Confidence is the hardest thing to develop and the easiest thing to lose, so it’s no wonder that many of my coaching sessions revolve around it. Whether it’s the confidence to say no or the confidence in our own beliefs and abilities, it’s a fragile state.
While it’s completely normal for our confidence to waver when faced with new challenges and disruptive changes, I’m growing increasingly concerned about the effect of the office return on women’s confidence.
In short: I think – if we’re not careful – we will face a post-pandemic confidence crisis.
There’s been a lot written about the return transition, and it’s no surprise that people are feeling wobbly about it. Things like being squeezed into smaller, shared office spaces; travelling on public transport; juggling commitments; and overhauling daily routines (again) are all preying on people’s minds. Not to mention the increased costs of being back in the office – that daily coffee from Pret, lunch on-the-go, and the costs of physically getting to the office all add up.
But the concerns and anxieties I talk about with my coachees aren’t just about the practicalities. There’s a real fear about losing the authenticity and confidence that women picked up while working from home.
Risks to confidence in the office
There’s a reason that old cliché – dance like no-one’s watching – is so popular. It’s because it’s so hard to be your true self around other people.
Women – women who’ve embraced a newfound authenticity in their leadership style and confidence over lockdown – have a fear of being ‘watched’ again when they’re back in the traditional office set-up.
They worry their ‘lid’ will go back on. Because in an open-plan office, people will overhear you, which ignites a fear of being judged. Under those conditions, women may start to censor their feelings and opinions. None of this is made any easier by how rusty we all are with socialising and seeing each other in person!
There’s an additional mental burden too. As people return to the office, they can’t continue the routines that worked for them at home: stopping for a proper lunch break, taking a short walk when they feel blocked; even doing the laundry between meetings.
Combined, these factors could drain the authenticity out of your female colleagues and managers. And when they lose that authenticity, a confidence crisis is just around the corner.
Lockdown allowed for authenticity
During lockdown, authenticity blossomed.
We had to be our true selves because there wasn’t any other choice. Nearly all of us shared vulnerabilities in one way or another: whether it was frustration at balancing work with home schooling or fears for shielding friends and family.
We had to be more open with our colleagues too. While we got used to wearing protective face masks, our masks of professionalism started to come off. We had to let our sometimes-messy lives spill into plain view. For over a year, people have quite literally seen into our lives: your kitchen cupboards, the décor in your spare room, your wandering dog (or camera-blocking cat), your disruptive child…
Essentially, we’ve shown more of our real selves.
And we’ve done this in our homes, where we could be our real selves. We had the freedom to express ourselves more genuinely, without fear of being overheard and judged.
Encouraging authenticity as you return to the office
The link between authenticity and confidence is incredibly precious. But it’s not just important for your people and their teams: it’s vital for your business too. If authenticity and confidence plummet, so will performance and results.
During this delicate transition stage, you need to proactively nurture that symbiotic relationship between authenticity and confidence.
Maybe you need to look at physical changes in the workplace, especially if you’re doing a full-return. For example, are there enough private meeting spaces? Or maybe consider staggering start or finish times, so people have the freedom to stick more closely to their WFH routines.
But above all, you need to work on building an inclusive workplace. You need to create a feeling of belonging and safety – a culture where no one feels judged – so people can bring their new self-awareness and authenticity into work. Whether that’s in an open-plan office or over Zoom.
Inclusive workplaces have an incredibly positive impact on confidence levels and let people be their authentic selves.
So, stay mindful of confidence levels among your colleagues and teams as people settle into new hybrid or full-return routines. Watch out for the ‘lid’ going on too much – and have those open conversations if you notice a change in someone’s online/in-person behaviour.
And spend some time thinking about:
- How can you help maintain the freedoms people have enjoyed?
- What can you change to let people bring their authentic selves to the office?
- Where’s your organisation lacking in inclusivity – and how can you remedy that?