Why your office’s unwritten rules aren’t benefiting anybody

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You might not be aware they exist in your workplace or you might even think they facilitate flexibility but leadership expert Kate Matsudaira says it’s time to address the issue of unwritten office rules and the effect they have on your company’s culture.

“It is better to have badly written rules than no rules at all,” writes Matsudaira, who says organizations that are ambiguous about HR protocol will only foster employees who are uncertain about company expectations.

Matsudaira hones in on the concept of unlimited vacation policies, which have been hitting HR headlines recently. It’s a tactic that might seem appealing at first glance but probe a little further and, according to Matsudaira, the idea is riddled with holes.

Firstly, even in the face of its ‘unlimited’ definition, there will very obviously be an unwritten expectation of what is reasonable, but how are your employees supposed to know what this is?
What’s perfectly rational to one employee might seem completely unreasonable to another and it’s inevitable that, at some point, somebody is going to feel short changed.
If you’ve hired a collection of avid travelers, you run the risk of continuous disruption as a result of leave and on the flipside if you’ve hired a team of workaholics you may end up fostering a culture where even one week off is disparaged.

Of course, plenty HR departments eschew fad benefits and embrace a more steadfast approach but “even if you don’t have unlimited vacation or other trendy-but-confusing perks, you absolutely still have unwritten cultural rules at play in your office,” asserts Matsudaira.

Consider the small day to day things that often get skipped over:
  • Is it acceptable to turn up a few minutes late?
  • Is it acceptable to delay team meetings at the last minute?
  • Can employees take shorter lunches and leave early?
  • Is it okay to work from home occasionally?
  • Can employees make personal calls during work?
It’s very often the unwritten rules that dictate the culture of an office, not the set-in-stone scripture.

So what can you do about it? Matsudaira suggests setting up a “what implicit expectations do we need to work on” meeting and addressing some key questions such as:
  • If someone new joined the company, how would you explain our company culture?
  • When was everyone’s last vacation, do you feel you can take time off?
  • How do you feel about working from home? Should it be made easier?
  • If you aren’t feeling well, is it better to come in, work remotely or stay at home?
Before asking and evaluating these questions, you need to decide what culture you want to create. A highly relaxed, liberal culture might work for one company but it’s certainly not going to work for everyone. 

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