If HR is known for anything, it's certainly not for being permissive. But even that may be changing — in small ways, like dress code, and in large ways, like how work is structured.
This gradual shift toward a more casual workplace could be attributed to millennials and Gen Zers; that's the core claim of a recent New York Times feature on the topic and something most experts who spoke to HR Dive agreed with.
"Millennials should be called the bravest generation...because they collectively had the courage to ask for those things from their employer that every other generation wanted," Jim Link, CHRO of Randstad North America, told HR Dive in an interview.
But the change is deeper than that. Businesses have moved away from formal hierarchies to a more collaborative model, and everything — from the way workers dress to the way the office is designed — has shifted to accommodate it. In turn, HR has found an opportunity to take on a role as the office good guy, rather than the fun police, Amy Turner, HR department manager at G&A Partners, told HR Dive.
In other words, a more casual workplace may be just what HR needs to seize its seat at the strategic table.
While it's easy to pin the shift entirely on the whims of millennials and Gen Z, the change stems from how they were taught to accomplish tasks, Link said; "Even the younger millennials as well, all their lives they have been taught to do things collaboratively." Naturally, they then expect their workplaces to function the same.
But workplaces don't — or at least, they didn't. The traditional, "non-casual" workplace functioned on hierarchies where everyone answered to a boss who ultimately decided the direction a team or company would take. Younger employees instead lean on a collaborative work model that gives room for all members of a team to contribute their ideas and participate in important projects, Link explained. Via request — and thanks to examples of successful, culture-driven companies — companies adjusted their environments to accommodate.
"The whole idea of collaboration seems to occur more naturally in less formal environments," Link said.
Flattened hierarchies lead to fewer walls; employees feel more able to be themselves and, in turn, it "isn't so scary to talk to your boss," Turner said. "Those things have really changed."
HR departments may stumble if they attempt to judge this collaborative working style based "on older folk standards," Link said. "If you don't have that hierarchy...for people in more senior generations, it may seem too casual." But for many, it's just the way work is done.
What's in the way?
It's clear how entrenched certain norms are; Goldman Sachs, for example, made headlines when it relaxed its dress code, allowing workers to dress more casually — a move some dubbed "the end of an era."
Dress code is likely one of the more obvious flashpoints in workplace transformation. A collaborative environment encourages people to bring their authentic selves to work, and that includes personal sense of style, Turner said. Client-facing workplaces naturally balk at demands to work in jeans, but even those companies are beginning to spot opportunities to offer casual dress options, Indeed noted in a survey this past year.
"We're making a concerted effort to look like those people we want to have engaged," Link said of his own company's dress code. Randstad follows a "dress for your day" code, where employees are encouraged to wear business formal when meeting clients but otherwise are free to make their own decisions regarding what they wear. And managers, he noted, should set a good example by wearing casual wear when their days allow it. It's all about "collaboration, comfort and capability," he added.
"While I think it is generational, people are able to express themselves at work now," Turner said. Some workers will always lean toward a high aesthetic look; others may opt for sandals, jeans and a t-shirt. So long as everyone is comfortable and able to do their best work, that should be allowed, she said.
But dress code is far from the only change; the traditional 9 to 5 may be heading the way of the business suit, too. Better technology allows employees to work remotely, which has prompted some to question the importance of "face time" while at work.
Turner said her company has some people who have a loose 9-to-5 schedule, essentially getting their eight hours of work in at times that work best for them. A few years ago, "you would never see that," she noted, but with new collaborative technologies, workers can easily be kept accountable. "When I do that, it just creates this partnership and trust," she said.
Such a change may not be easy, but it's doable with careful planning. "Change can be a really uncomfortable thing," Leah Machado, senior director of HR Services at Paychex, told HR Dive. "You really have to evaluate how you are going to run the business when you can't necessarily see everyone."
Are the changes all for the best?
Today, remote workers can stay in contact with the office through video chatting, virtual work platforms and instant messaging, all while having their work monitored through time and attendance trackers. The very nature of Slack and other instant messaging tools borrows from 90's chat rooms and AOL Instant Messenger — inherently casual concepts.
"I can't [overstate] the significance of tech and digitization and how it has impacted engagement," Link said. "That, to some people, may seem like casualness."
The tech that's made work more casual has also allowed employers to cope with the new reality of a more collaborative world, Machado said. Employers are modernizing out of necessity; "what worked before may not work now."
But the dark side of this transformation is that employees are working more, not less. "Since the great recession, people have been taking on two or three roles and I don't know if that's changed," Turner said. Workers can constantly check on chat notifications and email, even while out on vacation; the ability to do so may even create an unspoken expectation. "Now we have this technology and we're able to be online all the time."
Ironically, without keen direction, a casual workplace approach may create rising stress levels in the office. But that's where HR can step in.
How can HR use this to its advantage?
In healthy organizations, HR is the bridge between company practice and workforce preference, Machado said — and even that represents a real change in how HR functions.
It's no longer just about discipline, but about finding ways to help employees improve, Turner said; accountability, feedback and coaching are the tools of a forward-thinking HR department, even in a "casual" organization.
"We've had to swing so far from being the police to being the advocate in the last 15 years," she said. "Even our VP calls himself our co-worker. You have to break through those barriers, and I think the casual environment has helped that."
Despite this, employers are largely still resisting the shift, Machado noted, giving HR an opportunity to establish the change as a business imperative. When people can "be authentic and be vulnerable, they can do their best thinking and feel safe to be the most innovative and creative," Machado said, all of which drives results.
The casual shift has forced HR to understand what drives people to work — but HR can use that knowledge to obtain a seat at the table with the C-suite.
"We have to know our collective strengths and we have to understand our CEO's vision and where we want to go," Turner said. "If we don't know the people and understand our needs...we cannot be effective HR people."