Embrace the informal

The first time I coined the phrase ’embrace the informal’ was back in May when I was preparing a presentation and trying to find words to encapsulate our approach here. For the purpose of that presentation I used the phrase alongside a photograph of myself and (my Deputy) Ange’s legs and footwear. Well actually it wasn’t our legs but it may as well have been as its exactly what we wear most days – me in my brown boots and Ange in her Converse, both of us in jeans. Here’s the image:


The image later turned up in my 33 priorities Slideshare at the start of July and prompted some interesting reactions from many librarians, in fact the slide was commented upon far more than the 32 others, which I find interesting in itself.

The principal comment they made was that they could never consider wearing jeans at their institution and that formal business attire was an absolute requirement. Of course I accept that in some institutions there are firm ‘no jeans’ dress code rules and that therefore my encouragement to ’embrace the informal’ in this way could not be taken up, but I thought – and still think – this a shame and that a crucial point about an opportunity to make connections with our users and helping them to feel comfortable is being missed. I also feel that this is a rule that is increasingly out of step with the age we live in and, moreover, is not just about clothes, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Before I argue for a more informal approach I’d like to make it clear that I still wear suits and formal trousers as the occasion demands – meetings with senior management, dinners, receptions – and should I ever run a larger library service I imagine I would wear my jeans far less frequently (I admit that formal has its place when it comes to authority), however I know that myself and my team could have been forging quicker and crucially more ‘passing the time of day’ connections had we gone informal earlier.

You see, up until about 2 years ago I was still a card-carrying formal trousers-wearing librarian. I can’t remember the precise trigger to change, but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t a running out of clean work clothes situation! One definite factor was being around MBA students, faculty and fellow support staff who were predominantly wearing jeans, including – crucially – the Director of my business school, another was the sense that the boundaries between my work life and my personal life were blurring, partly because of Twitter and partly because of the fact that I was increasingly ‘on’ because of my smartphone. In addition there was the discovery – not Saul on the Road to Damascus, but still pretty revelatory – that casual, friendly conversations at work were bearing far more fruit than more formal encounters and that as a team we needed to start to take a more relaxed approach in order to create more and better opportunities for engagement. Taken together these elements made me quite suddenly feel like the ol’ formal trousers were, well, just too formal and no longer fitted with the image and outlook I wanted to portray.

2 years on I am quite certain that the engagement we have won with our user community and key stakeholders across the School has in part been due to the jeans and boots (or in Ange’s case jeans and trainers). We are an information and library service, we’re not the UN, we’re not politicians, or bankers. Why do we need to create further barriers to people coming to use our libraries?

OK, time for some facts. Concentrate.

Fact 1: Clothes don’t make you professional. In fact, some people hide behind the clothing they wear in order to feel up to the job. I may be kicking around in my boots most of the time but I’m still professional, perhaps more outspoken than some people, but still professional.

Fact 2: You feel more comfortable in casual clothes and this aids productivity. There’s plenty of research and studies out there, most notably in Harvard Business Review this year, which have concluded that companies who get the best results out of their employees have recognised that they need to be comfortable and relaxed at work and able to be themselves.

Fact 3: Just like pictures, clothes tell stories. Our clothes are important and very visual presentations of our personalities and outlook, without being able to wear what we want to express ourselves we’re hiding some very important clues and signals and as a result missing opportunities and hooks for connecting with our users. I don’t know how many PhD research requests have resulted from a brief exchange with Ange about her latest geek chic t-shirt, but it would be well into double figures for last year alone.

But wait, this isn’t just about clothes, or boots, or trainers, its about a mindset…

Here at Judge we have made a deliberate decision to be more informal in all aspects of our work, whether it’s through the delivery of more relaxed presentations, engagement with our users via social media funnies and zeitgeist-hitting stuff, or simply in our written communications. We took the decision to rewrite all our guides so that they sounded much less – quite honestly – bloody uptight and pompous, and have also sought to write for our blog/website journalistically with more casual turns of phrase.

All of this has gone hand-in-hand with an attempt to offer a far more realistic holistic approach to students, playing to the stresses and strains they experience during their time with us. Hence the introduction of DVD and fiction collections that have nothing to do with business but instead encourage them to relax and look after themselves and which crucially have also started conversations – and from there led to relationships and more effective use of both us and our business resources. Our pop culture plasma screens inside and outside the Information Centre – see the Game of Thrones example below – have also sparked conversations that we wouldn’t have otherwise had.


This more informal approach has made a real impact: because we have appeared less rigid and desperate, and instead, more relaxed and approachable – engagement has followed. And this isn’t just a feeling I have, its backed up by: an increase in the number of enquiries we receive; higher footfall; ridiculously good session feedback scores; and stratospheric overall service/team scores. Not all of this list is entirely down to us being more informal, but the approach underpins it all, ensuring deeper, more frequent, and more numerous connections.

Go on… ’embrace the informal’ today. After all there’s nothing to lose.



2 thoughts on “Embrace the informal

  1. Ned Potter says:

    Once more you have me wishing I was prepared to live in Cambridge or you were prepared to live in York. 🙂

    I really can’t agree with you more, and the crucial thing here is not to get hung up on the clothes aspect of it, it’s the whole approach. Regardless of how one feels about marketing and its place in the library world, only a fool would deny that communication is 100% essential to what we do. And communication works better on an informal level – formality is a construct, by definition it gets in the way.

    I can’t tell you how grateful I am to read someone else saying these things. I had a recent conversation about formality where I essentially had to spell out that it wasn’t that I didn’t *know* what the more senior person was telling me about formal communication, it was that I knew it and had made a strategic decision to ignore it, and would do so again. But most of the time my work are very tolerant of my informality because (of course) of the results of it, which are overwhelmingly positive.

    I am probably going to be blog about this because it’s got me so exercised but one last thing – sometimes formality is necessary, and there’s nothing the pro-formality brigade like more than to attempt to undermine your whole argument by pointing to one specific situation in which informality would be disastrous. But for me it’s not about aiming for a high level of informality per se, it’s about being at the informal end of any given ‘zone of formality’ in any given situation. It’s about being as informal as you can without becoming unprofessional or losing credibility* – in some scenarios that means still being pretty formal.

    *Losing credibility with *some* people is something I’m prepared to do – because the gains with the right people are worth it. We’re long past the point where keeping everyone happy is anything like a good idea – we have to inspire, and inevitably that means some people won’t like it. In my experience, they’re often the sort of people who don’t like anything anyway.


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