain Professionalism in a Casual Workplace Setting

Workplaces have become significantly more casual over the past few decades. While startups have a reputation for letting employees take naps or use bean bag chairs, even older, more formal workplaces are changing. Some of these casual adjustments are aesthetic (such as embracing the open floor plan) while others address the organizational structure and relationships within the business.

Here is your guide to navigating casual workplace culture, whether you are an entrepreneur starting your own company or an employee wondering what “free beer” actually means.

Introducing Startup Culture to Your Company

Many companies today try to create a startup feel in the office. They want to foster creativity and engagement, but often end up isolating team members. In her article “Culture Shock,” Joan Westenberg shares horror stories of companies where promotions were determined based on an employee’s ability to take shots of alcohol without coughing. She says that some companies take “startup culture” to the extreme and focus on being a fun and cool workplace instead of one that helps employees shine.

“The best piece of computational hardware you will ever invest in is a person,” she writes, adding that if your organization can’t keep employees engaged by way of its healthy culture, relying on gimmicks instead, you’ll end up driving people away.

Westenberg isn’t the only one who discourages companies from mimicking startup culture too closely. Derek Lidow, Ph.D., author of “Building on Bedrock,” says companies often mistake “cool” for good or appealing. They think having a cool office will increase recruitment and retention rates. In reality, this concept is actually isolating. “The logic of cool, however you define it, is that it distinguishes people who have it from people who don’t,” he writes. “What’s the point of my being cool if everyone is cool? So while the markers of cool may change, their intent doesn’t: excluding the uncool.”

At best, this determination to create a fun and cool workplace is intimidating. At worst, it’s borderline illegal.

Lidow uses the example of a company following a “no suits allowed” policy. While the idea might be innocent enough (creating an approachable and casual workplace), this can confuse international team members who dress up as a sign of respect or to show their worth. Similarly, the bro culture of office ping-pong tournaments and golf outings often excludes women, as well as men who aren’t in the cool social group.

Companies can embrace the strong cultural values of startup culture to give everyone a voice and treat employees fairly, but they need to be careful that their ideas don’t tear down employees instead.


Setting a Clear Organizational Hierarchy

Another element that startups often describe as an antiquated part of the American workplace is the strong hierarchy. This has lead to non-hierarchical companies and “flat” organizations where everyone is the boss. However, for most organizations, there needs to be a balance between flexibility and hierarchy.

“Hierarchies can be useful because as much as we don't like to admit it, most people perform better with some sense of structure,” writes Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work.” “As much as many employees say they want a completely flat organization, most of the very successful organizations have at least some degree of a hierarchical system.”    

Indeed, dynamic hierarchies are starting to form, says collaborative training consultant Francesca Pick, cofounder of GreaterThan. “Authority shifts based on who has the most knowledge and experience in a specific context,” she explains.

So, in one scenario, a senior employee might take the lead because they have seen how the company solved similar problems in the past. In another scenario, a new or lower-level employee can lead because they bring a unique skill set to the table. There is still a set office hierarchy with specific roles, but each person provides unique value.

Eliminating Company Dress Codes

As office dress codes relax, casual attire is becoming the norm. However, 21st Century startups didn’t necessarily pioneer this trend.

Deirdre Clemente, professor of American cultural history, wrote a fascinating article about the rise of the casual workplace. Before hoodies and sweatpants, the ideal of “business casual” was khaki pants and polos instead of suits and ties. Silicon Valley in the 1980s was breaking workplace trends before Silicon Valley in the new millennium.

“Does casual dress make workers less productive?” she asks. “A chorus of academics came up with an answer: not sure!” While some managers thought it encouraged workers to be individuals and improved engagement, others thought it created a distraction and lead to sloppy habits.

Meanwhile, workplace consultant Jason Lauritsen, who wrote “Unlocking High Performance,” has a more passionate take on the idea of dress codes. He spent years rebelling against his employer’s dress code and still stands against it today. Lauritsen says enforcing a dress code sends a message of distrust: You don’t trust your team members to dress appropriately. A dress code also destroys individuality and expression.

Furthermore, in the modern workplace, asking women to wear heels or policing certain hairstyles (particularly for black women) is considered sexist and racist.


Navigating Coworker Friendships

Some people believe their best friends are found in the workplace. Others maintain a strong distinction between work friends and actual friends.

In fact, while 85 percent of people consider their coworkers friends, only 15 percent consider them to be “real friends,” reports Nicole Lyn Pesce at MarketWatch. Plus, 27 percent admit they barely stay in touch with work friends once they’re not working together anymore. This is only part of the data. Another survey found that in 1985, 50 percent of Americans said they had a close friend at work, a number that dropped to 30 percent by 2004.

Pesce credits the job-hopping nature of our modern workplace for this lack of close workplace friendships. Most people don’t work in the same place for several years anymore and don’t have time to develop long-term bonds.

In a casual workplace, some people feel pressured to form friendships with their coworkers. They are made to feel that it’s more fun to come to work and that it helps you look like a team player. However, these friendships often interfere when sensitive work-related subjects come up, such as who received a promotion or who is to blame for failed project.

“Our job at work is to work,” Dr. Amy Cooper Hakim, author of “Working with Difficult People,” tells the New York Times. “I actually argue against having true friends in the workplace, aside from maybe a handful — people you would actually want to be friends with if you didn’t work at that company.”

This relationship between coworkers and friendships has even lead to the term “frolleague,” a combination of the words “friend” and “colleague.” Kachi Tila-Adesina, lawyer and blogger, recently lamented that her frolleague is leaving, thanking her for everything from making her try sushi and letting her borrow makeup to understanding her expressions and sitting through her office rants. For Tila-Adesina and her frolleague, the friendship was natural and will likely stick long after both women leave the company.

Essentially, you don’t have to be friends with all of your colleagues and you may find that you form close bonds with a few people instead.

Becoming Friends With the Boss

If you thought coworker friendships were challenging to navigate, consider the challenges of becoming friends with your boss. A more casual workplace and a flatter hierarchy blurs the lines between leadership and friendship, creating possibly uncomfortable situations for managers and their employees.

It is easier for a manager and coworker to maintain a friendship if they started out as friends and it became professional, says the team at Signature Consultants. Examples of this might be an employee being promoted or the company hiring the friend of an employee. However, it is trickier for bosses and employees to naturally form friendships. There will always be a power dynamic there — at least until one person leaves the company.

There are pros and cons of building a friendship with your boss, writes leadership coach Kathy Caprino. On the plus side, these friendships can make you more engaged at work and can help you build a strong professional relationship. However, the cons might outweigh the pros:

  • If the relationship goes sour, it could put the employee in a difficult working situation.

  • Personal affinity can blind some people to the faults of others. The boss might not see (or actively ignore) the faults of their friends.

  • Coworkers who aren’t as close with the boss could feel resentful or excluded. They might think they have fewer opportunities because they don’t have that level of friendship.

The Signature Consultants team encourages both managers and employees to set boundaries with what they are comfortable doing. Drinks after work with the team might be fun, but drinks one-on-one could make one party uncomfortable.


Becoming Facebook Friends with the Boss

Most companies are still figuring out how to operate in the internet era, with some having more success than others. One question that repeatedly comes up concerns social media: Should you be friends with your boss on Facebook? Should they have access to your social media life?

“It depends on your industry, it depends on your company, it depends on your relationship with the people in question, and it probably also depends on all sorts of other things that are going to vary from person to person and platform to platform,” Heather Schwedel writes at Slate.

That said, she does believe bosses should wait to be friended and shouldn’t do the friending. Otherwise, employees could feel pressured to act a certain way on social media because their “boss is watching,” Schwedel explains, turning their home life into a continuation of the workplace.

And if you don’t feel comfortable adding your boss, employees or coworkers as friends on Facebook, it’s OK to let them know why. “An editor declined my FB connection a few months ago,” writes executive coach Caroline Stokes, who started The Emotionally Intelligent Recruiter. “Instead of my request being ignored, the editor emailed to explain he only uses FB for family and friends, not business friends. I respected his decision and I have a relationship with him on his business email and Twitter.”

An explanation can actually ease tension and let your team know that your rejection isn’t personal.

Participating in Workplace Happy Hours

If you find yourself working at a casual workplace, you may be rewarded with workplace happy hours, where employees have access to a beer fridge or make margaritas in the breakroom on Fridays. There are many reasons why companies offer free drinks to their staff. This perk is used to lure potential employees, but also provide value to current staff members.

Digital marketing strategist Rachel Speiser says her company offered free beer to encourage socialization. Socializing becomes collaboration which becomes problem solving. Plus, companies that offer alcohol prove they trust their employees to drink responsibly and meet their work deadlines.

Still, working in a beer-filled office can be intimidating for those who aren’t sure when to drink and if it’s okay. To solve this, Emily E. Steck at OfficeNinjas shares a few rules for office drinking etiquette:

  • Know your limits. This isn’t a race to keep up with your coworkers. If you know that you’re a lightweight, stick to one or two small drinks.

  • Don’t seem too eager to head to the bar. Pour less than you would at home and drink it slowly. This is meant to increase collaboration in a social setting; it’s not meant for you to get your money’s worth in free beer.

  • Stick to one drink per hour. Your liver will thank you, and you won’t have to worry about getting tipsy around your colleagues.

From a managerial standpoint, don’t force employees to participate. If your team members want to go home on a Friday, let them. Plus, create space where employees who do not drink alcohol don’t feel left out or pressured to imbibe. Offering non-alcoholic options can help with this significantly.

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