While much has been written (or turned into a Saturday Night Live skit) about our new Zoom world, most of the articles have been written about the view of the technology capabilities or the productivity value of remote meetings. In this article, we highlight a very different phenomenon happening right before our eyes, the undressing of the corporate uniform.
For decades, organizational culture has had a complex influence on judgement, style and process for decision making and for that matter the environment in which key decisions are made. All of these are byproducts of the norms and values within an individual entity.
Oftentimes, these norms are just accepted as ‘the way we do things here’ and not questioned in any meaningful way. A common corporate example would be the business culture where beyond titles and deemed authority your external appearance (whether high end formal suits in an conservative environment or the most expensive jeans and sweater in a casual environment) creates unspoken expectations and plays a role in determining who holds the informal supervotes when it comes to decision making.
Dress and appearance have been very effective tools of influence. However, in the blink of an eye, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on these business customs and stripped away the cultural norms of how we show up at work.
Suddenly, a co-worker’s pet or baby is a frequent off screen participant in Zoom chats, and casual interactions with family are visible. It’s no longer safe to assume that your coworker is in fact, wearing a full suit and not merely a formal top with sweats. Once carefully groomed colleagues are pushing at overgrown bangs or sporting full beards.
It has the flavor of liberation, but the dizzying sensation of losing your footing. The unconscious influences of our decision making processes have been torn away abruptly. In their place, we are discovering a new world of potential influences and landmines/pitfalls.
In every video call we have participated in since the onset of the pandemic, there have been a few common observations. These observations create a potential new minefield of corporate etiquette and raise questions worth reflecting on.
How Do You Show Up?
- The role of the camera is a crucial variable. A certain number of participants will keep their camera off and go on audio only. What are the dynamics at play? Is it as simple as not wanting to be viewed as multitasking? Or something deeper like the fear of losing influence when not wearing the corporate armor and having the outward appearance that has brought a perceived sense of power or control? Is it a lack of authenticity or a signal of self-consciousness?
- The role of a background and the image it creates is equally important. Is the elegant, library backdrop with carefully curated books and flowers a sign of power and influence? Is the background now a part of the new corporate wardrobe? What is the significance and influence of a virtual background? Should organizations have standardized backgrounds or embrace the diversity of backgrounds employees choose to share?
How Do You Play?
- The presence of chat rooms shifts the dynamics of interrupting and side conversations. Are offline chats allowing a culture of speaking during meetings that may be potentially problematic? Do they foster group connections or the presence of “work cliques”?
- The ability to “raise a hand” is useful, but potentially serves to create a barrier to conversation, as well as a subtle signal that may remind individuals of being in school. Who answers or calls on the raised hands? Is the order based on the time of the hand raise, popularity or hierarchy?
How Do You Win?
- The size and length of the virtual meetings can play a significant role in the outcome and style of the meeting. While there is research on optimal meeting size in person, is that number higher or lower on a Zoom call? Should meetings be longer or shorter on Zoom? What is the best way to engage in pre-meeting pleasantries before jumping into the task at hand?
In highlighting our observations and questions, we want to urge caution toward the rush to conclusions. Instead, we suggest that organizations find specific ways to objectively evaluate if the meetings and norms within them are advancing the goals and culture of the organization, and create continuous improvement loops. While these online meetings are useful and necessary, it should be viewed as an additional tool, with its own set of limitations and rules. The undressing of the corporate uniform has the potential to unleash a new wave of leadership, participation and innovation that could bring more voices to the table and level the playing field. However, jumping in headfirst has seldom been the solution to sustainable success. The challenge for leaders today will be to answer these questions thoughtfully, in a way that creates good practices and influence that can in turn, build cultures and values that will sustain organizations through the transformative times.
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