Is Formality Toxic?
Business is traditionally a fairly formal sphere of life. You send letters with specific salutations you wouldn't use for your neighbor at a barbecue, you wear a suit, you mind your manners, and you watch what you say.
But in a new generation of tech companies, formality is breaking down--just think of Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodies and the explosion in flat organizations. Is this all for the better? And is there any place for formality in your small business?
The folks at 37signals, makers of Campfire and other collaboration tools, for one are absolutely thrilled about the erosion of formality in business culture. The company blog, Signal vs Noise, recently ran a post celebrating the decline of formality in the workplace:
Formality is like a virus that infects the productive tissue of an organization. The symptoms are stiffness, stuffiness, and inflexibility--its origin never with those who do but with those that don't.
When did you last hear a programmer or designer clamor to wear a suit to work? The order always come from the executives (followed shortly by a request for those TPS reports!).
Formality is more than a dress code, of course. It infects how people talk, write, and interact. It eats through all the edges and the individuality, leaving only the square behind. In other words, it’s all about posture, not productivity.
And once you place being proper above getting great work done, it's unlikely that you'll attract the best and most creative minds to work for you.
"There's never been less mental mask switching between work and play. We wear the same clothes, use the same technology. It's a liberation of the mind and it's the new world order," concludes the exultant post.
Formality is certainly out of style, with "suit" becoming synonymous with a square, utterly unhip person. This reflects both the amazing success and trendiness of the tech sector, where innovation and smarts drive growth and no one wins by standardization, routine, or holding chaos in check. But if there was really no place for formality in business, why did it arise, and how did it survive for so long?
Sure, radical innovation and formality seem like natural enemies, but could formality have its uses in businesses that aren't trying to reinvent the wheel but are instead trying to maintain consistent excellence in less sexy and newfangled industries? The days of calling your boss Mr. So-and-So and leaving him to luxuriate in his glass-walled corner office cocoon are probably rightfully over, but are there times when keeping your personal life at a distance and your impulses locked within strict procedures--perhaps when making finely honed physical products that require precision and excellence, say, or attempting to keep up customer service--might be useful?
Is there any place for formality in your business?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.