Traditional Ideas of Professionalism: Are They Right for Your Organization?

It’s a new era in business. Offices have no cubicles, few walls and fewer offices, and people walk around in jeans and t-shirts every day of the week. And yet, they’re getting things done—they’re building successful businesses. What might have seemed unimaginable 40 years ago has become reality: the modern office has become casual, casually discarding old views about what makes a company and a person “professional”. “Casual Friday” isn’t really considered a perk anymore, because many organizations are casual every day.

The question is: does this have any effect on business? What does it say about an organization when they dismiss the traditional ideas of professionalism? Is putting away these ideas and embracing these new trends right for your company? Let’s take a look.

Why So Casual?

First, it’s important to understand why the workplace has become more casual in the last few years. A survey by OfficeTeam of Robert Half summed it up:

“Dressing up for work continues to go out of style.”

The survey of senior managers revealed that half of the respondents observed employees dressing more casually than they did 5 years ago. Many believe this is due to the influx of Millennial workers in the office, a generation that is quickly becoming the majority and setting new standards for the modern workplace.

Professional vs. Casual: Is it Black & White?

Despite their casual appearance and tendency to play games and partake in company happy hours, these characteristics don’t mean the modern office worker isn’t professional. They are still expected to have the same qualities of a professional on the job, including hard work, reliability, innovation, and respect for others. The difference is that they don’t always look the part—and they’re trying to have more fun at work. These days, work and life have begun to blur together more, and accepted ideas of what constitutes professionalism have changed along with this shift.

Not a Free Pass

Though many offices are much more casual than they were a few years ago, that doesn’t give employees a free pass on what they can wear or how they can behave. The office is still a professional environment, and Human Resources still needs to have a handle on what employees are doing. Several of the managers interviewed in the OfficeTeam study expressed concerns about the new casual dress habit: 32% of managers felt their employees “showed too much skin”. While opinions on dress code are fairly subjective, the point stands: where is the line, and how do modern companies draw it without creating unnecessary ire?

There can be other problems with this new atmosphere, beyond a few awkward conversations about dress code. Companies that have a very relaxed atmosphere, sometimes complete with kegs and games, are often part of the new generation of tech companies. Some have described this atmosphere as similar to a fraternity, which can alienate some employees, and prompt some inappropriate behavior. It’s not fair to assume that everyone has the same interests, or that everyone should be close friends. HR needs to be ready for these challenges, and mediate as needed. Protecting employees and making sure everyone stays safe is key to making a casual office environment work.

Cultural Values, Varying Office Climates

Obviously, a casual workplace works for many large companies, and has not stopped them from dominating in their fields (hello, Google). With that said, the trend isn’t right for every organization. If you’re trying to decide whether you should start relaxing the dress code, or start throwing employee happy hour every Friday, there are a few factors to consider. Yes, many job seekers, especially those of younger generations, often look for a more casual work environment. You may have an easier time recruiting with this atmosphere compared to the traditional office attire or the discouragement in office friendships. Keep in mind that cultural awareness is key when building a safe, causal atmosphere for your employees to thrive in.

However, if you work in a more traditional profession, or consistently have investors and clients in the office, a more traditional dress code and office setup might be better for you. It all depends on your company culture, values, and goals for the future. There are many perks to going casual, but you may find that this new atmosphere simply doesn’t work for your organization. Don’t force anything on your company—make sure it makes sense for your culture and your business goals. Want to test the waters? Start small—offer a periodic happy hour or extend to “casual Thursday” and see what happens—you may be surprised.

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