Keeping the mask off: How to stay authentic as we move to hybrid working

By Kate Lafferty

Throughout the pandemic, face masks have helped keep us safe. But as one mask went on, another came off – we replaced corporate conformity with more authentic versions of ourselves as we worked remotely.

We’ve shared our home set-ups, children, pets and ’normal’ clothes through our screens, sparking meaningful conversations with colleagues that have built closer relationships. At the same time, we’ve had the opportunity to tailor our working environments to ourselves with pictures, plants and music. And we can fill short breaks with conversations with those closest to us, or eat the food we really enjoy that isn’t available ready-made on the high-street.

This new kind of authenticity could be why many are reluctant to return to the office and old ways of working. HR software firm Personio recently found that only one in three UK employees have returned to the office part-time since COVID-19 forced a national lockdown. Meanwhile, Bloomberg has reported that more than a third of US employees would sooner quit their jobs than relinquish the ability to work from home.

Why employers need to maintain this new authenticity

There are considerable benefits to ‘being more you’ – University of California, Berkeley has found that when we’re authentic, we experience greater wellbeing, higher engagement in our jobs, improved performance and more favourable career outcomes. And research by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that disparity between our work and personal selves makes us more likely to engage in unethical behaviour at work.

It’s clear, then, that organisations need to consider the effects on authenticity as we shift into varying shades of hybrid working. If managed well, this new authenticity could bring sustainable benefits to employees and their organisations. Getting the shift wrong will make these benefits a relic of the pandemic and could lead to a rise in mental ill health, a loss of productivity and organisations that are less attractive to prospective employees.

So, what can leaders do to harness the benefits of this new kind of authenticity as we move to new ways of working?

Evaluate your personal and organisational authenticity, and bring it to your processes and interactions 

As leaders, we must set the tone of being authentic and encourage others to do the same. Consider what you’ve shown and shared with others during prolonged home working and note the new habits you wouldn’t have adopted if still in the office. Write them down. Evaluate how each has benefitted you, and perhaps others, in terms of wellbeing, inclusion or productivity. Think critically about how you can keep these in place in an office environment or as you begin to work between the office and home.

By doing this as a leader, you’ll encourage others to do the same, creating a multiplying effect of authenticity at work.

And this can go further into organisational processes. Long before the pandemic, forward thinking animation giant Pixar introduced employee onboarding that, rather than show an entirely rosy picture, shared the challenges of its less successful projects with new joiners. By signalling their authenticity as an organisation, they encouraged employees to do the same, which led to more highly engaged and creative employees.

Have the courage to identify and tackle your ‘mask expectations’

Take time to analyse what expectations you put on your employees when they work, be it at home or at an office. Does a business-formal outfit help a client conversation or is it simply a cultural artefact of how work used to be? Research suggests that 61 per cent of people are more productive when the working dress code is more relaxed, which could explain why the likes of Virgin Atlantic, Target and even Goldman Sachs have made more casual rules in recent years.

You also need to consider your expectations for ‘at-desk’ presenteeism, and your structures and processes, such as appraisals and performance management. Are you promoting people based on certain, non-performance-related behaviours and, by inference, suppressing authenticity? Ask yourself what you’re prepared to change as a leader and as an organisation to allow people to be their true selves.

Re-evaluate what you mean by diversity (and inclusion) to support greater authenticity

Diversity is more than homogenous demographic groups. It’s cognitive or working style, personal circumstances, preferences and a host of other things that will have implications for the workplace, enabling technology and HR policies. Many of these facets of diversity have come to the fore as we’ve been able to be more authentic in a remote working environment. It’s important not to stifle that diversity.

Key to this will be to develop personas that reflect the broader diversity of your people. For example, the working parent requires different support to the graduate living in a cramped house-share. As does the introverted analyst to the extroverted salesperson. The clearer picture you have of your people and who they really are, the better you’ll be able to support them to work in a way that allows them to be themselves more of the time, with your organisation reaping the benefits.

Authenticity can deliver sustainable benefits, when nurtured properly

Whatever your plan for taking your organisation into the next phase of hybrid work, consider how authenticity may have benefitted you, your people and your organisation through the pandemic. And assess how to harness its benefits, sustainably, by evaluating your own authenticity, rethinking your organisation’s expectation and nurturing the full breadth of diversity.

About the authors

Kate Lafferty PA human capital expert Kate has worked with several public sector and private sector clients, helping organisations to prioritise wellbeing by focussing organisational structure, processes and culture.

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