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.
“Nobody knows what your living room looks like or your kids look like,” he says. “But now we’re all being forced to share our families, who we are, and how we live. There can be stress and anxiety around sharing when it isn’t a choice.”
Employees and companies will need to set new boundaries. “It used to be that the workday was nine to five,” says Wingard. “But now meetings are being held early or late so employees can coordinate other things they have to handle at home. All of that is impacting the way we’re thinking of what professionalism is and how it relates to our level of formality.”
This shift is only good if the relational nature is intentional, says Wingard. “It can be very easy for this type of professional work style to become transactional when you’re not engaging in the way we used to, getting to know others,” he says. “Virtual happy hours or other online social events are one way to build community and relationships with people so you feel a level of connection that would otherwise have happened when we work together in person.”
And sharing parts of our personal lives in a professional setting will be easier if the team feels psychologically safety within the group, says Robbins. “If we all get more comfortable sharing a small amount of our personal lives, the connectivity will help us to be more productive,” he says.
The old ideas of what it means to be professional may be gone forever. “This is a new normal, and we have to accept it,” says Wingard. “The more kids, doorbells, cats, and dogs that become an operational part of our day, the more acceptable it will become. Keeping that separate is not realistic.”