Learning to Adapt to the Changing Workplace

Confusion concept.If you’re fairly new to business, you probably fit right into your workplace. But if you’re a seasoned pro, you need to keep up with a changing workplace to avoid costly mistakes.

As an agency account manager, you may find yourself with a client roster that defies categorization. One day you will be working with a client wearing a business suit and tie. The next day, you may be visiting with a Millennial in a start-up where everyone is in jeans and the employees work in pods.

Changing the Rules

If you work in a company that is experiencing a rapidly changing organizational culture, are you learning to adapt in how you present yourself?  Maybe the company that hired you no longer exists as you knew it. You’re still around, but that could change if you don’t understand the new rules.

A notable example is Abercrombie & Fitch. The company did an about face from its reputation as a stodgy chain with dull sportswear for seniors to selling casual wear for Millennials. It’s risqué advertising and dimly lit stores appealed to a new consumer audience.

Its jeans-clad CEO’s marketing tactics about what employees and customers should wear irritated a lot of people, but the company’s revenues continue to grow.

Tune in to the Culture

The key to adapting is learning how to work within an organization’s culture. Culture is loosely defined as “the way we do things around here.”

The way we do things may include a very unstructured environment where ideas and innovation are the company’s currency. Just because a bunch of “kids” in sweats are tossing around a Frisbee doesn’t mean they aren’t deadly serious about the business.

How people talk, how they work, how they talk, how they dress are clues to adjusting your own behavior.

Confused Person Holding Sign Lost in MazeMaybe you don’t like answering emails in the evening. But for some creatives, that’s their most productive time. They come in late and work late. So you’ll need to adjust your schedule to theirs.

Of course, you need to establish boundaries. Discuss your client’s communications preferences – email or phone? – and come to an agreement on a curfew for exchanging information. Maybe it’s 9 p.m. That’s not an unreasonable request.

If you are with an agency, then dress appropriately. Toss your jacket and tie if the client’s dress code is casual. If your client’s organization is conservative, then dress accordingly.

In bygone times (read a few years ago), it would be considered disrespectful to show up at a client’s office in jeans and a sports shirt. But now your client at a tech startup might think you were condescending if you wore a business suit to show them how to dress.

Do Advance Planning

On the other hand, it’s smart to check first. If a prospect has an administrative assistant, call ahead to inquire about the dress code. One agency once went out to pitch a west coast tech company. The agency people all dressed down but the client team dressed up as the “New Yorkers were coming.” Oops. They didn’t get the business.

Another agency was pitching Bermuda and decided to wear Bermuda shorts to the pitch. The Bermudians were offended that they didn’t wear business attire and the agency did not win the business either.

Gender matters too. Years ago an advertising agency was pitching one of the “Big 3” Detroit auto manufacturers. A woman headed the company’s advertising. The agency didn’t get the business. Advertising Age quoted the client who said that one reason was because the agency team consisted of six men and no women. That was insensitive and women buy cars, too.

Some Things Never Change

While the workplace may have changed dramatically in recent years – the virtual office, business casual, 24/7, email instead of face-to-face — some things never change.

  • Show Respect. While the language we use and the communications channels may have changed, it’s always correct to show respect for others. It’s still disrespectful to be late for a meeting or make remarks that reflect poorly on your boss, client or co-workers.
  • Be prepared.  Be sure the plans you’re asked to develop for a new initiative are complete. Know the key messages you want to communicate. Don’t submit an incomplete assignment to your boss or client.
  • Offer to help. We all have a responsibility to pitch in on a project where we have the knowledge to add value. Mentoring young professionals on the way up is not only the right thing to do, it is personally rewarding.
  • Be kind. Many people feel the Internet has given them license to say whatever they want, even if it hurts others. Be kind to your peers and clients. Backstabbing is never in style.
  • Say “thank you.” None of us has advanced in our careers without the help of others. Do you regularly thank people for small favors? Are you appreciative of the gifts of knowledge you’ve received? Extending a sincere thank you is only good manners.

Have you adapted to the changes in organizational culture? What have you found to be the biggest problems in adjusting to the new rules about how things are done now?

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