by Camille Gamboa, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Director, SAGE Publications
In a world where we take work meetings from our bedrooms, kitchens, and backyards, what’s the expectation for professionalism in interpersonal communications?
I have regular meetings with someone who works for the federal government who takes video calls with her daughter on her lap and doesn’t bat an eye. Yet, when I had to work with kids at home because of COVID exposure…and then infection (for almost all of January), I was very uncomfortable on the few occasions when my teammates could hear the rogue cry of my toddler or witness my 4-year-old jump into view. The consensus of my peers in the SAGE Mother’s employee resource group is the same: while co-workers seem supportive when necessity turns home offices into office-daycares, we can’t help but wonder if any of them are inwardly annoyed, frustrated, or worse.
COVID-19 has also ushered more open conversations about personal health, including (importantly), mental health and well-being. And this has shifted beyond the impact of the pandemic to include how we are holding up in the middle of political upheaval and – horrifically – war. It seems that we are no longer expected to pretend that we can easily and instantaneously switch from reading dozens of news articles about global atrocities to a meeting where we are happily going around the Zoom room chatting about our work week.
For example, while I still do not know (and may never learn), my team members’ middle names, I may now know that they struggle with social anxiety which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Or that what is happening halfway across the globe is causing them to suffer from insomnia. Or that their children take naps between 1:00 and 3:00 pm (which is when we hold meetings). This knowledge can help me give them the support and flexibility they need to succeed in trying times or even in the day-to-day.
Yet it is not always clear where the boundaries lie. When do any of us – with or without disruptive children/pets, at times of upheaval or peace – know we are crossing the invisible line from professional to inappropriate? How do we navigate those boundaries when they differ amongst professional industries with differing expectations, companies with distinct cultures, and individuals with changing preferences?
Having this conversation is important; if we are intentional about what we label acceptable personal-professional boundaries, we can create new opportunities for sensitivity, inclusivity, and empathy in a world (and a workplace) that needs more of each. For example, as mentioned in the Harvard Business Review, “Companies must hire people, especially women, who can … promote those who exude authenticity, inclusiveness, humility, and empathy.” Allowing emotional support to thrive – something that women leaders are particularly good at – will lead to better employee wellbeing and even a “competitive opportunity.” It can attract the right talent and be better for the bottom line.
As organizational psychologist Adam Grant tweeted, “Professionalism doesn’t mean suppressing our emotions. It’s about expressing them in a way that maintains standards of respect and skill. Professionals aren’t immune to anger, fear, or sadness. They just refuse to let these emotions compromise their civility and competence.” So perhaps it is OK that we let our emotions show a bit more in meetings, emails, and chats, and perhaps it is time that we stop thinking of emotion and competence as being mutually exclusive.
We should remember that women are held to different and unfair standards when it comes to showing emotions at work and that emotional norms are inconsistently applied amongst employees of different races. So being more open to the emotions we tolerate in workplace communications will foster greater inclusivity. Similarly, when children get sick, childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women and lower-wage-earning employees. So being tolerant of those childcare-related distractions – or better – accommodating and encouraging – will allow for a more diverse workforce to thrive.
Of course, this can also lead to challenges for managers who were never trained on how to support staff going through emotional trauma or for staff who aren’t sure how much personal information is appropriate to share (let alone how to share it). We have been professionally trained on many aspects of academic publishing and librarianship, but it might be time that institutional leadership invest in the training that will be required as we bring more of our ‘personal’ into our ‘professional.’
The ‘future of work’ – a very buzzy term – is being created by us in our present. And while the commentary on the limits of professional communication is dense, what is still needed is for us to carve out expectations in our own academic library-publishing space that allow for people from all backgrounds to thrive in a post-pandemic era. We can decide together that being honest about how we really feel (beyond the knee-jerk ‘fine’) is OK while calling negative attention to the distractions colleagues are dealing with at home is not. We can be confident that being more forgiving and accepting when conversations meander into personal topics that were once taboo will help our industry and not hurt it.
About the Author: My name is Camille Gamboa (she/her) and I’ve joined The Charleston Hub’s blog to write about all things communications. I am the corporate communications and public affairs director at SAGE Publishing, where I employ various communication strategies to brand SAGE amongst the scholarly community, media, policymakers and public. I also work with groups in the US and across the trans-Atlantic to demonstrate the value of social and behavioral science to those outside of academia. I have a Master of Arts in communication from Pepperdine University and a certificate for women and leadership from Antioch University. I currently reside in the greater DC-area with my husband and two young daughters. @CamilleGamboa
Thank you for such a personal entry. I know many of these thoughts and feelings have been a part of my day to day over the past 2.5 years.