Is there an ethical upside to remote work?

By Brett Beasley

Leading a remote team presents major challenges. But leaders who use the opportunity to encourage employees to be more authentic could reap surprising ethical benefits.

Working from Home


"The office is one thing, and private life is another," says Mr. Wemmick, a lawyer's clerk in Charles Dickens' famous tale, Great Expectations. "When I go into the office," he says, "I leave the Castle [home] behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me."

Pip, the novel's main character, notices that Mr. Wemmick's rigid boundary between work and life affects his behavior in a disturbing way. When at his home ("the Castle"), Mr. Wemmick is warm and caring. But as soon as he arrives at work, he becomes cruel and unfeeling.

New research suggests that there is a bit of Mr. Wemmick in each of us. Despite the advice from popular self-help books and TV shows to adopt a separation between our work and home selves, it appears that compartmentalizing our lives in this way can lead to unethical behavior, just as it did for Mr. Wemmick.

Researchers Mahdi Ebrahimi (Cal State, Fullerton), Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern), and Vanessa Patrick (U of Houston) made this discovery when they teamed up to investigate what they call "identity integration." As psychologists, they recognized that we all juggle multiple identities. They wanted to know what happens to us at work when we experience "low identity integration,"  In other words, when our home and work selves are radically separate from—or even in conflict with—one another.

First, they conducted a series of lab studies to get to the bottom of identity integration's effects. They found that low identity integration leads to feelings of inauthenticity. Individuals with compartmentalized or incompatible work and home identities agreed with statements like these:

  • “I don’t feel I can be myself,”
  • “I am unsure of what my ‘real’ feelings are,”
  • “I have to fake how I really feel,”
  • “I feel as if I have to become a different person.”

The researchers were also able to establish a link between feelings of inauthenticity an unethical behavior by showing that people who felt inauthentic were more likely to lie during a coin toss game in order to gain extra money.

Armed with these findings, the researchers tested out their theory in the real world. They conducted a field study using pairs of managers and subordinates. After surveying both members of each pair across several industries, the researchers found evidence of the same link they observed in the lab: Those with low identity integration were more likely to lie and engage in misconduct at work, according to their supervisors.

This research points to an opportunity that lies in the recent upsurge of remote work. Mr. Wemmick's office and "Castle" are in two separate locations with a long walk between the two. However, for the 60% of the American workforce that has worked remotely since the COVID-19 crisis began, the boundaries of time and space we use to keep work and home apart have disappeared. Work-life balance has given way to work-life blending. Our commutes may be no longer than the few steps from the couch to the computer. But the fact that technologies like Zoom offer work a digital window into our homes could be a good thing. "I feel like one benefit of the virus is that it has 'humanized' us as employees," one former NDDCEL research assistant recently wrote. "My favorite part has been seeing kiddos and dogs on video meetings. Hopefully we see some positive changes after all this settles down. "

Although many leaders have (understandably) been concerned about the loss of "normal" strategies for connection, engagement, and accountability tied to the physical office, the explosion of remote work could offer an opportunity for encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work. Here's how to harness the benefits of authenticity while leading a remote team.

Put It In Practice

Make authenticity a strategic priority.

As leaders focus on keeping employees motivated, engaged, and productive during remote work, they should also recognize that authenticity can help achieve these goals. Inauthenticity can increase stress and burnout, whereas authenticity allows for a deeper connection to your workplace's mission and purpose. Feeling truly seen and heard can help your employees feel less isolated and more resilient. Here’s a simple strategy: Each week, have one team member share a brief story of gratitude about someone who has mentored them in the past.

Create space.

Authenticity research suggests that, in general, people crave authenticity. We each naturally want to bring our whole selves to what we do every day. Unfortunately, we often feel we have to compartmentalize or create "facades of conformity," in order to cope with an environment that does not welcome our whole identity. So leaders need not force employees into authenticity. Simply issue invitations and lead by example in the stories you share with your team. If employees see you share beyond your work identity, they will feel freed up to be authentic themselves. 

Make authenticity part of your culture.

The point is not to be authentic in one moment, but rather to create an organizational culture that welcomes authenticity. Start now, but recognize that authenticity is an ongoing effort, one we will need to continue to practice in the post-coronavirus workplace. If the past mindset was "keeping work at work" or "It’s not personal. It’s strictly business,” change will not happen over night. Consistency in word and action through the everyday workplace behaviors and routines will be necessary.

A trend toward remote working was already underway; the COVID-19 crisis simply accelerated it. The US Census Bureau reports that a decade ago, only 9.5% of the US workforce worked outside the office as much as one day a week. Gallup recently reported that over 60% of the US workforce has worked remotely due to COVID-19. And 59% say they would like to continue working remotely as much as possible when the crisis abates. For those organizations that harness the power of authenticity, the fact that there will be no return to "business as usual" may just be a good thing.

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