Communication is the root of all problems and all success. When it’s done right, things flow. How many unwritten rules have caused issues in your organization?

HBR shares areas you might have some that need to be acknowledged.

Every workplace has unwritten rules. If you’re on a video call with 20 of your colleagues, is it okay to turn your camera off? When you email your boss, do you include a bunch of emojis? 

During stressful times (i.e. right now), it’s good practice to write down the unstated cultural and emotional norms that exist within your team or company. They might have changed since you all started working from home, or perhaps they’ve never been explicit to everyone. You might know that it’s okay to take a walk in the middle of the day to clear your head, but it might not be as obvious to your colleagues, especially if they’re new hires. These seemingly small uncertainties (“Can I step outside to take a short break?”) can become major stressors. Combating them is crucial to helping everyone on your team feel secure and supported, especially in the current climate.

In our book No Hard Feelings, one of our most popular suggestions is to write an “It’s okay to…” list. We heard about the idea from the writer Giles Turnbull, who wanted to emphasize to new employees at the U.K. Government Digital Service that it was always okay to do things like ask for help, make mistakes, and have off days. He drafted a list, asked his colleagues to add other ideas, and then designed posters that he hung all over his office. His final list included things like “It’s okay to…”:

  • Say you don’t understand
  • Not know everything
  • Have quiet days
  • Ask why, and why not
  • Ask the management to fix it

Lists like these surface permissions that already exist within workplace cultures, but that not everyone is aware of or that people often need reminding of. Matt Reiter, director at World 50, a private community for C-suite executives, created a list with his team. “It was clear things had changed since my team started working from home but no one had acknowledged them,” he said. “There are things I know it’s okay to do, but that knowledge comes from my seniority and time at the company. If it’s okay for me to take a mental health day, it’s okay for you as well.”

Even the simplest reminders can lead people to change their behavior. Researchers at Google sent new hires an email reminding them that top performers at the organization regularly “Ask questions, lots of questions!” and “Actively solicit feedback — don’t wait for it.” Just listing that out helped new hires practice and develop those skills, increasing their productivity by 2%, an increase of about $400 million per year.

Given that many of us suddenly shifted to remote work earlier this year, we encourage teams to write Covid-specific “It’s okay to…” lists. You might include things like “It’s okay to…”:

  • Turn off your video if you need a break during longer calls
  • Shift your hours earlier or later to take care of family commitments
  • Have a child or pet pop into the video screen
  • Block off no-meeting time on your calendar for focused work

We’ve also heard of a few organizations in the U.S. that are creating election-specific lists ahead of November 3 that include items like “It’s okay to…” form discussion support groups, take the day off to vote, or ask for help prioritizing work if you feel overwhelmed.

Here are a few areas to consider when putting together a list for your team or organization:

Digital communication norms

Hopping on back-to-back video calls is draining. Be explicit about when people can turn off their cameras and when they should plan to have them on. For example, in small groups where you’re doing a lot of discussion or collaboration it may be important to have everyone visible. But at many workplaces, video calls have become the default, even for meetings when a phone call or no-video call would suffice. Or maybe your team agrees that everyone should turn on video for the first 10 minutes of a call to establish a connection, and then make it okay to turn it off for the remainder of the meeting. During the pandemic, business events organization PCMA created an “It’s okay to…” list to give their employees permission to dress comfortably and request a voice rather than video call.

We also recommend thinking through whether it’s okay to… have kids pop up, answer the door if a package arrives, or get up during a longer meeting to stretch or get a drink. These can all alleviate anxiety and level the playing field among employees. 

Emotional support

These are tough times. We’re not always going to perform at our best. Consider making it okay to have an off day, or to take a break in the afternoon. Beth Heltebridle, a branch librarian at the Frederick County Library in Maryland shared with us that she made a list with her Branch Leadership Team during their library closure due to Covid. Beth told us, “We shared our list out to build morale in these trying times, and have been sending it to new hires now that we are onboarding again. One of the hardest things is that our days look so different, and we miss interactions with other team members. Some of these ‘unsaid rules’ may be missed in our current situation, so we wanted to be sure to state them to new members and remind the rest of the team that our culture remains unchanged.”

The library’s list includes items such as it’s okay to… not check your email at off hours, say yes when someone offers to grab you coffee, ask for patience, and make space to concentrate.  

Psychological safety

New hires are the most likely employees to lack a sense of belonging and psychological safety. That’s why it’s especially important to emphasize to new hires that it’s okay to ask lots of questions and not feel like you know everything a week into starting your new job. Being remote makes it harder to get answers to small questions. And given the economic climate, many people feel lucky to even have a job or are terrified of losing theirs, which may make people feel especially hesitant to reach for fear of coming across as needy, slow, or annoying. 

But if people aren’t asking questions, they either aren’t doing their job as well as they could be, or they’re spending precious brainpower on worrying about how they are being perceived. These lists give permission for everyone to ask questions. You may even want to include specifics, like it’s okay to… ask questions, even if you think they are silly, or ask clarifying questions about questions you’ve already asked. 

Work styles

We often work with people who have very different work styles — think extreme extroverts, cautious decision makers, and assertive debaters. And often the work styles that gets most normalized at an organization are those people in power or in the majority. For example, if most people are extroverts, especially leaders, an organization may default to large meetings and collaborative sessions.  

You could use an “it’s okay to…” list to make people with different work styles feel more comfortable, emphasizing that they don’t have to adapt to belong. 

For example, you could make it okay for introverts to rely on the chat function in a video call rather than unmuting themselves and speaking, or to ask for more time when making an important decision. Briley Noel Hutchison, a program manager at Girl Scouts — Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, told us that her program team made it okay to be direct, have space for silence, and to follow up with people to help projects stay on track. 

As an added bonus, these lists can turn into recruiting tools. Giles Turnbull told us, “Several people said they’d applied for jobs at the Government Digital Service as a direct result of seeing the blog post about the posters, or of seeing images of them on social media. One photo of one poster became a powerful recruitment asset.” 

The act of making a list is a simple exercise that has positive benefits for new, tenured, and future employees — and allows you to reinforce your culture even when the nature of work changes. 

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