There is nothing like daily office attendance for teaching an employee how to fit in. That’s exactly why so many employers are fretful over the impact of hybrid and remote work on workplace culture, that nebulous term for the alchemy of knowledge exchange, human connection and organizational commitment that arises when employees interact with one another on a regular basis.
But fitting in is overrated. Too often, it means sanding off the rough edges that represent exactly where you can make the greatest contribution: Your unique way of framing a business problem. The life experience that gives you a radically different take on the challenge at hand. The tastes or aesthetic that might appeal to a customer your organization doesn’t yet know how to serve. A sense of humor that could diffuse the tension in the room.
In our effort to fit in at work, we may camouflage these differences, just because they make our colleagues look at us funny. In the autistic community, this is called “masking”: Learning how to pass as a neurotypical person, rather than exhibiting traits or behaviors that reveal you’re neurodivergent.
As the parent of an autistic kid, I’ve come to celebrate this kind of neurodiversity. By following #actuallyautistic people on Twitter and beyond, I’ve seen the creative, intellectual and interpersonal potential that gets unleashed when people stop wasting energy on trying to be somebody else. I’ve seen what’s possible when you just let yourself be weird.
Now’s the time for us to ask: Why can’t we be weird at work? This is the liberatory potential of remote work, and the ensuing shift to hybrid. When we spend at least some of our working lives at home, or in environments we have selected and shaped for ourselves, we have the opportunity to be our true selves—and then to bring those true selves to the office.
How can we make that shift? Here are some ideas:
Find out what brings out your best.
Treat your time outside the office like a personal research project with a singular goal: to find out what makes you flourish both personally and professionally. Pick a few indicators you’ll use to measure success, including some objective indicators like word count or sales volume, and some subjective indicators like a daily log where you track a couple of 1-to-5 scores like how productive you’ve been or how you feel at the end of the day.
Then conduct a series of experiments, ideally adjusting no more than one thing at a time, and giving yourself a week or two to evaluate impact: How do you do when you work with music on? How do you do on meeting-free days? How do you do if you take a 2-hour break in the middle of every day? What happens if you work outside, or if you work around other people, or if you work in your PJs? Push yourself to try some really quirky experiments—testing out environments or work patterns that really wouldn’t fly at the office—and see how they affect you.
Notice how you react to others.
Your response to other people is a great way to get a clue about where you feel the urge to break down some walls, or where you might need to push beyond your own comfort zone. If you see a colleague say or post or do something that makes you think, I could never get away with that—well, why not try it and see? (Crucial caveat: If the person who’s getting away with a particular behavior has race, gender or other privileges you don’t have, think about your personal and professional safety before experimenting.)
And if you find yourself getting irritated or outraged by someone else being weird at work, check in to see why that’s triggering: Are you patrolling your own behavior more than you really want to? Maybe your annoyance is a sign that you want to relax your own ideas about what you can and can’t do at work.
Create authentic connection.
Our efforts at staying “professional” can limit our ability to form genuine human relationships. I’m not saying you need to vent your messy post-breakup feelings in the middle of your weekly all-hands meeting, but maybe it’s okay to let your colleague know that your energy is low because you’re having a rough day—or to admit that the reason you just laughed at a weird moment in your call is because someone just texted you a meme. Think about the pieces of yourself that you keep hidden at work, and then experiment with letting those aspects of your personality show up in conversations with colleagues and even clients.
While you’re embracing your own weird, how about making it easier for others to be themselves, too? If you manage a team, or if you’re involved in hiring or onboarding new staff or clients, make a point of asking about the adaptations and environment that help people do their best.
This can start with a really simple question: Is there anything we can do to help you work and thrive? Then provide some examples of the kinds of things other employees have adjusted, so your team members know what kind of latitude they have: “Some people feel more comfortable keeping cameras off during team calls. Other people need an office with a closed door when they’re at the office. Some people work a split day, because they’re more productive in the evening.” If that provokes a request you’re not immediately willing or able to grant, take the time to consider options or alternatives (as well as your own reaction) before saying no.
Plan for weird.
Most of us have years and years of experience fitting into the conventional workplace mold, or fitting into the accepted forms of quirkiness prescribed by our particular fields. Sure, you can have a funky job title if you’re in tech; sure, you can talk about your psychedelic experiences with your colleagues in an activist non-profit. But it’s really scary to step outside the forms of nonconformity that have been modelled or accepted within our particular organization and fields—and it’s only when we truly step outside those norms that we can be our whole selves.
You can help make that possible by planning for weird: by creating specific spaces and contexts where you invite folks to step outside their usual comfort zone. Consider dedicating an afternoon or evening of your off-site to an activity that invites people to be playful and creative, like an improv class or a craft party.
So much of the time, we rely on the magic of booze to help people relax and let their guard down—but that comes with a lot of risks, and excludes the non-drinkers from the bonding. Finding booze-free ways to break down barriers and inhibitions is a lot more inclusive, and a lot more sustainable.
Why be weird?
Embracing our weird is key to unleashing our full talents, and our full selves. If working remotely helps us make space for that kind of weirdness, it’s not only good for our mental health and productivity: It’s also good for our humanity.
That’s what I realized when I read this beautiful blog post on the importance of accepting weirdness, which included these words:
The hard truth about autism acceptance that a lot of people don’t want to hear is that autism acceptance also inherently requires acceptance of people who are just weird….Like it or not, if you want to be an ally to autistic people, you’re going to have to…leave eccentric, weird people alone. Even if you don’t know them to be autistic. You shouldn’t be looking for Acceptable Reasons to be mean to people in the first place. Being respectful should be the default.
Accepting weirdness is that crucial to building a kind, inclusive society—as well as a kind, inclusive workplace. You can begin by accepting your own.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.