Canadian Underwriter

Putting the ‘casual’ into business casual: Has it gone too far?

May 6, 2021   by Adam Malik

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Does your boss show up for a video conference in a hoodie?

How many times during the pandemic have you seen a cat stroll across the screen during a video meeting? Or heard children fighting in the background? Most have us have seen that viral video of the spouse who may not be wearing pants walking in the background of a business video conference.

Take these for what they are — moments that show we’re all human and have lives beyond our four walls of work, said Sonia Boyle, chief human resources officer at Gore Mutual Insurance. And we shouldn’t go back to the old way of doing things and pretend such things don’t exist in our colleagues’ lives, she added during the virtual CIP Symposium session The Decentralized Workforce.

“I welcome the fact that I don’t think we will go back [to the old expectations of video meetings],” she said. “I think it’s okay. I think the reality is we all are human. We have a life outside of work. It doesn’t make us less impactful or successful at work. In fact, it often enhances what we do.”

By that, she means it makes people appear more real. And many are embracing it. For example, staff may only know what their bosses and executives look like in business settings. Same for colleagues in other companies.

Others aren’t so sure about how casual things have become during our long period of working from home.

An article by the Society for Human Resource Management, for example, highlights the need for a dress code for remote employees. Companies, one employment lawyer suggested, should have guidelines in place to ensure staff who are appearing on video calls are wearing appropriate attire. Another employment lawyer noted that telecommuting dress codes should be applied consistently and outline rules around maintaining professionalism.

But seeing someone in a hoodie, or unshaven, or with a pet that decides to make an appearance, doesn’t preclude the possibility of having a good business discussion with that person, Boyle said.

“And that was okay,” she said of meeting with someone who didn’t look the same online as in a more traditional office setting. “It was actually fine. We still had a very excellent conversation and it was incredibly professional. It allowed us all to sort of just let our hair down. And I think, honestly, we needed that.”

Boyle thinks businesses have gone far enough across the line that it may be too hard to return to a point where everyone is more on guard. “I don’t think we will [go back],” she observed. “I think we’ve kind of crossed that bridge, and I think that’s okay.”

Jan LeRoy, vice president of human resources at Marsh Canada, agreed. She feels that a cat wagging its tail in the background adds some levity to the meeting. Everyone’s stressed out enough as it is in the current environment, she noted.

“I love when I see someone whose cat suddenly straddles behind their shoulders — very senior executives [who have] a cat or an animal [that] walks across the screen, or you hear a dog barking in the background, or a child comes up and gives her parent a hug,” LeRoy said. “I think, like you said, Sonia, it humanizes all of us. It gives us that moment of…connection and humour in terms of life. So, I as well hope we never go back to what it was before in that way for sure.”

Dr. Stephanie Fitzgerald, senior business partner of mental health at Rolls-Royce, told the panel a story of a meeting with an executive whose dogs started barking up a storm, all because Amazon was at the door with a delivery. It’s just a sign of the real life we all live, she said.

“We do have deliveries, we do have dogs barking. For me, I think it’s fantastic and certainly doesn’t diminish how I view anyone in that meeting,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just that human element.”


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