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How a relaxed culture can make a tense atmosphere

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

It was Saturday night in my favourite curry house and who should come in but a small group of people including a well know comedian from the T.V. This is a very low key establishment in the back streets of Birmingham  full of students and locals not an upmarket eatery. At first people take little notice and allow the party to order their food. But before they have finished eating a dinner approaches the celebrity for a selfie.

The celebrity is friendly, chatty and poses for the photo. However this is immediately followed by another request and another, there is now a queue surrounding the table. The party hurriedly leave. It occurs to me that the lack of restraint and courtesy shown by my fellow dinners has parallels with the modern work environment.

I didn’t  mind giving up my office and my reserved car parking spot. I  got by without a PA and I see the value of hot desking. I’m comfortable with the informality of first names but I don’t kid myself that I am seen as anything other than one of the bosses. And even though we may be hot desking with everyone else you can still spot a senior manager by their expensive suits. I recognise traditional  management status symbols just don’t go with the modern office culture. And yet I find myself concerned at the lack of deference across the organisation.

A relaxed atmosphere in the workplace is a good thing, good for moral, good for creativity, good for team work but have we become too casual, overfamiliar,  lacking in self restrain and courtesy?

The inexperienced supervisor or first line manager can quickly get into difficulty if they allow the relaxed team environment, the willingness to share a joke and “have a laugh” to lead to an over familiarity and too many distractions from the work. When the supervisor / manager tries to reassert their authority either to get individuals to focus on the tasks or to challenge inappropriate behaviour/language they struggle and a situation can escalate to a confrontation.

An experienced manager would retain a degree of separation and intervene  at an earlier stage to calm the atmosphere and keep people focused on their work.

Nevertheless the open plan office where a senior manger might occupy any available hot desk to catch up on their emails, is happy to chat whilst standing at the coffee machine and encourages people to call them by their first name should still be accorded the deference that their position and status warrants.

Highly visible and approachable senior managers who don’t seek the traditional status symbols to separate and isolate themselves from the general workforce send out a very positive message in-keeping with a corporate philosophy of engaging with employees and being more in touch, less secretive and more trustworthy. However this only works if employees show some self restrain and courtesy. Unlike  those  dinners in the curry house.

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