We’re living in a world with no off switches and our burnout is at a boiling point. Powered Down explores how the system has failed us and what we can do to find our way off the hamster wheel — for good.
When I first moved to New York City to be an intern at a magazine, I wore a lot of pencil skirts and neutrally toned eyeshadow. It took me 15 minutes to write a two-line email. The message had to strike just the right tone. It needed to say “I’m a smart, well-adjusted young person who is at your service and eager to learn — and I have moxie!” Make that “I have moxie.” Period. We do not exclaim. I would stress about whether to say “thank you kindly for your help” or just a simple, cool “thanks.” Back then, I was always frazzled on the inside, but I think I passed for (somewhat) professional on the outside.
Now, more than four years later, at “work,” I sit at home in my leggings with my hair in a messy bun. I type off-the-cuff acronyms — usually some variation of “lol omg” — on Slack in response to my coworkers. Meanwhile, when a long-time editor told me she was quitting, I openly cried and blubbered about how much working with her meant to me. None of this is what you would call “professional.” At least not as my Business Professionals Of America Club defined it to me in high school. And yet, I feel I’ve been more fulfilled and creative at work since shedding the corporate robot facade I used to present to my colleagues, and I have been on incredible terms with my coworkers, to the point that one minute we're talking about edits and then next discussing our families and the next debating to the death about the difference between a sauce, dip, and condiment.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to keep our jobs, the pandemic changed the workplace in so many ways — for better and for worse. And one of the unintended effects has been the beginning of the end of the workplace filter. Similar to but different than a workplace "persona,” (essentially a caricature of yourself, which you present to your colleagues) I see a workplace filter as that mechanism we use to strain out our idiosyncrasies and anxieties and emotions, leaving a veneer of humiliating-if-sometimes-essential “professionalism.” It's the verbal apparatus that allows you to answer the question "How was your weekend?" with "lovely, thank you" instead of "horrific, my dog died."
But all that has become harder to do when you’re at home, surrounded by your kids, pets, parents, and the “live, laugh, love” sign on the wall of your childhood bedroom that you should really take down. “COVID has challenged our belief system about what ‘professionalism’ is and how it works in the modern workforce, given that many of us are working from home,” says Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, M.Ed, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, whose research focuses on workplace professionalism. “It’s empowered people to think about how they show up — in general, and for other people — and to speak their own truths as employees.” Losing our filters, she adds, is one of the silver linings of the pandemic, as it’s allowed us to open up more dialogues about our personal lives and even mental health.
Nina Clapperton, 26, a contract law clerk in Ottawa, Canada, found this to be true. She’d long internalized the idea that she should always be the “most pleasant version” of herself when in the office. But, amid lockdown, she says, she had a “breaking point” moment and no longer felt she could button up all her emotions. She began answering people honestly when asked: “How are you?” She started talking openly about her mental health and going to therapy. One colleague told her they feared that, by talking about such topics, she might worry or put off her other coworkers, she says. But, for the most part, losing her filter has only made her feel more heard and understood while on the clock. “I have continued to create a work environment where I can be myself and feel valued,” she says. “I like my job better when I’m unfiltered.”
How real we get at work often depends on our relationships with our team members and managers. Ultimately, whether you’re “filtering” has to “start with how confident and comfortable and safe you feel there,” Ibrahim-Taney, who’s also the founder of Beyond Discovery Coaching, says. “Being your ‘authentic self' at work is something you have to come to on your own terms. Should I come out at work? Tell my colleagues I’m a mom? The answer to this has to do with whether you feel safe in doing so.”
Of course, the extent to which we feel comfortable depends not only on our managers and colleagues, but on the top-down workplace culture, too. The pandemic didn’t make deep systemic workplace issues disappear — racism and microaggressions are still rampant in the U.S. workforce. And, in some cases, people may have had to button up even more amid COVID due to toxic environments. For example, Amazon has reportedly used union-busting tactics and has considered an internal messaging app that would flag or block the use of words connected to working conditions and unions, such as "compensation,” “slave labor,” “restrooms,” and “this is dumb,” — which would effectively be actually censoring employees, as The Intercept reported. Amazon told Refinery29 in a statement: “This particular program has not been approved yet and may change significantly or even never launch at all. If it does launch at some point down the road, there are no plans for many of the words you’re calling out to be screened.”
And there are myriad other examples of problematic work cultures that make us filter ourselves to an almost absurd degree. I’ll never forget The New York Times’ “Work Friend” column by Caity Weaver, in which a woman from Texas wrote in for advice because she never told her remote business partner she was pregnant. She didn't want the news to delay a project. But by the time she wrote in to The Times, she’d already had the baby and felt it would be awkward to share her news — especially now that the child was starting to make noises in her Zoom background.
This was an extreme case of the pandemic causing someone to hide more of their life, not less. But the reason for this woman’s hesitation may tie back to ideas perpetuated by old school "professionalism," which was created during a time when most workplaces were Mad Men-esque boys clubs. Women and people of color didn’t have much of a hand in creating the "rules" of being a professional, which we now follow so carefully in the workplace. So, it’s natural and even appropriate that they’re dying off in modern times. Especially because so many of them can be arbitrary and even problematic.
Tayla M. Young, a customer success manager at the recruiting platform Hive Diversity in Chicago, IL, says that many of her early impressions of what it meant to be a “professional” were formed through media, especially TV and movies, which often didn’t center Black people as CEOs or in “white collar” office jobs. And that sent a strong message. “You’re taught to hide certain elements of your Blackness to fit in more or do more or sell more or see more, especially when you get into corporate spaces,” Young says. “It’s as though that’s the only way you climb the ladder. But now I don’t care about climbing the ladder unless it’s in a way that feels true to me.”
During the pandemic, the 27-year-old started re-evaluating the idea of what "filtering" herself actually meant. She was thinking through things like: “Why, as a black woman, you almost approach each day within professional settings hoping that your hair, clothing, and use of AAVE won't be weaponized against your education, experience, and knowledge.” Eventually, she says, she stopped “making my Blackness palatable. I stopped code-switching. I changed my hair to what I wanted it to be, without worrying What will people think if I show up with braids today and locs tomorrow."
After making these adjustments, Young started thriving at work, and found her coworkers to be largely open and accepting. “The pandemic forced people to have more compassion overall,” she says. “As terrible as it was in many ways, for me, in this way, it was liberating.”
But not everyone's workplaces are as accepting. Having to code-switch and “filter” out Blackness at work is a systemic problem, says Angelina Darrisaw, a career coach, diversity expert, and founder of C-Suite Coach. “For us to be more authentic at work, not only does it help relieve the psychological burden of being at work, but it also is an act of social justice,'' she says. “No one should ever have to code-switch their identity just to keep a job. You should be able to show up fully... But the fact is that’s not happening right now for everyone, and we have to actively work on driving change to make work a better experience for everyone.”
Darrisaw adds that some of the aforementioned old-school “rules” of professionalism need to be totally tossed aside. A lot of the time, a "professional presence" is defined by “how you show up, how well you speak, and how loudly you talk,” she adds. “But it is also possible to be a high-quality producer worthy of a promotion without being someone who’s great at public speaking. A lot of that is socialization. Women are socialized differently, and we can be penalized for not presenting in the way that has been deemed ‘executive.’”
“Professionalism should lie at the intersection of authenticity and integrity,” Young adds. “As long as you get the work done and do it well, that should be enough…. Showing up as myself should always outweigh what my hairstyle of the month is or how little I may choose to share with colleagues."
And choosing to share either a lot or a little can be tricky, whichever way you slice it. Corrine*, who’s in the marketing and communications industry and who asked us not to reveal her name, says that she lost her workplace filter a long time ago and thinks of her coworkers more like friends. She's in an office of all women. They often go to happy hours together and discuss their dating lives. At their holiday party in 2019, they all went to a pre-game together, took shots, did drugs, and proceeded to party all night at 1 Oak. “This was right before the pandemic, and we started a group chat with everyone from our table that night," Corrine says. "I don’t know how I would have gotten through COVID without it. I would have been lost.” She says at work, she’s an “open book.” and she likes it that way.
Well — most of the time. In any professional relationship, when lines are crossed, things can get messy. Corrine says if she ever had a problem with a coworker, she’d feel weird saying something about it because of the dynamics. And that’s the thing — when colleagues get too close and will just say anything to each other, there can be downsides. Cliques can form. There can even be inappropriate behavior and workplace harassment. There are some rules for a reason, and getting too close with your coworkers is a fine line to walk. Dropping the filter can be good, but if things get out of hand — especially in an environment where employers haven't made their workers feel safe — employees can wind up with “vulnerability hangovers,” a result of sharing something personal or intimate with your colleagues and regretting it after the fact.
In the end, Darrisaw says we have to ask ourselves: “Is work a ‘family’ or is it work? There’s a constant rethinking about what work should really be.” Ultimately, we spend the bulk of our time there, “and employees have a right to demand a culture that is fulfilling, inclusive, and equitable,” she says.
And, in general, “there’s usually a sweet spot between having #nofilter at all at work, and feeling like you can’t be “you” when on the clock,” adds Ibrahim-Taney.
Personally, losing most of my filter has led to some of my best story ideas. But, recently, I started thinking about the filter I used to apply and why. Was my newfound inclination to speak up about both condiments and my personal life... okay? I've decided — sure it is! It always makes sense to think before you speak, and I usually do, especially if it’s about something important. But, in a creative field like mine, censoring yourself can stifle creativity and relationship-building. Since I started bringing more of myself to work, I’ve gained some life-long mentors and friends, and have gotten to know more about my coworkers in a way I never thought possible when I was sitting at my intern desk, feeling like an uncomfortable outsider (if a very polite one!). I feel like I traded in my workplace filter for connection, and suddenly found my workplace soul.
But, as Ibrahim-Taney says, it’s all about balance, and figuring out what you feel comfortable with. The filtering "goldilocks" zone, if you will. I think I've come close to finding that, although I'll still throw an unnecessary “kindly” in an email every now and then.