The shape of authenticity in the post-COVID workplace
People do better in a workplace that allows them to be authentic: the research has proven it for some years even before COVID-19, and progressive organizations have long encouraged a work culture that embraces authenticity.
Authenticity at work means that a person is able to carry out their professional responsibilities without feeling that what they do clashes with their personal values. It also means that they are able to express their genuine aspirations and concerns without being penalized directly or indirectly. And in the context of diversity and inclusion, it means that minorities are empowered to share information about themselves and express their identity without fear of professional or social repercussion in the workplace.
Now, COVID-19 has enforced authenticity on work to a greater extent than any culture, policy, or process could—simply because, now that people have settled into working from home, personal life and work image occupy the same physical space.
No choice but to be authentic now
One series of studies from the Kellogg School of Management found that feelings of authenticity derive from identity integration, or the compatibility of a person's work and non-work identities. COVID-19 and the exigencies of remote work have forced that compatibility on a great many employees through the soaring popularity of video calls. The undignified private moments of each other's lives—messy home environments, unexpected disruptions from family members—appear side by side with the professional persona that most people strive to project. One way or another, each person has had to come to terms with the merging of their two identities, and it has been made easier because everyone is in the same boat. In this unprecedented situation, most people need no longer fear censure by peers or even by bosses when the rough edges of their lives show.
As Deborah Woollard, Cisco's VP of HR for the APJ region, told People Matters: "A lot of the persona you create when you go to work and keeping parts of your life separate—when you are working in a remote environment, a lot of that is being broken down. And I think one of the great things about the current situation is that rather than trying to hide it, it gives our employees the opportunity to say: "This is me. This is my life."
That recognizance and tolerance of our own and each other's human failings is where authenticity begins. Mike Robbins, the author of "Bring Your Whole Self to Work," said: "For us to connect with people in an authentic way, we have to see and acknowledge who they are as humans, not just what they do as workers."
From tolerating image, to embracing values
Research on public policy, especially environmental policy in recent years, has found that changes in behavior drive changes in belief. The enforced authenticity of video calls—seeing and accepting the equally human sides of co-workers, bosses, and senior executives on a near-daily basis, for weeks and months on end—is the behavior that breaks down the belief in the importance of a conformity-driven persona and the need to separate the private details of one's life from work. It drives a shift towards increased acceptance of diversity: not only the gender diversity that many companies are working on, or the racial diversity that fewer companies have moved on to, but diversity that covers a much broader and more subtle scope. People caring for elderly parents and young children; people living in crowded multi-generational households; people whose cultural and religious beliefs might previously be private from their co-workers; and more. COVID-19 has made us accept the visibility of all these in a work context.
From there, it is not so far to embracing the individual identities and values of co-workers, or at the very least tolerating having them in the workplace. And there is already a strong case for doing so, with studies showing that greater feelings of authenticity at work are associated with ethical behavior, better performance and productivity, and stronger interpersonal relationships with co-workers and clients.
In practice, authenticity need not clash with professionalism
Sandra Henke, Group Head of People and Culture at Hays, wrote: "Professional authenticity is important, as authenticity itself is influenced by the context, culture and codes of conduct of an organisation. While we want to be fully ourselves, professionalism is an aspect you should always keep in mind."
The topmost quality of professional authenticity might, then, be simple graciousness. Expressed in the video calls that now make up the majority of workplace interactions, it would be the graciousness to smile in compassion at someone's awkward moment and then move on without dwelling on it, or to accept that another person might be distracted by factors beyond their control.
Leaders and managers undoubtedly play an enormous role in setting the tone here. Neville Vincent, the head of South Asia Pacific for cloud firm Nutanix, said from the perspective of a business leader whose team is facing these challenges: "As leadership, we have to be very respectful of that, very tolerant of the fact that maybe someone's child is going to put their head around the corner and appear on the camera—we have to accept that that is part of life, that we all have our personal stories."
With that, workplaces will also likely see a reduction in self-presentation. While it will remain necessary to curate one's speech, behavior, or emotions in some way, simply to make ourselves easier to get along with, the work persona will no longer need to be as divorced from the private persona as it has been.
From the way we dress and the accessories we choose, to the causes we are willing to openly show our support for, to the way we express our thoughts and opinions, there will be less of social norms, and more of genuine values. There will be greater self-disclosure, a greater willingness to recognize issues and speak up about them, and a greater willingness to admit fault or not having all the answers. People will be more willing to accept and give feedback, and to place and receive trust.
The change will nevertheless come in differing degrees
For some, more forward-thinking companies that already value authenticity, COVID-19 will hardly have made a dent in that aspect of their workplace culture. For others, it will be a somewhat larger shift: going from tacit disapproval of non-conformity, to neutrality because there is no other choice. And for some workplaces that simply cannot shake their reservations about individuality, or their lingering managerial paranoia over employees' work ethic, COVID-19 may actually force employees to put up an even stronger work facade than before.
But even for those workplaces that actively frown upon authenticity, there is a lesson to be drawn from how working from home itself has been viewed. Business leaders around the world, even those who had major reservations about WFH are saying today: it's not actually that bad, and some are even planning to continue WFH after the pandemic ends. As more time passes, even the more conservative companies may well come to hold the same view about authenticity in the workplace: it's not that bad after all.