In a previous job I was involved a bit with the preoccupation around identity, especially in an international context: how is our identity shaped or affected when we travel or live abroad. It was during that time, in order to understand the complex issue of identity, someone told me about our own, unique identity sandwich, as we are not one block that defines us, but many different layers that make up our unique identity-DNA if you wish. These layers can shift and move, and our identity make-up may change during our lifetime, especially, if we are exposed to intense experiences.
We are all individual. With our own specific history, up-bringing, culture, dreams and aspirations. Yet we are also part of a group, our family, group of friends, educators, church, and sports-club. During our lives these powerful connections we make shape who we are, our identity and our sense of belonging. So my identity sandwich for example is made up of the layers of being a woman, Hungarian, living in Belgium, being a parent, and not necessarily in that order. The thickness and importance of these identity layers will greatly influence my choices and priorities in life. Football fans across the globe I imagine prioritised watching the matches of the World cup over choosing other activities or even sleep in the past few weeks. Parents with a sick child will prioritise being there over going to the cinema. Avid walkers will prioritise a weekend in the woods over staying indoors and watching TV.
As most of us have to, and a large majority of us wants to work, we spend a huge proportion of our lives working. The paradox of work is, that while many of us end up hating it, we all initially actively seek it out. What is quite often forgotten, is that the business of work is not only to produce goods or services, but in fact work makes people. We become what we do. Our work makes up a very important layer in our identity sandwich.
In our societies work is central to our culture. If someone asks you “What do you do?” they really mean “What work do you do?” When a woman is asked “Do you work?”, what is meant is “Are you doing a paid job?”
As we are preparing for our up-coming conference in Helsinki, Finland on the 9th September, the European Employers’ Forum, the issue of work-life balance, or that of reconciling work and family life is again central to our thinking. We are finalising the programme, and there will be many very interesting presentations about the point of view of employers on this issue.
Reading about the subject, we can safely say that the trend is moving towards more democratic workplaces, away from the industrial age model. More autonomy and personalised human resource management seems also on the rise, at least in those workplaces that have woken up to this new workplace revolution.
Today I put two and two together, and started looking at these “new work” or “future work” trends through the identity lens. As we seek out certain professions, we gravitate towards them because we are looking for a connection between ourselves and the identities we build through the work.
In relation to employers, they manage a number of individuals, who even with similar backgrounds have different identity profiles and thus value and prioritise different things in life. Some will outright prioritise work – if it figures very prominently in their identity getup. Others will always prioritise their family, no matter how committed they may be at work. And it is OK, as long as co-workers and line-managers understand, how important it is for everyone to be true to themselves and nurture their identities. Pretending to be a workaholic to please one’s boss will never work, at least not in the long run.
So where am I getting with all this? To put it simply, work forms us, gives us focus, a vehicle for personal expression and offers us a means for personal definition. And it will be those workplaces that will systematically outperform others, where employees and workers can stay individuals, even during working hours. Where they are recognised for their multiple identities and roles in society, in their family sphere, their civic sphere, and given the flexibility and freedom to be all these things. The rewards for such a workplace will be greater loyalty and enhanced productivity. Always.