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Navigating an Office Without Formal Processes

Harvard Business Review

You just changed jobs from a highly structured, corporate company to a much more casual environment. You may be finding that adjustment difficult. Maybe you’re wondering: Where is the meeting software, and do I really have to use this nap room? The Silicon Valley office with its pool tables, free-flowing beer, and hoodie-clad CEO is a cultural cliché, but many offices are becoming more casual — not only more relaxed socially, but also in their policies and processes. Zappos is getting rid of traditional management structures and even job titles. Netflix has done away with vacation and expense reporting policies. Adobe axed formal performance appraisals. If you’re entering such a company from a more rules-driven company, do you have to change — and how much?

What the Experts Say
Adaptation is the name of the game, says Amy Jen Su, a managing partner and co-founder of Isis Associates and coauthor of Own the Room.  “Part of performance success is understanding the culture you work in and being able to appropriately adapt to it,” she explains. “Working with the culture will affect whether you succeed at your job so it’s important to get it right.” At the same time, your new office values your skills — that’s why they hired you. The trick is to adapt without losing your confidence or what has made you a successful in the past, says Dr. Karie Willyerd, a senior vice president at Success Factors. You have to learn what works best in the new environment. Here are four principles to follow when navigating a new, less structured company culture.

Observe three key aspects of corporate culture
Since corporate norms might not be obvious at a more casual workplace, when you’re starting a new job, step one is to go into high observation mode.  Start by simply looking at when people are working. “Look at work time-frames — when people come and go, what times certain colleagues are in or not in,” says Jen Su. Then take note of how communication flows — is it virtual or face-to-face? Who are the pockets of people in these conversations? Finally, observe tactics of persuasion: how people get buy-in and how key decisions are made.

Identify effective coworkers
If you can’t figure out the flow of the office and you’re not getting the right players to collaborate on projects you need to accomplish, Jen Su suggests taking a particularly effective or long-tenured coworker out to lunch. Say something like, “I love how you got the whole team to buy into X. I’d love to hear about how that works here. Any suggestions or tips for me?”

Don’t underestimate the importance of office socializing
In an office with minimal formal policies and procedures, informal influence can take on outsized importance. “Relationships matter because they help bridge the lack of process,” Willyerd says. Skipping happy hours or holding back about your personal life not only makes you seem out of step; it also reduces your persuasive power.

If you’re an older worker or a parent, going out for drinks may not be realistic – or appealing. But there are workarounds. Willyerd suggests lunch events, because it’s the socializing that matters, not the after-hours margaritas. “Figure out alternative ways to get to know people personally and build relationships,” she says.

If the idea of emoting with colleagues makes you want to run for the door, stick to safer personal topics. “Kids and family are an easy one,” says Jen Su. She described a former client who would talk to other parents at the office about trying to find a pre-school for her three-year-old. If that still seems too personal, just having conversation about how you spent your weekend can be a way to connect without over-sharing, and allow you to be authentic without feeling vulnerable, says Jen Su.

“In a casual business environment, relationships matter and help to bridge the lack of process,” Willyerd says. “Trust and authenticity are key when decisions are made quickly without the time to socialize everyone involved.”

Introduce structure when it adds value
Adapting to a more casual office doesn’t mean giving in to inefficiency, however. You can introduce more formalized process improvements if they really help. Perhaps at your old office, meetings were always scheduled with Outlook. At the new office, a preference for informal discussions is causing endless email strings or constant interruptions, and you’d like to suggest implementing some kind of meeting software. Willyerd says the way to go about it is to show how your idea will benefit your new organization. “In a casual environment, you would not introduce a new process or tool simply for consistency’s sake, to make you more comfortable,” she explains.  “So explain the value the new tool or process brings to everyone. With a good story this week, you could be on Outlook next week.”

Jen Su points to risk management as an area where your new organization might welcome more formal processes. “If you notice that the casualness means there could be a risk to governance, or ethics — for example, the online security systems aren’t as good as the ones at your old workplace — it’s a great opportunity to suggest changes,” she says.

Be extremely mindful of the language you use, however. A constant refrain of “when I was at Company X, we used to…” will undoubtedly prompt eye-rolling among your new colleagues, Willyerd says.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Spend your first weeks in deep observation mode
  • Take an effective coworker out to lunch and ask her for advice
  • Be authentic without oversharing

Don’t:

  • Use your old company as a benchmark of how things ought to get done
  • Bring in practices from your previous employer just to make yourself more comfortable — only introduce them if they’re in the best interest of your new company
  • Lose your confidence — they hired you for a reason

Case study #1: Be selective with the changes you’re advocating
Margo Schlossberg is a marketing manager for a chain of auto repair shops – an environment she prefers to the Fortune 500 company where she previously worked.

Because her new firm’s project management processes felt disorganized, relative to ones she’d previously used, she tried to introduce her new marketing colleagues to a system called Basecamp. She sent out invitations to join, but they were ignored, so she backed off.

“It’s a work in process, and it may happen some day in the future as the organization looks to expand,” she explains.

She did succeed in getting her boss to use Google Docs, “which was a win”, and hopes to convert more people to that sharing tool.  She’s also keeping her eye out for situations in which she can explain the benefits of more formal project management tools. “I can only try to point out in a logical manner the opportunity cost of not using systems to be more organized,” she says.

Case study #2: Use a new process to build trust
When Austin Melton went from an old-school media company where he wore a suit and tie to a creative agency run by young executives called liquidfish, where jeans and sneakers were the norm, it was a bit of a shock, says the Oklahoma City-based digital marketing manager. “There’s a full bar and a keg at my office now. If I were in my previous job having drinks at work, I would be called into HR.”

But the biggest adjustment was getting used to how his new employer prepares profit and loss statements. “I was used to working closely with P&Ls at my previous job so I could stay on top of the department’s revenue and profitability goals,” Melton explains. At his new company, his boss simply keyed figures for the whole company into accounting software without breaking P&L down by department or forecasting for the next quarter.

Melton felt he had to create his own P&L to track his team’s revenue allocations, expenses and profitability, and set forecasts in order to make effective decisions.  At first, “the owner was a bit taken back,” he says. But ultimately his boss has been pleased with how smoothly his department was running. Department-specific P&L forecasting has not yet been implemented for other directors, but it’s been an essential tool for Melton because of the work his particular department does.

By taking the initiative to institute more formal processes, “I was able to keep my part of the company running smoothly and build trust with my boss,” Melton says.

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