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Founders Journal #2: Can you really bring your whole self to work?

“Bring your whole self to work.”

This is a phrase I’ve said and heard so many times over the last five years. 

It’s something I said to colleagues at Sanctus and it’s something I heard many businesses (and our partners) share with their own teams. 

It’s an aspiration. An aspiration for a certain type of workplace culture. One that’s open and safe, where people have permission to bring all the different parts of who they are into the workplace. From mental health, sexuality, gender, race, class – their whole self. 

Is that possible? Can it be done? 

Yes, and it will never be “done”. It’s not an end goal, it’s a journey. 

My reflection is that we can aspire to that and we can constantly reflect on how individuals are showing up in the workplace and organisations can constantly think about how their workplace environment makes people feel as the world changes. 

As an example, right now personal finance is a subject that’s top of mind for people, so how can businesses think about making their workplace environment safe and open to conversations about money?

We had a very very open culture at Sanctus with our early team. There was lots of vulnerability and lots of personal sharing. Most meetings would begin with a check-in of how people are feeling and once a month we would have open group spaces for people to share some of their feelings in their life at the moment, personal and professional. 

We broke down a lot of boundaries between the personal and the professional and we really did invite people to bring their whole selves to work. I knew more about my Sanctus colleagues than I did my own friends and family and felt more connected to them too at times. 

That made work a very special place and there was an incredible amount of opportunity for personal growth and development. 

I believe we had a coaching culture quite deeply ingrained, because of that. Where every interaction at work could be content for a reflection on who you are. 

“I’ve noticed you not speaking up in X meeting. I’ve seen this. My intuition tells me this.” 

We had a very intuitive, self aware group so the opportunity for personal reflection and mirroring from colleagues was very high. 

This meant people truly transformed at work. I have seen many of the Sanctus team grow and change in beautiful ways. 

Yet it also meant that work was extremely intense. And at times could feel quite boundary-less. One day it can feel absolutely invigorating to have a conversation about your mental health with your boss, another day it could feel exhausting. 

Over time openness and the blurring of lines held us back. If you start every meeting with a one word check-in on how you are feeling, what happens when someone’s one word check-in is frightened or anxious? Do you stop the whole team meeting to discuss that one person’s feelings? 

Or what do you do when someone is underperforming in their job? At what point can you as a business support their mental health or their development? If everyone is bringing their whole self to work and you are a family, then why would anyone want to leave? Is it a group of friends, or is it a business? These are some of the challenges we faced. 

A business is a business and not a family. Businesses can feel familial, but they are not families. And the world in which business aims to replace or be the only source of that sense of community and belonging frightens me a little bit actually.

I wholeheartedly believe in a world where we feel like we can be who we are at work. Where we can express ourselves fully in the workplace, if we wish. Yet I also believe in a world where businesses have clear boundaries that keep the collective safe and flourishing while achieving the primary purpose of the business. 

I think people and businesses asking themselves “do I feel like I can be myself here?” is a brilliant litmus test to keep asking. And you have to keep asking it. 

If you are going to invite people to bring more of their diversity to work though, you as a business have to be willing to include people and create rules and processes that support them. And, you have to be able to hold the accountability that work still needs to get done. 

I believe work can be a place for people to grow, change and heal. I believe we can create nurturing, supportive and transformative environments for people. I believe to do that we need certain support, skilled leadership and clear boundaries. 

I also believe people want to work in environments like that now. Where as well as getting the job done, they also have the chance to flourish as a human. 

The things I valued most about how we created the foundational Sanctus culture are:

– offering coaching to every employee as a private space for them to explore who they are. This is the bedrock of a group of emotionally intelligent, intuitive, compassionate and inquisitive beings. 

– creating space in meetings whether 1:1 or in a group for people to share personal stories and pieces of who they are that weren’t just what’s on the agenda.

– 1:1 relationships that went beyond work into friendship. 

I think with the first two in particular you can create an environment where people feel able to bring all of who they are to work. That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect at that point, but the invitation and opportunity will be there. 

Can you really bring your whole self to work? Yes I believe you can, for a moment, for a day, week, month or year.  Until something changes and we must ask that same question again.