26 Feb 2023

The new informal

With the advance of hybrid working and the seemingly unstoppable march of social mores in the direction of increased informality, it is scarcely surprising that many of us find ourselves in workspaces where it appears that anything goes. We can wear what we want, choose our own work hours, brainstorm lounging over endless cups of coffee, and chat about work-related issues while we play ping pong or sip prosecco.

Many of us will be thriving in a more relaxed and congenial atmosphere and will be enjoying importing aspects of our home-based working lives into the workplace. But there is no getting away from the fact that – no matter how cooperatively your team works – workplace hierarchies do exist and must be acknowledged. Confusingly, many workplaces have moved on from the traditional symbols of authority – the boss’s corner office, imposing desk, dedicated secretary, well-tailored clothes. So it is scarcely surprising that employees can find it confusing when their boss is sitting at the next desk, wearing casual clothes and joining in the tea rounds and office banter.

Despite the collegiality and conviviality, you must remind yourself that you are answerable to your boss, that they have the power to promote or fire you, to assess and adjudicate you, award you pay rises or institute disciplinary proceedings. Your demeanour and commitment to work is being judged, so don’t be lulled into laxity or tempted to speak unguardedly, especially when you are in earshot of your manager. Informality can be very disinhibiting, but that can be perilous in a professional context.

Working in an informal atmosphere certainly requires employees to comply with the prevailing ambience – turning up in super-casual clothes, happy to hot desk, relaxing strict expectations about working hours. But it would be foolish to act less than professionally just because rules or expectations aren’t explicitly spelt out or enforced.

Informal workplaces are successful when hierarchies are recognised and respected but are implemented with a light touch and a minimum of rigid protocol. Hierarchies can introduce a certain amount of order and predictability, which will ensure employees are not left feeling lost or directionless.

Making Hierarchies Work

Hierarchies provide structure and accountability, but they can also create competitiveness, resentment and tension. If people are openly vying for advancement within a rigid pecking order, then you will inevitably find that there is stress and discord.

Many of these potential problems can be solved by the choice of who gets promoted. Many people rise to the top of an organisation because they are dominant, confident, vocal or charismatic, not because they have expertise and experience, which will make them worthy of respect from their colleagues. Choosing managers who know what they are talking about, rather than merely knowing how to talk, is the first very important step in building an effective hierarchy.

Teams will always work better if certain individuals are given areas of responsibility that they can own for themselves, creating a sense of autonomy and responsibility within the hierarchical structure.

If your hierarchy is essentially triangular, with a wide base of colleagues who enjoy the same status and respect, it will always work better. It will foster a sense of cooperation rather than intense competition to climb the ladder.

An accessible second-in-command, whose job is to mediate between the boss and the rest of the team can really help when it comes to office communication. He or she is responsible for liaising with top management, translating what is being said in the corridors of power, as well as reporting back from the ‘shop floor’, raising concerns and giving credit where it is due. This liaison and interpretation will ensure that workers feel they are being taken seriously and it will also help them to feel confident and relaxed about speaking up, suggesting new ideas and mapping new ways forward.

Remember, even in the most informal of work settings, the borderline between familiarity and overfamiliarity is very, very finely drawn, to be crossed at your peril. Tread carefully and use your social antennae. Pick up clues from other people and don’t appropriate a familiarity that you haven’t earned – that will come naturally by getting to know your boss and working alongside him/her. It would be naïve to believe that traditional hierarchies have disappeared altogether, despite appearances to the contrary.

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