How to bring your true self to work

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Heading back to the office may seem nerve wracking – and you might feel the need to put on a ‘professional persona’. Here’s why keeping it real could promise improved working relationships, productivity and mental health

During long periods of lockdown and working from home, most of us have experienced our fair share of Zoom embarrassment. From errant children appearing on screen to bad hair days and barking dogs, colleagues have glimpsed one another’s ‘real lives’ during the Covid-19 crisis – often for the first time.

Alongside this, the pressures of the pandemic – health anxiety, home-schooling and feelings of isolation – have pushed people to be more honest about their feelings with teammates.

But as workplaces reopen, how does this new authenticity fit with the rigid professionalism we might feel is required at the office?

Opportunities for openness

According to McKinsey, the current “reentry and recovery phase” provides business leaders with “a compelling reason to engage and strengthen overall connections with employees”. In other words, re-establishing a culture of stiff upper lips and hiding how we feel is not the way forward.

Arguably, this is unsurprising given the wider shift in working culture that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. What was previously an evolution towards hybrid working has been turbo-charged by Covid-19, with organisations as diverse as Ford, Google, PwC and Microsoft committing to the model long-term.

The approach empowers employees to split their time between the corporate HQ, home and a local flexible workspace, locking in the benefits of working remotely while retaining access to a central office where valuable collaboration can occur.

In itself, the adoption of hybrid working practices recognises the need for employees to balance their home and work lives more effectively, freeing up previously ‘wasted’ commuting time for family, friends and self care.

As we enter a new world of work, McKinsey says employers have “a historic opportunity” to “overcome the stigma of mental and emotional health as taboo topics for workplace discussion”.

For employees, it seems the key to success in this era of openness will be combining your best self and your real self while at work – wherever you’re based.

Small steps towards sharing

Even if you’re a leader, allowing the line between work and life to blur slightly doesn’t mean losing your professional edge.

Sharing a little more about yourself than you might have done pre-pandemic is an easy way to increase authenticity when you see colleagues face-to-face – whether this means chatting about your pets, family or favourite pastimes.

According to leadership coach Dede Henley, people “want to work for someone they feel they know well and trust. They don’t expect perfection; they expect honesty and openness”.

Henley is clear that “you can’t really get away with putting on a different persona for work – not if you want to connect with others in a meaningful way”. In fact, she says, a more open workplace is typically a more successful one. “Productivity and effectiveness are directly related to the amount of shared information in a team,” Henley explains. “People trust a leader they know well.”

Vulnerability and support

Traditionally, the ‘softer’ virtues of compassion and humility have not been respected in the workplace, but times are changing.

Being open about challenges you might be dealing with – whether personal or professional – shows bravery. Crucially, it also allows others to provide support.

In sharing your vulnerability, you give your teammates the chance to empathise. You are seen as a complete person, but you also get to see colleagues in a light you may not have considered before.

According to Mike Robbins, author of the book Bring Your Whole Self to Work, “we may fear that there will be repercussions from employees or coworkers if we don’t appear infallible” – but the connections that are forged via vulnerability “unlock greater creativity and performance”.

Robbins says: “Simple things we can do to be more authentic at work are admit when we don’t know something, acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake, or ask for help in a genuine way. All of these take courage and require us to embrace vulnerability, letting go of our need to be right.”

Avoid unloading

Brené Brown, author of The Power of Vulnerability is an enthusiastic advocate of sharing your personal experiences at work – but only if there are boundaries and they serve a purpose in a professional setting.

In an interview with TED, she says: “Are you sharing your emotions and your experiences to move your work, connection or relationship forward? Or are you working your s**t out with somebody? Work is not a place to do that.”

Brown adds: “We always have to interrogate our intention around sharing and question whether it’s the right thing.” The point is that ‘disclosure’ on its own doesn’t make you authentic: it can simply be a form of ‘unloading’ your worries on other people, which isn’t constructive.

Masking is miscommunication

To a greater or lesser degree, we all ‘mask’ occasionally: we say we’re fine when we might actually have a splitting headache or feel emotionally low after a breakup.

Ultimately, though, lacking authenticity on a daily basis means miscommunicating with the people around you. While others respond to ‘faked’ signals, their reactions won’t align with how you’re actually feeling or what you really need. The best way to build successful relationships – both personally and professionally – is to be honest.

Hybrid help

Finally, it’s worth remembering that while being authentic might feel easier via Zoom call, remote work can enable masking, too. Turning off your camera, discreetly dropping off a call or blurring out the chaos in your background are all ways of ‘hiding’ that aren’t open to us when we meet colleagues IRL.

The hybrid blend of at home, in office and flexspace working offers the opportunity to combine quiet, solo work with creative get-togethers at the corporate HQ or a local Spaces – meetings that will be more fruitful, the more open they are. Meanwhile, sessions at Spaces locations provide exciting opportunities for networking with like-minded professionals you may not already know.

Altogether, hybrid working offers more varied ways than ever to connect and bond with others. And by keeping it a little more real, we can all make the most of them.

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