There can be no doubt that the use of technology to do our jobs, do our shopping, interact with friends and family, or watch the latest film has accelerated enormously during the course of the pandemic. While there could be much debate over whether each of these advances are for the best, I think there is little dispute that most of these developments are here to stay – and that, as a society, we’ve probably accelerated a trend that was already on the horizon pre-COVID.
In the early days of COVID, we all went into crisis management mode and indisputably technology was a crucial faction in enabling us to find ways to make remote working practical. Now that we’re hopefully looking at the pandemic moving to endemic, I think it’s a good time to think about some of the more personal and longer-term implications of this massive shift in working practices and how that might impact on our colleagues and teams and the changing development and support they/we may need as a result.
One of my biggest learning points over the years is around self-confidence. As a teenager and in my early adult life, I wasn’t the most confident person in the world. As I’ve become older, one of the things I’ve realised is that most of us feel the same at that age – and that the feeling declines by gradual degrees the older you get (and that’s if you’re lucky!). In my experience, the older you get, the more comfortable you tend to be in your own skin. In my view the ability to be authentic at work and particularly in a leadership role is crucial. But I wonder just how authentic it is appropriate and helpful to be in this new world of remote working.
Friends and peers describe this experience slightly differently, but for many it seems that while growing up, life (and persona) was segregated by audience and that – for each audience – they would wear a different ‘mask’. Not literally, of course, but hopefully you get the point. Sometimes people would be a different person with their family at home to the person they were when socialising with friends, and that person would be different to the one they presented as in the workplace.
I think this challenge is now presenting itself more prevalently with remote working. Having a different persona at work and in our private lives is natural and can be perfectly healthy. So, with various lockdowns meaning that we have seen more of one another’s private personas than ever before – kids, pets, glimpses inside people’s homes and lives – where do we draw a line? Do we even need to draw a line? Is it more a matter of navigating a more complex landscape?
Has the rise of remote working meant that we are building great long-lasting relationships with clients and customers or have we been ‘oversharing’ and perhaps lost some of our professional mystery and ability to compartmentalise our different ‘masks’?
Being a remote working mum over the course of the pandemic has not been a picnic, although it has certainly involved some food-related disasters. I can, all-to-easily, recall many times when my home life came crashing into my professional world. Particular highlights include the time I was speaking to one of our interim managers on MS Teams and he kindly offered to call me back in 10 minutes, after my seven-year-old daughter burst into the room to tell me she had accidentally dropped a full yogurt on the sofa... Or the time when I was sternly shouting down the stairs that she absolutely must not unlock and answer the front door, happily thinking that I was on mute, but of course, I wasn’t…
A colleague shared the following story: ‘I was in a meeting with the leader of the council and elected members. I was confident, knowing that I had done my homework beforehand. I had ensured that I was the only one at home, so it would be a guaranteed quiet space. No sooner had the meeting started, than a delivery driver banged on the door, sending the dogs into a frenzy! With no-one else home, I had no choice but to apologise, step away and deal with it. Despite this sort of thing being the norm these days, it really knocked me off my game and took me a while to get back into my stride.’
We’ve all been there, right? But the above example comes from a colleague with years of experience under his belt and the confidence to brush himself down, stay true to himself and carry on. Would other colleagues have the steel and self confidence to do the same? I suspect the answer is variable at best.
Another consideration is the working environment. While some of us may have the means to dedicate a quiet working space, replicating an office environment at home as closely as possible by converting a loft space or building a trendy garden room, this isn’t a reality for lots of us. What impact does a less than perfect working environment have on our confidence to do our job? There are elements of home-working that cannot be controlled no matter how hard we try. The potential risk that remote working accentuates already existing social inequalities is something that is incredibly important.
As leaders, perhaps the onus is on us to help define what the new normal is by living it ourselves. Modelling behaviours that are new to us, too. Perhaps sharing our lived experiences with our colleagues and teams, ensuring that no matter what their ‘home office’ set up is like, they feel completely comfortable in the knowledge that the occasional slip from work persona to private life is completely acceptable and expected – and perhaps the need for different masks is a thing of the past?
What will the long-term impacts be of removing the usual barriers that exist between our professional and private lives and what will that mean for the workforce in the future? Maybe it’s too early to say for sure, but, if the digital age means we do have to grow our sense of self confidence and share more sooner and more frequently in our professional lives, support around confidence building will undoubtedly need to play a much more significant role than it does today.
Nicola Chiverton is a managing consultant for the Solace Interim Team