Every day, we use digital tools to communicate and collaborate with our peers. Some of them are so ingrained into our routine that we barely notice them. Collectively, they form the ‘digital workplace’ which — when successful — breaks down barriers between employees and clients, enabling us to do our best work.
As these barriers are broken, however, it’s useful to pause in order to ask why we break them and — perhaps more importantly — whether we should break them at all. We encounter a double-edged sword: while the employer gains value through greater connectivity and productivity, the employee’s identity, privacy and work-life balance must be respected. Work is a part of our identity, but when it encroaches on our personal life, how we build and delineate that digital workplace becomes critical. Well-chosen barriers become critical.
Digital workplaces aren’t just about technologies and tools, then: they impact employees’ self-image. In order to understand this, we have to look at identity formation, and the drawing of boundaries between work and life.
The intersection of workplace with identity
Fundamentally, our identity or self-concept is the sum of our understanding of ourselves. It’s the answer to “Who am I?” It’s personal (what makes us unique) and social (the groups we belong to). It’s based on where we live, how we see ourselves, and how we think others see us. It’s tightly entwined with the concepts of self-image and self-esteem, and encompasses our past, present, and future.
Consider this question:
“So…what do you do?”
We’ve all been there. At a conference or meetup, work is the primary lens through which others see us. It is part of how we see ourselves, and can lend social legitimacy to our lives. It is the first broad stroke of our picture, and that first impression is critical. Naturally, we want at least some say in the composition of that picture. That’s where professional identity — or “personal brand” — enters the equation.
“Work… [gives] social legitimacy to our lives. For many, it may be the principle source of personal identity, mediating the sense of being a valued person necessary for self-esteem.”
This is due to the concept of collective identity: the groups we belong to inform our identity and how we perceive ourselves. Furthermore, when we interact with others, we use schemas, or shortcuts that help us quickly process the world. In the absence of any other information, someone’s job or workplace will be used as one of those shortcuts to understanding and categorization. For example, someone meeting me might think, “Ivana is a designer. In my past experience, all designers have been extroverts, so she’s probably one, too,” or “Ivana works at Myplanet — they make great things, so she must be really talented.”
Our identity is a multifaceted thing, subject to context, and evolves as we navigate life. Our “personal brand” is our ‘work self,’ an image of ourselves that we present professionally, encompassing the parts of our identity and self-image that we’re comfortable sharing with our coworkers and supervisors. For other parts of our identity, more personal and intimate, we express them elsewhere. When the digital workplace begins to break down barriers between personal brand and our more intimate self, that’s when we can see negative impact.
Personal brand and identity: not one and the same
“What does a good life, and a good career, look like for a generation…whose personal lives are barely extricable from their personal brands?”
This question, asked by Molly Flatt, is central to this concept of work, identity, and online environments. Social networks and digital tools can become inextricably linked to this “personal brand,” and we come to rely on them.
Removing barriers as part of a digital workplace can be a good thing; allowing teams located in multiple timezones to collaborate seamlessly can only be helpful. But what happens when the workplace removes barriers we’ve set intentionally? Whether it’s startup services using Slack, Skype, and Google Drive or corporate offices with their own intranet, messaging clients and collaboration software — any tools that enable us to do our jobs better can now also be accessed on our phones and home computers. They demand our availability and mix with personal messages and photos. Twitter is a great example — Andy Welfle writes about his concern of overlapping the personal and the professional:
“But maybe I wanted to tweet a picture of my cat. Or maybe I wanted to rant about some political thing I had an opinion about… How does that fit in?”
This shouldn’t be a worry, yet, the potential “brand consequence” is enough to deter. Cody Delistraty reinforces this when he writes that “carefully curated information about yourself [used] as a means to a job and social prestige…does not even come close to describing who you really are.” The ubiquity and ever-present nature of workplace technologies remind us of this conflict between our work identity and our personal one.
The online world has long been a place where people could anonymously explore aspects of their identity without fear of consequence. But as a digital workplace becomes ever-present, it infringes on these communities. Keeping privacy becomes stressful. As a result, we may leave communities that we associate with our personal identity, for fear of jeopardizing the success associated with our work identity.
Susan Lin reminds us that brand and identity aren’t the same, saying, “Brands are edited. Brands have conversion goals. Brands are not people.” In conflating work and life, we run the risk of believing the ‘performance’ rather than our experience. This constant stress of a ‘personal brand’ at odds with our self-image (due to cognitive dissonance) is alleviated by convincing ourselves that that is who we truly are — otherwise, why would we expend so much effort constructing that image? As digital technologies (such as single-sign-on) try to collectively meld all online identities into one, we can become convinced that our identity is our “brand,” and nothing more.
What, then, does this mean for employers?
As Elizabeth Tobey writes, “everyone needs a safe space and for many, the kind of safety needed can only be found online.” Digital workplaces should be additional communities that help contribute to this safety, not compromise it. Kathy Sierra of Serious Pony says “we need more options for online spaces…where women — or anyone — does not feel an undercurrent of fear watching her follower count increase.”
The digital workplace is but one of these online spaces, and the creation of one that is safe and inclusive, but not intrusive, is no small task. Sarah Sharp has already written an excellent guide to building a diverse community, but here are a few starting points:
1: A hard stop
Workplace environments should expect us to exit them, physically and digitally, as we see fit. There are many forms that this expectation can take — that of a hard stop, or setting hours and keeping to them, or not having work applications on personal devices. But phrasing is critical. This doesn’t come by saying “we don’t expect you to answer work e-mail at home,” but instead, “do not answer work e-mail at home.”
2: Involve employees in the discussion
Consent is king here. Embrace intersectionality. The ideal digital workplace is a thoughtfully-created community that accommodates the diversity, needs, and desires of its inhabitants, and allows them to enter and exit at will, without compromising privacy. It understands what the technology demands of them, and the impact of those demands on work-life balance and privacy. Will it ask for other data, or expect them to ‘check in’ often? Are there any personal accessibility needs that they have, and how can they be accommodated?
To make smart choices, bring employees into the decision-making process. These discussions need to be honest, frank, and perhaps even anonymous. Employees’ hopes and reservations will help lay the digital workplace’s foundations. In giving employees agency, the workplace shows a respect for their identity and boundaries. Susan Lin asks the question, “every company lists work-life balance as a bullet point on their About page, but do they really mean it?”
3: Thoughtful choice of technologies and tools
What applications are we choosing to make up our digital workplace? What are the bricks on top of the foundations, and what are the long-term effects of their use? Are we going to build the tools ourselves, or buy them? Does an employee have to create an account with a service — and if they do, what e-mail or device or identity is that service tied to? Certain technologies, such as Gmail, are ubiquitous, and can be easily placed on personal devices, residing right next to personal accounts.
Again, employees should be involved in these decisions when the digital workplace is being constructed, or when they’re first hired — there should be a give and take. Each application is a new environment, one that employees are asked to incorporate into their identity in the long-term. Help employees build barriers where they need to be built. This is encompassed beautifully by Erica Joy Baker:
“without an environment that encourages being good humans, without leadership that champions empathy, kindness, communication, and compassion, all diversity efforts are for naught.”
Digital workplaces, therefore, shouldn’t just empower us to connect, but also to disconnect as well, and build an identity outside of that digital workplace. Our ‘work identity’/personal brand isn’t our whole self, and the digital workplace should encourage a balance. When this balance is achieved, we are all happier for it.
When it comes to the tech world as a whole, we can’t avoid certain performative aspects of our identity. We have a ‘professional self’ that we present to others, and work is a critical aspect of that. But there are other facets to us, facets that should not reside next to work on our phones or laptops. Employers can respect the boundaries of our identities, and show this respect in how the digital workplace and community is constructed — most importantly by involving the community’s inhabitants in its creation and maintenance.
Published by: Ivana McConnell
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