It’s Time to Rethink “Professionalism”

More than a year after the line between work and home blurred, instead of expecting our colleagues to be “professional,” maybe we can allow them to be “human”

A few weeks ago in one of the many professionally-oriented Facebook groups I’ve joined or been added to over the years, a senior manager at a nonprofit organization posted a question that I’ll paraphrase here to avoid running afoul of the group’s privacy policy:

How do I tell my team to be professional on our calls and keep their pets off Zoom?

Within half an hour, the post had received more than two hundred comments, most of which can be summed up as: “You don’t.”

As anyone who has ever had a pet knows, the moment you vanquish them from a room is the exact moment they absolutely must be in that very room. If you think having your employee’s cat walk across their desk is distracting, wait until that same cat chooses to express his displeasure at being banned from the office by loudly singing the song of his people just outside the door as your employee is presenting your quarterly P&L report. If you’re worried your employee’s dreaming dog, visible in the frame, is distracting the rest of your team, imagine how much much more distracted they’ll be when that dog begins to mournfully whimper at the closed office door, convinced she’s never going to see her human again.

I would argue—as many of the commenters on that Facebook post argued—that seeing your colleagues’/clients’/consultant’s pets when you’re on Zoom is one of the only good things that came out of the sudden ubiquity of the platform. That little hit of dopamine we get from a cameo by Hans the Norfolk terrier or Chairman Meow the tabby cat is one of the things that makes these nonstop video calls a little more tolerable.

But there was another thing that the commenters truly took umbrage with: the original poster’s reference to professionalism, and the implication that the OP believed it was impossible for their team to act professionally amidst the distractions of a fuzzy (or feathered or scaly) friend—or, presumably, any other distractions at their homes. I’d hate to know how they feel about their employees’ children interrupting a call.

Decades of workplace culture have indoctrinated us with a very specific idea of what “professionalism” is. The 9–5 schedule, the dress code, the endless meetings (and meetings about meetings), and the belief that even though laptop computers and at-home high-speed internet exist, you could really only do your job at the office, no matter how long or miserable or sometimes downright dangerous your commute.

Before I was self-employed, the CEO of an agency I worked for remotely (a “privilege” grandfathered in when the previous agency where I worked was acquired) made it clear that they did not think I was actually doing my job and told me I had no hope of ever being promoted unless I relocated so I could be in the office every day and prove that I was actually working. Another organization I worked for questioned whether an employee whose doctor recommended they work from home two days a week was really only making the request so they could slack off. And I know more people than I can count whose workplaces wouldn’t make reasonable accommodations for them to work from home more, or shift their working hours, in order to make it easier for them to manage a disability or care for a loved one through a prolonged illness or navigate the challenges of parenthood.

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, though, it’s that literally none of those rules of workplace professionalism matter. Professionalism in 2021 isn’t about what time you show up for work or whether your interpretation of “business casual” is consistent with your company’s policy. None of that matters. None of it ever actually mattered; we just collectively convinced ourselves over the years that it did.

If you are getting your job done—if you are responding to important emails in a timely manner and meeting deadlines or quotas and producing quality work and treating your colleagues with respect—all while also balancing virtual schooling and an increasingly altered circadian rhythm and the collective trauma of a deadly pandemic, you are already being professional.

What the people who are insisting pets shouldn’t be allowed on Zoom meetings—or that you must be at your computer by 9 a.m. no matter what or that you should just pretend your kids don’t exist for eight hours a day even though their daycare had a COVID outbreak and they’re going to be home 24/7 for at least the next two weeks—worry about isn’t actually whether you’re being professional; it’s that the barrier between the “professional” you and the “real” you is crumbling and pretty soon they’re going to have to acknowledge you as actual human beings rather than cogs in a wheel.

As of this writing, nearly 20% of the American populace is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We are, somehow, ahead of schedule. That means it won’t be too long until we start having conversations about what a “return to work” is going to look like. And that’s also going to mean we’ll have to start thinking about what post-pandemic “professionalism” looks like.

Professionalism implies a certain degree of respect, and what could be more respectful than recognizing our employees and colleagues as whole adult human beings who have lives outside of the office—lives that may sometimes affect their work? What could be more respectful than acknowledging that some people are naturally early birds and some people are night owls and that maybe certain employees would be more effective if their workday started at noon instead of at 9 AM? What could be more respectful than making employees take vacation time to avoid burnout or giving them time during the day to take a yoga class or go for a run when sitting at their desks too long is literally killing them? What could be more respectful than admitting there is absolutely no reason they can’t come to work in jeans and a t-shirt 99% of the time?

I’m not saying we should return to our offices with a full-on anything goes, laissez-faire attitude. Obviously there are some behaviors that are never going to be okay in the workplace. Obviously if someone isn’t doing their job that needs to be addressed. But after more than a year of making it work despite <waves vaguely around> all of this, managers need to learn to trust that their employees to get their jobs done in their own way. They need to make work work for their teams, rather than forcing their employees to all comply to a set of guidelines and expectations that only exist for the sake of existing.

Until then, they can at least be cool with their employees’ pets showing up on Zoom calls.

Teller of tales—mine and others'. Eater of foods—cooked and ordered. Yoga instructor. Phillies fan. Former Texan.

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