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Folks, I work in a fantasyland.

When I enter the front doors of the software consultancy where I code, I usually do so in jeans and a hoodie. I walk past frame after frame of funky art into a kitchen area with a ping pong table. A large stack of puzzles and games sits on a shelf in the corner. A partly-finished puzzle takes up one of the eating tables. In front of the far wall, burgeoning shelves offer me popcorn, chips, snack bars, and nut dispensers. Our massive refrigerator stays fully stocked with soft drinks and Noosa yogurt. In the corner, we keep two taps from which I can pour myself unlimited free nitro cold brew or beer.

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I know that this is not unique in the tech industry: Narrative Science’s Chicago office has an inflatable, human-sized T-rex, and Google’s Chicago office supposedly (confirmed!) has its very own Killer Queen console. But to the employees of our enterprise clients, the workplace environment at Labs comes as a bit of a shock. Free food? And playthings? And Pivots who run amok with their tattoos in plain sight? Why, why is it like this?

Our guests often come from an environment where this doesn’t happen. And if anyone were to ask why not, executives might come back with an argument about professionalism. Alcohol in the office? Unprofessional. Tattoos? Decidedly unprofessional. Games don’t get the work done, people. And that outer space art? Ridiculous. And unprofessional.

It is easy to see where the fear comes from: people associate funky decor and goodies with places where people relax rather than work. But our office specializes in enterprise transformation: Our jobs depend on our ability to show our clients a new way of working. And we want to demonstrate to our guests that it is absolutely possible to have a professional, productive environment with all of the fun things that make our office so appealing.

To me, that means that we must be more than excellent developers, designers, product managers, organizers, and shit-sorters. We must be more than patient, willing, effective teachers. We must also be consummate professionals—consistently professional, in word and in deed, to an equivalent or greater degree than anyone our guests have worked with before. We must do the right thing, get work done, and be unfailingly kind.

And that is not human nature, and it’s difficult to do. 

Each instance of office drama,of unmet expectations, of unintentionally making someone feel unwelcome, in an instance we can examine for ways to be more professional. And every office has those instances, regardless of how formally its employees dress or how inoffensively tan their cubicle walls. If we can limit—and learn from—those instances in our consulting practice, we’ll be well on our way to becoming the consummate professionals we would like to be.

I’ve observed those instances for about fifteen months. It would take any human—let alone a whole office of humans—a long, long time to become perfect in this regard. But we can start with a few simple, memorable practices:

1. Good-Mouth

Speaking ill of coworkers to other coworkers usually doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t really argue that we do it because we want to help our coworker improve: if that were the case, we could take our feedback directly to our coworker, discuss it with them, and give them the chance to improve without getting other people involved. But sometimes we accidentally find ourselves gossiping with others about someone. It’s hard to convince ourselves not to bad-mouth people.

So instead, we can try doing the opposite thing. “Today I paired with Marcus, and I was really impressed with his knowledge of X.” “The other day, Emily really helped me out with Y.” When you good-mouth coworkers, all kinds of great things happen.

  • Our whole office gets viewed as more capable because of all the good things people say about other people.
  • People want to work with you because they know that you’ll say good things about working with them. By contrast, if you use someone’s plea for help with something as an opportunity to talk about their oversights or weaknesses,  people won’t ask you for help anymore no matter how much you know.
  • What goes around comes around, and people will start to say good things about you, too.
  • You don’t ever again have to worry about someone walking in on you while you’re talking about them.

2. Empathize

This one is harder, but it’s worthwhile. The idea: we have to understand that not everyone has shared our life experiences, and we don’t always understand what they are feeling or thinking. So, instead of assuming we know what someone is feeling or thinking, we have to make space for them to feel and think, and do our best to help where we can.

This is especially important for pair programming. “How do you not know this” is a classic example of a question that you might ask your pair partner, as a programmer, if you have put literally zero thought into the fact that their life, their learning style, their history, their experiences differ from yours in ways that you could not even imagine. That question also humiliates your pair, so please do not ask it.

Instead, listen. Listen to what people have to say. Acknowledge other people’s arguments as valid, especially when you disagree with them. When you are debating something, restate the other person’s case to show that you understand before you present your own case. And take the time and energy to figure out what another person needs from you—whether that’s encouragement, tough love, education, direction, or something else—before you try to give them what you think they need.

3. Follow Through

If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Do it in a timely fashion. Let the concerned parties know that you have done it, so they don’t get left in the dark on issues that they care about. Get back to people. If you give them advice and then realize your advice was wrong, update them.

Show up on time. Show up to meetings. Show up when people need you. Make time for coworkers who need your help. Let your team know if you’re going to be out sick or on vacation. Once again, don’t leave people in the dark.

By doing these things, consistently and mindfully, we can prove that, tattoos and all, we are capable of consummate professionalism.

And when we do that, maybe we can change people’s understanding of what it means to be professional to something much deeper than beer or tattoos.

Being professional is very related, in fact, to treating our fellow humans with respect and kindness.

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