The Pandemic Shifted Our Professional Norms

Written by
Autumn A. Arnett

Jun 10, 2024

Jun 10, 2024 • by Autumn A. Arnett

I recently sat through a very elementary presentation on executive presence. The presenter walked through appropriate dress and basic etiquette for a variety of professional settings. I was slightly annoyed that the presenter had chosen to spend so much time with adult professionals going over things I’d learned in my teenage-era etiquette classes and in real-time professional contexts. And then it occurred to me that, since coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the shift to mostly remote work, the blending of personal and professional spaces has likely meant a blurring of the lines of what is socially acceptable.

“Back in My Day”

In the early days of the pandemic, most of us still put on at least a collared shirt for our days filled with on-camera meetings. I had a professional decorator come in to design my office space and stage an appropriate remote-working background—one that displayed books related to my discipline (education), with the one I’d authored perched on top of the small stack, and photos of my family strategically placed to the side. The goal was to come off as polished, yet approachable—offer people a limited glimpse into my interests, expertise, and humanity all in a Zoom camera shot. And I paid similar attention to what clues about others I could glean from what was positioned behind them in their workspaces. It was an invitation to “step into my office” being extended both ways.

I silently gloated as my co-workers at the time commented on how orderly and quiet my house seemed—while they were struggling to wrangle pets and children on calls, mine were in their designated work areas in the house going through the new homeschool curriculum I’d written the first weekend of the shutdown before schools had developed an actual plan. It continued that way for months, with my home work environment very much reflecting my office environment—except with pale blue walls, carefully chosen to promote serenity and calmness, instead of the industrial white that existed in my former office—everything and everyone in its place.

Adjusting With the Times

Most people never got to the level of routine and structure I’d implemented as we all shifted to a new reality, though for the most part, people did try to at least present themselves professionally by getting dressed and applying makeup every day. (It helps that I am an organized, structured person anyway, and that my children had been accustomed to me taking conference calls from swim practice or in the car on road trips for years, so they knew how to conduct themselves when mommy’s work bled into our personal spaces.)

But as time continued, people gave up. They’d show up on Zoom however they happened to be walking around the house that day. They no longer made apologies for interruptions from spouses or children or pets, and instead, the occasional appearance of another head on screen became a welcomed part of the meeting experience.

Some of this cultural shift to blending the personal and professional spaces has been positive. People have become more sensitive to the human aspect of those they work with, as everyone’s families and home lives have become more visible. In some ways, it has become easier to juggle the responsibilities of children and aging parents, which don’t often fit into a neat tidy box, because people are more aware of what’s going on. Even in instances where people may not work with a person every day, I think we are overall more sensitive to the fact that people have other things going on, beyond what we can see in the little box at the bottom of our screens.

Bring Back Boundaries

But despite the good that has accompanied a large shift to virtual or hybrid work environments for many people, I still find myself lamenting the erosion of boundaries and the much more lax way of interacting with people with whom we are professionally acquainted.

Many people have stopped getting dressed for work. Today, we see even top executives in meetings wearing pull-overs or clothing that one might wear running errands on weekends. And while this isn’t wholly bad—it makes people seem more accessible and approachable and “regular”—the shift to more casual interactions also seems to have eroded boundaries. Accessibility implies an illusion of access, and in some cases, this has led to people feeling compelled to work around the clock to prove their productivity or keep up with the times their supervisors and colleagues may be emailing them.

Communication has also become much more casual, and many of the etiquette standards that used to be common knowledge in professional settings seem to have gone away—even in instances where people are interacting in person, some seem to have forgotten how to. There isn’t the same tendency to differentiate for different audiences, and there’s less deference based on position or credentials.