As workplaces change to adapt to the pace and characteristics of 21st century business practices, finding a foothold on personal operating habits can be challenging. On one hand, progressive, personalized, and idiosyncratic approaches are heralded as ‘the future.’ On the other, these traits, when unaccompanied by increased profitability, are ostracized as impractical and frivolous. The modern worker is caught between the desire to exercise and be recognized for their individual tenacity and creativeness, and the fear that these qualities might be met with disdain or, worse, professional repercussions.
This tango of ‘being yourself at work’ has become blurrier still as workplaces become diffuse and increasingly mediated by digital technology. How do we ‘be ourselves’ not just in person, but online? Do we pitch that bold idea via email? Do we look too eager if we replace the period with an exclamation mark?
These are the strange new frontiers of professionalism at work, and they’re growing. Between Gmail, Slack channels, and a broad range of social media, how we conduct ourselves is a constantly-mediated and always-watched affair. This adds to an ever-building layer of personal pressure in our work environments.
Navigating these quandaries can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Developing a set of skills and interests is just as important as enacting strategies for the deployment of those skills and interests. This means that, as workplace standards fluctuate, we can, too: we should learn to tailor who ‘yourself’ is to the needs of our workplaces.
At times, this might mean compromising on an idea or explicit vision for a project. At others, it might mean code-switching, or bouncing between ways of communicating with coworkers. The point of this isn’t to police personality, but rather to keep it attuned to the demands and realities of any given workplace. The loose uniform policy at your last office might not fly at your new one, but just because you’ve strapped on dress shoes and a button-up doesn’t mean your essence is compromised; it means you’re adjusting your presentation of that essence.
This is really the core of the issue: we tend to feel that if we give an inch, we’ve given a mile. This is especially true when it comes to personal issues. But for workers, learning to take these shifts in stride is a trick of the trade. Social morals and ethics are, in many cases, worth taking a stand over. Your right to wear your wacky tie to work is not. And one of these is significantly more indicative of ‘yourself’ than the other.
The key to this struggle is to recognize the fluidity of ‘yourself,’ and where it can and can’t be applied at work. You, as a person, are not being shut down when you don’t get to embody your preferred aesthetic. Instead, focus on the contents of your work: if the means aren’t your thing, is the end at least a product that reflects ‘yourself?’ In other words, it’s not about how many exclamation marks you put in an email. It’s about what you’re saying between them.