The digital revolution has ushered us into a theatre where the stage extends into our living rooms, and the audience is always watching. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the context of work.  

In the pandemic-driven shift from office to home (and back again), the curtains between personal and professional lives have not just been pulled back but torn down. This has changed not only where we work, but how we work, and crucially, how we are seen by our colleagues. It also has radical implications for what it means to be ‘authentic’ in the workplace. 

Where the pre-2020 professional may have meticulously managed their work persona, the pandemic era has introduced authenticity by default, for better or worse. This collision of worlds invites us to question: In the blur between ‘onstage’ and ‘offstage’, which parts of ourselves do we bring to the virtual office table? 

Presenting our authentic selves

David Hume, a prominent Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, radically destabilised our notions of a consistent, singular self. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume argued that our perceptions are the only real things about us and that these perceptions are constantly changing.  

He famously stated, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” 

In essence, Hume’s view of the self as a ‘bundle’ of perceptions challenges the idea of a singular, unchanging and enduring entity. Instead, our sense of self is more like a series of fluid, dynamic experiences that are related but distinct, with no unifying core or essence. This perspective has had a significant influence on later philosophical thought, particularly in discussions about personal identity and the nature of the self. 

Given that for Hume, the self is a collection of changing perceptions, it might follow that our self-presentation is inherently fluid and adaptable. This adaptability might imply a level of control, as different situations or contexts bring different perceptions to the forefront, thus altering our self-presentation.  

Rather than managing a stable, singular identity, self-presentation for Hume may be more about managing perceptions, both internal (how we perceive ourselves) and external (how others perceive us).  

Hume also acknowledges the influence of external factors like social context and relationships on our perceptions. This indicates that while individuals might have some control over their self-presentation, it is also shaped by external circumstances beyond their complete control. 

Self-presentation on the new office ‘stage’

In 1959, the influential sociologist Erving Goffman explained self-presentation as how we try to control how others see us. Drawing on theatrical metaphor, Goffman, noted the different roles we play in front of different audiences. He also highlighted the importance of ‘backstage’ spaces – private areas in which we are free to drop any act without spoiling the performance.  

Current workplace paradigms, however, often involve catching glimpses of life behind the scenes. We increasingly perform our work roles immersed in the geography of our non-work selves while trying to create some separation between the two. Self-presentation in these new liminal spaces is therefore less straightforward than it might first appear and, again, poses questions about authenticity.  

Pre-2020, jokes about pairing waist-up office wear with below-desk pyjamas were largely targeted at newsreaders. However, the pandemic-driven move from office to home sent many of us hurtling into colleagues’ worlds like never before.  

The abrupt pivot to online meetings flung open virtual doors into our colleagues’ sanctuaries – spaces that were once off-limits to our professional personas. The sanctity and intimacy of the home, traditionally a retreat from the public gaze, became a shared space, albeit digitally, and often reluctantly.  

The unexpected cameo of a pet, the soft murmur of children playing in the background, or the occasional appearance of a spouse served as reminders of the complex lives beyond the professional facades we maintain. These moments, while humanising, also signalled a tectonic shift in our understanding of authenticity. 

As we continue to navigate this uncharted territory, it’s clear that our pre-pandemic understanding of privacy needs re-evaluating. The distinctions between work and private life must be redefined to protect the sanctity of both.

Employers and employees alike must collaboratively develop new norms and etiquettes that respect personal boundaries while accommodating the realities of our interconnected digital lives.

Examining authenticity

Identity curation is a core part of self-presentation, and we do it constantly. It is this curation that radically undermines claims of self-authenticity. In many workplaces, the move online merely highlighted ambiguities or inconsistencies in thinking about authenticity that were always there. 

The language of authenticity is pervasive in the workplace; it features in mission statements, company values and even competency frameworks yet is rarely defined by organisations in any meaningful way. 

The idea of an authentic self underpins the relatively recent introduction of the notion of ‘bringing your whole self to work.’ We have witnessed a radical shift from earlier 20th-century conceptions of workplace conformity and strict adherence to a professional persona that often required suppressing personal identities and emotions, to a workplace culture that rhetorically valorises the uniqueness of individual’s ‘lived experience’ and the expression of people’s unique perspectives and backgrounds in the workplace.   

However, it still begs the question as to what precisely constitutes an individual’s authentic self? And which modes of authenticity are valued over others?

Expecting employees to somehow just be authentic – a complex and debated concept in an era of multiple states of self-presentation – is therefore an unreasonable ask, whether offline, online or moving between the two.

Recent discussions on authenticity in the workplace highlight a complex landscape where the concept is both lauded for its potential to enhance individual well-being and critiqued for its unintended consequences. Hamilton and Almeida at the LSE Business Review point out that an authentic work environment can be beneficial to psychological health and performance outcomes, yet the narrow social norms of professionalism often limit who can genuinely express themselves without repercussions, leading to assimilation and code-switching​​​​. 

Furthermore, Hamilton and Almeida also found that authenticity can become a source of cognitive strain and alienation when individuals feel compelled to align with dominant group norms, which may conflict with their innate values and personal identities​​. This is particularly challenging for minority groups within organisations, as the pressure to conform can lead to psychological distress and inhibit genuine self-expression​​. 

Critiques also focus on the potential for a culture of authenticity to inadvertently perpetuate social inequalities, as those who cannot or choose not to conform to the dominant narrative of authenticity might self-segregate or face negative work-related consequences​​. Additionally, the pursuit of authenticity can stifle dissent and innovation, as uniformity of thought undermines the benefits of a diverse workforce​​. 

The call for authentic self-expression in the workplace must be balanced with a conscious effort to foster an inclusive environment where diverse voices are not just heard but valued. This requires leadership that understands and actively manages the dynamics of group identity, as well as a collective effort among employees to embrace and respect differences​​. 

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