If you’re of a certain age, you can remember a time when it was thrilling to be permitted to wear jeans to the office on Fridays. Today, however, it barely causes a ripple in many offices if someone traipses in wearing yoga pants and flip-flops.
Media would have us believe that many workplaces have devolved to resemble campus hangouts: Dogs run free, employees go on group jogs at lunchtime, and it’s totally normal to respond to a message from your boss with a picture of a dancing parrot.
Although stories of ping-pong, beer kegs, and team off-sites to learn cheese-making definitely make for juicy media fodder, they’re not a true reflection of how most employees—millennials included—actually want to engage during their workdays.
My company surveyed 1,000 full-time workers in the U.S., and as it turns out, they aren’t as content as you might assume with the blurring of lines between personal and professional lives and the relaxing of workplace norms.
In fact, our new research found a “silent majority” of workers who prefer to come to the office, get their work done, and skip the socializing. Survey respondents issued a strong rejection of many workplace behaviors that seem to have gone mainstream. I’ll admit, I was just as surprised as anyone to see that age and gender had little to do with workers’ feelings.
Consider these responses, which came from employees of all ages:
- 52% believe hugging is inappropriate in a professional environment.
- 66% don’t think coworkers should be allowed to bring dogs to work.
- 63% deem “athleisure” attire inappropriate for the workplace.
- 63% keep their social media private from their coworkers.
Setting boundaries starts at the top
Companies must open the lines of communication across personalities and work styles to support employee happiness and productivity. Most HR leaders (including me) take the pulse of employees regularly on things like advancement opportunities and job satisfaction, but we also need to be asking how we can create an environment where all work styles are respected so everyone can be engaged and productive.
Noting this silent majority uncovered by our research, I would urge leaders to move past assumptions and dig deeper to get an authentic picture of how employees feel about workplace behaviors. You may be surprised to learn there’s more tension in day-to-day interactions than you realized, but there are also opportunities to relieve that confusion.
Five tips for building a culture that respects boundaries
You’re never going to reach company-wide consensus on acceptable workplace behavior. Therefore, it’s up to leaders to help teams and individuals define their own boundaries and also get them thinking about their colleagues’ boundaries.
Start with a culture of feedback
If your company doesn’t already support and encourage the open sharing of constructive feedback, it’s going to be nearly impossible to discuss anything as sensitive as personal boundaries. My company’s culture of continuous learning is built on a foundation where everyone goes through training on how to give and receive fair and helpful feedback. As with so many HR initiatives, the best place to start is by asking people directly about their boundaries and leveraging that insight to draw up company guidelines.
Strike a balance between “rules” and “guidelines”
Did you notice I didn’t suggest making new rules but, instead, referred to guidelines? You should trust people to have good intentions and common sense even as you create guardrails to keep them on track. HR consultant Heather Robertt, who I know through PeopleTech Partners, told me about working with one company that simply wanted to tell its workforce to “be professional.” She knew that wouldn’t be enough. People need to understand the context of their behaviors and be mindful of how they impact others, not simply follow their own definition of professionalism.
Based on my company’s research and my network’s years of collective HR experience, we all want largely the same things from our workplaces: respect, autonomy, trust, and fairness. Still, each of us has a personal definition of what those things mean, which is what makes it so complicated.
I had one employee who felt his department lead’s constant use of profanity created a toxic environment. Our response wasn’t to institute a no-cursing rule but, instead, to make the leader aware that their language was potentially alienating and that they should be more thoughtful in choosing their words. And we worked with that manager to help them succeed in changing their behavior.
Communicate that it’s safe and acceptable to speak up
One of the keys to effective feedback, according to Samantha Rist, head of self perform at Katerra (which is a Udemy for Business customer), is to deliver it “in the moment, not after the fact and not with a policy.” That’s easier said than done, especially if your culture has historically been for managers and employees to shield themselves with policies as a means of avoiding awkward interactions and difficult conversations. But, as Rist explains, company culture and norms are born out of both comfortable and uncomfortable experiences. Your leaders need to signal the behavior they want to instill and encourage people to work through these situations in an open, respectful way. Everyone could use training here.
Clearly define diversity, inclusion, and authenticity
While many of us have rightfully embraced the idea of bringing our authentic selves to work, sometimes the pendulum swings too far in one direction. The point isn’t to let people act however they want. As with unconscious bias training, HR teams can moderate conversations where employees can talk safely about how to be authentic and inclusive while also being considerate of others. You have to trust people to set their own boundaries and trust that those behaviors are guided by good intentions—but people also need to balance their ideas of appropriate behavior against the boundaries and preferences of others.
Train and maintain soft skills
When you talk about professionalism and workplace boundaries, you’re talking about soft skills—emotional intelligence, empathy, self-awareness, team building, etc. For starters, you should be asking behavioral questions to identify these skills during the hiring process (and training your employees on how to conduct interviews with this in mind). Then, companies need to offer soft-skills training to every single person in the organization, so they can get better at managing themselves and their teammates. And then, as we do in order to master any skill, we practice, practice, practice.
Left unchecked, boundary-crossing behaviors can come to define your overall culture and inadvertently create an unappealing environment for talent of all ages. The only way we’ll achieve some measure of harmony is by talking about our differences and being more conscious of how other people like to work. HR leaders and others need to be out in front, sparking those conversations and helping colleagues understand their role in creating a healthy, happy workplace where we all can coexist and drive businesses forward.