After a long stint of social isolation and a sudden shift to remote work, it’s not surprising that some workers in our post-pademic world are struggling to hit their stride when it comes to navigating the often unspoken expectations for social skills at work.
This “work-force wide erosion of social skills” is significant enough to land on Gartner’s 9 Future of Work Trends for 2023. For example, Gen Z was hit hard by unemployment during the pandemic. As a result, they lost valuable time and experience in professionalization, leading to 51% of Gen Z employees feeling unprepared for the workplace. 46% of the same group also say the pandemic has made career development more difficult.
While this problem is not exclusive to Gen Z, their dilemma is a reminder that social skills take time and experience to develop. Considering the circumstances of the last few years, companies can no longer assume employees will be able to observe workplace norms and figure out expectations as they go. There might not even be a physical workplace to go to, compounding the difficulty of honing social skills through day-to-day interactions.
So how can companies respond? They need to be clear and intentional about what professionalism looks like under our new post-pandemic circumstances.
What is professionalism?
The definition of professionalism likely varies depending on who ask and where they work. That means that companies need to be purposeful in developing expectations for professionalism that everyone can agree to. James Parkinson, Head of Marketing Content at Personnel Checks, offers a general definition of professionalism as “the way in which everyone within the organization works and conducts themselves. It covers the way in which they communicate with colleagues, clients and third parties, and it covers competence and adherence to process and compliance standards.”
For example, whether or not to address clients by their first name or by their professional tiles falls under the umbrella of professionalism, or whether or not it’s acceptable to turn off one’s video during a virtual meeting. Unlike the well-defined hard skills employees need to do their jobs, social skills are the expectations for the “right” way to act and behave in a workplace environment.
Companies may have explicit policies and procedures that address these expectations, but this isn’t always the case. Without guidelines, employees may be unsure how to act in certain situations, leading to misunderstandings, miscommunications, and disengagement.
Here are a few tips for navigating what professionalism means at your organization from a position of leadership, and through the lens of social skills and communication.
Tips for Improving Professionalism
Communicate expectations for social skills at work
Managers cannot assume professional social skills will develop organically. You need to be intentional and mindful about communicating expectations, especially in diverse, multi-generation workplaces where perspectives on professionalism may vary.
Dr. Kyle Elliott, founder and career coach at CaffeinatedKyle.com, notes that “Employees bring different backgrounds and experiences that influence how they approach work. You can’t expect colleagues to hold the same definition of professionalism if you haven’t first agreed to a definition.”
Some variance in perspective is positive, which is why collaborating on a definition might make the most sense. For example, Gen Z is known for bringing attention to work-life balance and workplace authenticity, which has prompted us to rethink some of the less healthy concepts once associated with “good” workplace behavior, like around-the-clock work or saying “yes” to any ask. However, this prioritization of wellness can sometimes be misperceived as lacking work ethic or grit, possibly leading to judgment from more tenured employees.
Ideally, members of leadership should offer direction on how the company at large perceives professionalism (i.e., the behaviors that are valued and not valued from the top-down) while staying open to employee input.
Case in point…
At Joloda Hydraroll, some less experienced team members were struggling with their remote work schedule. The company responded by establishing a new guideline: everyone should log in to virtual meetings five minutes early to ensure an on-time start, as HR Manager Wendy Makinson explains. This balanced the flexibility employees enjoyed with a less flexible expectation that improved efficiency for everyone.
Model the right behaviors
Once you’ve communicated guidelines, make sure to follow through by modeling those actions for employees.
When managers and team leads model social skills at work, they “actively build the atmosphere” for professionalism, as enjoymondays.com founder Travis Lindemoen says. Lindemoen suggests that companies organize training around communication etiquette, ensure that everyone gets recognized on important dates (like birthdays and anniversaries), and be clear about virtual meeting room expectations, like muting your video when not speaking.
Build professionalism through a safe and connected culture.
Setting professionalism standards shouldn’t come in the form of onerous top-down mandates à la Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. Gartner recommends companies ground behavioral practices in “cultural connectedness” that help employees feel they belong and can contribute to setting the tone of the workplace.
Building a strong workplace culture that values authenticity and fun is one way to diffuse professional norms by building connections. This might mean kicking off meetings with casual conversations about weekend plans or personal announcements before getting to the main agenda.
Additionally, leaders who embrace being professional and being human can inspire employees to invest in their work and the organization. When people are invested, they are naturally more attentive to behavioral practices.
When you recruit employees whose career trajectory was upended by the pandemic, it’s important to provide training to help them brush up on soft skills and feel more confident in the workplace. As career coach Anna Belyaeva explains for Business Insider, “A hard skill is something you can learn on the job,” while soft skills like communication need more time to hone, including dedicated training.
This is where The Forem can help your organization level up employees at all levels through career advancement training. Our cohort-based training helps employees gain confidence, navigate their footing up the corporate ladder, and improve their performance, whether they are new to the workforce or experienced managers looking to upskill.
Want to learn more? Reach out to speak to someone on our team or schedule a live demo.