The crisis is making us more authentically human at work

A more human place of workLet the dogs bark, let the kid dance, admit that you are in the basement because your spouse is occupying the kitchen. It takes bravery to let the new reality shine. In previous circumstances, your dog starting to bark like crazy while you are on a work video call with the CEO of a company may have been mortifying. But now, instead, the shared reality of both participants working from home gives employees and employers the chance to gain a little more insight into each other’s lives.

We have long understood that authenticity is an important dimension for emotional wellbeing at work. It is cultivated by personal expressiveness — the freedom to be who you are at work as well as away from work. But, the reality is, in the office most people are still trying to present their best self at all times. It’s why we change our clothes when we get home. It’s why we make fun of “corporate speak” yet don’t stop using it. And it’s why we’re always worried about copying the right people into an email. We want to be perceived a certain way.

But now, people are taking calls with babies on their knees, partners are walking behind our colleagues during meetings, and we’re seeing living rooms and children’s bedrooms on video. It’s a whole new normal and a very different set of experiences.

We know people’s behaviour is based on what they believe, and what they believe is based on experiences they’ve had over time. For many people, their entire construct and belief system about work is being disrupted right now. We have to recognize that, and give people time to adjust. Changing how you work is one thing. Changing what you believe is another.

The first step to help people with this is observing the pandemic’s impact on employees’ lives and their work. This allows leaders to start identifying patterns – such as the stages of response to COVID-19:  disruption, experimentation, and new beliefs. These three stages, according to Steelcase, will lead to the humanisation of work:

During disruption, people quickly realise that the systems and beliefs they have in place about work no longer apply. They cannot keep projecting a perfectly professional demeanour while attending a video call from a folding table in their basement. It’s difficult to ignore the adorable five-year-old dancing in a co-worker’s background during a video conference. This disruption is exposing our imperfect and beautiful humanness. It provides a unique opportunity for all of us to let our guards down. It gives us a glimpse into the home lives of our co-workers.

The reality of this disruption leads to forced experimentation. Experimentation leads to new experiences and new beliefs. Much like trying to find a new route when encountering construction, people are trying to figure out the best way to navigate. There is much trial and error at first. It’s important during this stage to demonstrate your humanity and let people see your truth. Let the dogs bark, let the kid dance, admit that you are in the basement because your spouse is occupying the kitchen. It takes bravery to let the new reality shine.

New beliefs
None of us impacted by the pandemic have fully reached a new set of beliefs about work. However, when the pandemic ends – and it will end – we will have accumulated enough experiences to shift our beliefs about work and will begin to operate differently based on our new beliefs. What we stand to gain in showing our truth is a new respect for our shared humanity.

People’s needs are different depending on which stage they are in. But what’s especially interesting is there is a common need that spans all three stages — a focus on emotional wellbeing.