Do I Have to Play by the New Rules?May 25 , 2021

Q: Typically pre-COVID, I met in person with shipping or IT people, and everything was very casual. Because of COVID, we’re on Zoom and my sales peer joins. There is a very different “being presentable” standard. I feel like I have to dress up and make sure my background looks a certain way. I hate it and I feel like it gets in the way of my relationships. Do I have to play by these new rules?

A: I’m curious whether these new standards are “real” rules or just a change in the social script. “Real” rules are explicit and official guidance, often sent in a long memo from HR or spelled out by your boss in a performance conversation. To change them, you’ll have to tackle the bureaucracy (good luck). But I suspect these new standards are instead changes in the social script, those unwritten and unspoken norms set within a group.

Changing social scripts can be hard, but as a member of the group that sets them (even unconsciously), you also have the power to change them. Here are three paths you could try:

  • Role model the “script” you’d like to see. Experiment by showing your humanity with casual clothes or a real-life background. Use the more informal conversation tone you used in person. This gives others permission to do the same if they too don’t like the new script. Remember that autonomy isn’t always something you’re given; sometimes it’s something you take. Your experiment might result in someone setting explicit and official rules, but at least you’ll know what they are. And if no one says anything, you can enjoy your t-shirts and easygoing chatter.
  • Collude. Many of your more laidback contacts likely feel similarly about these new standards. Conspire with them offline to set a new social script. If you both go more informal or turn your camera off, it sets a new script for the more formal sales rep; suddenly she’s the one metaphorically facing the wrong way in the elevator, which is usually so uncomfortable that it induces behavior change.
  • Be explicit. This is a great tactic for those you have an existing relationship with. Say, “I miss the days we were more casual. Can we figure out how to go back to that, even if we aren’t meeting in person?” Share your Zoom fatigue and ask how they feel. People are often reluctant to start a conversation about “the rules,” but having someone else bring it up can be a refreshing and connecting experience.

For many of us, COVID brought a lot of change to our work lives (understatement of the year). Some negative changes aren’t under our control, but some are. Taking the time and effort to question and perhaps fix the pain points we can control is a gift to ourselves—and to everyone else who may be suffering around us.

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