Watch: How to navigate the whole-self workplace

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Plenty of modern organizations claim they’re committed to empowering people to bring their whole selves to work. But how are they preparing their workplaces to handle it?

Our Nov. 10 Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop on how to navigate the whole-self workplace offered tips for crafting the policies, norms, management approaches, and everyday interactions between colleagues that acknowledge the full lives of employees. Our expert panel also had advice for balancing the needs of individuals with the needs of the business. Click the large image above for the complete replay, and read on for a recap of what we learned.

Our whole selves are not fully visible

Alida Miranda-Wolff, founder and CEO of the diversity and inclusion consultancy Ethos and author of the forthcoming book Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations that Last (February 2022), says she identifies as “a white-assumed, Hispanic, cisgender woman with an invisible disability.” She’s also a first-generation American, a survivor of gender-based violence, and a product of difficult socioeconomic circumstances. But only the very first of those descriptors would be plainly visible to a co-worker.

Other examples of invisible identities include whether someone is a caregiver, or depressed, or lonely—circumstances that, for many people, have had an outsized professional impact during the pandemic.

Should you share your invisible identities with your colleagues? “It all comes down to whether you feel safe,” Miranda-Wolff says. “If you feel you’re around people who will respect and value you as you are, you have a choice. This idea of ‘bring your whole self to work and be authentic,’” she adds, “is achievable in some environments but not all.”

If you’re comfortable, she says, name the identities that are resonant for you—just as she did at the start of her segment of the workshop. “When we name ourselves, it leads to a reciprocity exchange, so what happens is other people name their identities,” she says. It’s a good way to get to know colleagues—and to mitigate biases and incorrect assumptions.

Sometimes you just have to ask

At the 23:20 mark in the workshop replay video, you’ll find a raw moment: Your trusty moderator realized she hadn’t previously inquired about the pronouns used by Lisa Kenney, the CEO of the consulting firm Reimagine Gender, which made for a slightly awkward introduction of the panelist.

“I’m ok with any pronouns,” confirms Kenney, who is nonbinary. Usually, pronouns are listed with her Zoom username—but on this day, they weren’t.

The exchange drove home one of the key issues for workplaces trying to build gender-inclusive environments: “I don’t know your gender unless you tell me what your gender is,” Kenney says. Though it’s true that people named Lisa commonly identify as women, Kenney says, “the challenge is when we take those patterns and make rules out of them.”

If you do choose to ask someone about their gender or pronouns, explain why (for example, “I want to make sure I’m referring to you correctly when I introduce you in the meeting”) but also make clear that answering is optional. Not only are some people uncomfortable sharing; some might not know the answer themselves.

Further reading: What it means to reimagine gender at your company, by Lisa Kenney

Technology can tell us a lot about people

At SAP SuccessFactors, which sponsored the workshop, product design VP Scott Lietzke is thinking a lot about engaging with employees’ whole selves. His team is working on a “whole-self” model that, starting in 2022, will help companies understand more about the individuals in their midst.

Most of us are used to telling people about ourselves through technology on sites like LinkedIn, where we might catalog our work experience, skills, and professional certificates, Lietzke notes. But employers will soon have an opportunity to layer other kinds of data onto that. For example, personality and strengths assessments might determine the person’s communication style, learning style, and optimal work style. And then there are the employee’s aspirations, passions, and motivations.

All told, these things paint a picture, Lietzke says, “of who you are today and who you might be becoming.” But that picture “should be in your control,” not the employer’s, he says. “When and how you share and how much you expose of your personal self in the office is going to be up to you.”

An authentic feeling we’re all going to have to get a lot more comfortable with at work: Grief

Thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, “I think we are realizing what a grief-illiterate society we have,” says David Kessler, who co-authored two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, adapting the psychiatrist’s “five stages of dying” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) into a framework for grief more broadly. His 2019 book is Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

“Grief is one of those important moments to engage with people we work with; it’s really one of the most memorable moments they will have,” advises Kessler, who serves as “chief empathy officer” at Empathy, an app that helps people through both the emotional and logistical aspects of bereavement. “When you talk to people about loyalty to their work, they’ll tell you about how their manager called them, they’ll tell you about how the manager gave them time to handle all the phone calls.”

Kessler offers several tips for interacting with grieving co-workers.

Don’t ask “how are you doing?” This can be an absurd question to someone deep in mourning. Instead, add a time element to it: How are you doing today? How are you doing right now? Meanwhile, phrases like “We’re here” and “We’re so sorry for your loss” sound simple but they bear repeating.

Don’t dismiss their value to the organization. Sometimes when a colleague loses someone close to them, they are told by their boss or their team things like, “Don’t worry about us, we’ve got your job handled.” The intention is pure, but “sometimes it translates to people in grief [as], ‘Wait, you can just do without me?’” Instead, Kessler says, let the person in mourning know, “We’re going to all work together to cover your work, but no one does it like you.”

Skip the brightsiding. “At least they’re in a better place.” “At least they didn’t suffer.” Phrases like these are often unhelpful to mourners. In fact, “any statement that begins with ‘at least’ is probably going to be minimizing or judging,” Kessler says. “Sometimes it’s ok [just] to say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s heartbreaking; we’re here for you.’”

Help them establish boundaries. When someone comes back to work from a bereavement leave, have a representative of the company ask them whether they want to talk about the loss or not. Many times, Kessler says, “people will say to feel free to have people ask me on my break or when I’m in the lunchroom, but not when I’m getting ready for a meeting; it’s too hard for me.” Kessler adds, “As the person in grief, you might not actually know what you want until you get there.”

Let them use work as a distraction if they wish. When Kessler’s younger son died five years ago, he canceled everything on his work calendar. “I suddenly realized, a few weeks in, the worst thing I can do in my grief is have nothing to do.” With grief, “you’re not meant to stay in the pain 24 hours a day,” he says. “Work [can be] a helpful distraction.”

Remember, grief has no timeline. “The death of a loved one is not like a cold or a flu that we get over and move on from,” he says. Rather, it’s something we simply learn to live with.

Don’t ignore the reality. “The death rate is 100%,” Kessler says. “Every person we work with is going to go through this.

Further reading: The high costs of grief illiteracy, by David Kessler

How do companies balance their empathy for employees with the goals of their business?

This question, posed to the panel by one of our workshop attendees, encapsulates the struggle that even well-meaning employers are having with a rapidly changing work culture focused increasingly on the individual.

“Especially as we become more informal and social, it can be very difficult on both sides” to balance the needs of both the employee and the business,” Miranda-Wolff says.

As the employer, there are opportunities to clear this up. “Ask yourself this question: Does every single employee in my company understand how we make money? Does every single employee understand how our business is run? Because that’s your first boundary,” Miranda-Wolff says.  In onboarding—and in subsequent, regular follow-up conversations—make performance goals clear, she adds. Then the employee knows what it looks like when they aren’t meeting expectations, including when extenuating circumstances arise.

Adds Kessler, “We think many times that our boundaries must be held very securely.” But it often isn’t the case. “Maybe we do have to say to someone in grief, ‘The work has to be done,’ but [maybe] it doesn’t have to be done at your desk, on this day; maybe you can do some of this remotely, maybe other people can help you,” Kessler says. “What’s important is that it gets done, but I think we can maybe have a little more flexibility on how it gets done.”

For more Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop replays and recaps, click here.