When the “Casual” Workplace Is Confusing

Like most companies in the tech industry, Viget offers a casual workplace. It’s a big draw for full-time and internship applicants alike. After working with interns for a few years, however, I’ve learned that a so-called “casual” workplace can be confusing for young people starting their careers. That’s because underpinning the informality of our office culture is a profound professionalism that can be hard for interns to recognize. And it’s a professionalism that, for some time, I’ve felt reluctant to articulate because the very word “professionalism” smacks of a Xeroxed dictate emerging from the dusty HR office down the hall. But professionalism is alive and well in the world of tech, and it’s important for interns to figure it out.

Casualness at the office starts with what we wear. The casual dress code common to start-ups and creative agencies—T-shirts, jeans, etc—seems to defy the very term “code.” That’s, of course, an illusion; casual dress is as codified as formal wear and often inches toward formal (blazer plus jeans) for different roles at different times. When it’s time for a client meeting or a presentation, we start looking positively “nice” or “dressy” and, mysteriously, we all seem to know what those vague terms mean (though it’s arguably trickier for women).  Around here, we joke about “the elusive Vigesuit” because, in the right contexts, we’re glad to conform to traditional standards of professional dress—and some of us “dress up” from time to time even without an excuse. Understandably, the subtleties of these choices are hard for young people to pick up on because they require experience over time, which is exactly what they don't have. If they sometimes dress too casually, it’s more often for fear of seeming ludicrously buttoned-up rather than from a lack of concern altogether.

But our casualness goes beyond our clothes. At Viget, we enjoy the ping-pong tables that have become a cliché in our industry, although (tragically or thankfully?), we’ve passed on the indoor slides and the scooters. Our Boulder crew regularly welcomes a cute canine on site. When it comes to how we speak, behave, and interact with each other, we often describe ourselves as “laid-back,” “chill,” and “easy-going.” Spontaneous conversations are the norm, as are jokes, pranks, experiments, and play.

All this is to say that, on the surface, it looks like we’re mostly having fun most of the time. Many young newcomers get the impression that the basic, boring parts of doing a good job at work—like showing up to meetings on time, responding to requests promptly, and proofreading work—aren’t very important. But read past the gifs and jibes, and you’ll discover that our emails—including those mundane internal exchanges that set our daily rhythms—are grammatically correct and well-crafted. We prepare. We meet deadlines. We show up, and we follow up.  We treat each other’s work and time with respect, courtesy, and maturity.

So, if we’re all actually being pretty professional most of the time, why promote a casual environment in the first place? First, there’s some history to this: the tech world’s casual dress code has its roots in the post-war rejection by counter-culture programmers of the “suits” running the legal and government worlds (the divide persists today). Additionally, top programmers are relatively young compared to the leading members of other industries; if top talent comes straight from college campuses, it’s unsurprising that campus fashion trends come too. More significantly, though, casualness has also evolved into just one part of the messy and multi-faceted search for meaning that defines our contemporary understanding of work. Our hope is that, by doing away with formalities and dressing and acting like our “real” or “normal” selves, we’ll come to know each other better, establish more genuine connections with each other, and find more meaning in working with each other.

As a result, when this comes up with interns, I try to convey that we’re not talking about “casual” in the sense of purposeless or indifferent or low-pressure or sloppy. Quite the contrary. Our casual environment is effective only because, at our core, we maintain high standards of professionalism in our interactions with each other and in our work.

At the same time, when it comes right down to it, we’re not really promoting a “casual” mode of behavior per se, but an “authentic” one. One of the promises of our industry is that, in the best case scenario, the two merge. Judging by the popularity of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on sabbaticals, for example, or Elle Luna’s recent blog post (and countless other examples), job, career, and vocation can and should be the same thing. When they are the same thing, the logic goes, you find your work intrinsically meaningful. Doing your job is and feels like just being the person you truly are.

Whether this promise is merely a myth is open for debate. Either way, I find that, for most of us, especially at the outset of our jobs (or careers or vocations, or some combination thereof), “professionalism” and “authenticity” are at odds much of the time. If interns and young professionals find the two hard to reconcile with each other, that’s because they are hard to reconcile with each other. For most of us, building a career means we must learn to strike a balance between the two on a daily basis. There are times when we need to prioritize a more professional mode, and that means feeling less “authentically” ourselves. And there are other times when we need to prioritize “authenticity” at the cost of professionalism. Striking this balance takes a certain measure of experience and good judgement, which is why it’s understandably confusing at first. That’s also why we gladly welcome interns and young professionals onto our staff—to begin helping them get there.

Anna Lewis

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