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Leadership and Staffing

Changing Workplace Expectations

It wasn’t so long ago that we lived in a world without such convenient ways to communicate and interact with others in both our personal and professional lives. 

Mark Lanfear

It wasn’t so long ago that we lived in a world without the Internet, without social media, and without such convenient ways to communicate and interact with others in both our personal and professional lives. This was a time when classic etiquette rules still applied—when people cared about social graces—and when first impressions truly mattered.

Of course we all still want to be polite in our daily lives and to live by basic rules of decorum. But it can’t be denied that technology has changed the etiquette game in many situations. And in some sense, though the Internet has been around for about two decades, we’re all still getting used to a world where the way we interact with other people is often changing and morphing according to the new situations in which we find ourselves.

In the lab—as in most workplaces in the 21st century—we’ve seen etiquette dramatically change over the last several years, too. But it hasn’t changed in the way you might expect. I’m not talking here about the simple ways we find to be polite to each other while on the job. In a much larger sense, because workplace expectations on the part of both employees and employers have changed so dramatically, I’d like to argue that lab etiquette should now be all about knowing how to recognize those changes—and being able to alter our styles of management in meaningful ways to accommodate them.

It’s not surprising that the way we interact with our colleagues in the science workplace has changed, considering how dramatically the industry has shifted focus from a culture of secretive development to one of extremely open collaboration, often with surprising partners. This isn’t just because we’ve all become more “social” beings through technology. Real economic pressures in the last several years have meant that when it comes to small, niche labs, or even the world’s largest drug developers, we’re all having to produce more with less. Whatever the reason for this cultural shift, however, we are all benefiting: More collaboration will mean better development in the future as we pool resources and knowledge to create the truly innovative products that we are all so passionate about in the life sciences.

The cultural shift at work is the driving force behind the new expectations that workers have on the job. Time and again, in survey after survey, data shows that people aren’t expecting to come to work anymore to just silently sit and do their jobs. Even in the life sciences, where solitude has in the past been seen as a virtue, science professionals are opening up and wanting to better connect with their colleagues.

For instance, according to the latest Kelly Global Workforce Index, soft skills lead the pack in the types of skills that workers see as most valuable to their careers. In fact, 88 percent of responders from this global survey of science professionals consider cooperation and teamwork to be among the most important soft skills to take with them to work every day. This is followed by such skills as active listening, good verbal communication, and the ability to organize and pay attention to detail.

Those working in the sciences today also are very aware that they—not necessarily their employers— are the ones who will be moving their careers forward. So workers are now more attuned to finding opportunities to advance their skills on the job. But science workers aren’t just in it for themselves. They also want their work to be meaningful, and they want to be appreciated for the technical skills they bring to an organization.

It is crucial that we as managers stay on top of these types of things, which may seem intangible but are nevertheless very important aspects of today’s workplace. Especially in the sciences, managers can take this type of information, such as knowing that today’s workers highly value collaboration, in order to build a workplace culture that reflects these new values. The potential for building loyalty by doing so is high, and you may find that your best employees are willing to stay with you for the long haul if they know that their employer values their priorities, too.

By following these new rules of etiquette on the job, we will all be able to build relevant and competitive workplaces that are more open and sustainable— and that employ and keep the best people.