Gone Is the “Off-Button” to Work: When the Lines Between Work and Life Are Blurred

Setting boundaries is more important than ever.

DimaBerlin / Shutterstock
DimaBerlin / Shutterstock

This year has witnessed a dramatic and rapid shift in the way Americans work. In a matter of months, many businesses have transitioned to a fully remote workforce where possible, becoming “often on” workplaces with employees’ work schedules intermixing with their life at home. Such a change might once have been unimaginable but is quickly emerging as a new reality as people continue to socially distance and navigate uncertainty surrounding school and business closures. This blurring of work and home lives is very likely to shape the evolving world of work.

Many employers are taking this moment to consider the advantages of a partly remote workforce, redefining productivity outside of the traditional 9 to 5 hours, and focusing on communication and engagement to support their workforce and sustain business operations. It is equally as critical to remain aware that stay-at-home orders have impacted people differently, with up to 60 percent of workers unable to work from home1. As pillars of the broader human community, employers who reflect on all circumstances equally and act with holistic awareness will lead in more ways than one.

The WFH Advantage

One of the most important and practical benefits of decentralizing the workplace is that commuting hours are no longer being clocked every day by those who are working from home. This represents a massive time savings and can bring positive implications for both the financial and mental health of employees. Employees who have gone remote may now have more time for taking care of their wellbeing, enjoying meals with family, and reconnecting with the joys of domestic life. Employees may also relish the opportunity to finish projects on their own time absent the traditional 9 to 5 schedule, and as a whole realize the positive affect on their morale.

Another significant but less tangible benefit is that people have the opportunity to press pause — from the routines that they took for granted, from business as usual, from automatically going about their days. Pausing in this way is intimately linked to self-reflection (the adage “give me time to think” comes to mind), and a lot of people are actively reimagining their self-identities, interpersonal relationships, and the meaning of finding one’s way in the absence of predictability and direction. While this kind of reflection and its consequences can be extremely stressful, they can also open up new ways of being in the world that are more in line with personal, familial, or social values.

For employers, the benefits of a remote workforce include the tangible as well, such as cost savings on office space and equipment as well as a more diverse and wide ranging talent pool, since the team is no longer relegated to living within reasonable commuting distance. Companies and employees can also take pride in helping to limit their carbon footprint due to lack of commutes and the limiting of shared materials in common office space, such as paper products or cafeteria essentials. In addition to these impacts, employers too benefit from improved employee morale and employees who can prioritize their wellbeing, often seeing stronger engagement among their workforce.

The Productivity Question
Taking a more intentional approach to daily life naturally leads us to reconsider what it means to be productive. There is evidence that people in knowledge-based industries who are able to work from home are working longer hours now that the structure of the typical office day no longer exists. Some are experimenting as they go, testing and setting boundaries around the partitioning of time and space, while others are working in a continuous flow, which tends to lead to never shutting down and having less time to take care of themselves or their family. A lack of practice, family and home life obligations, and concerns around identity management and job security can all contribute to too little restorative downtime.

Those who already worked from home may have the advantage of experience, but even they are struggling with a myriad of new challenges ranging from homeschooling children, concern for aging parents, and irregular appointment schedules to financial or health worries brought on by the pandemic. As the traditional 9 to 5 becomes an artifact, the critical question for companies becomes: What does it mean to be productive, and how can employers maximize productivity without employees burning out?

Leaders need to ask themselves how they want to frame productivity for employees. Is productivity a quantitative measurement or a matter of quality? Is the employee supported or surveilled? How are managers measuring “performance” and why are they measuring it in that way? What are the stories we tell ourselves about “productivity” and how are these enacted in our daily practices, material culture, and system of symbols? Companies need to decide on their own story around productivity and be mindful to tell it with compassion. Now that our humanity is on greater display — with dogs barking and kids waving hello on work-related video calls — we’ve all accepted a certain transparency that has opened the door to more empathy in the workplace.

The Workplace of the Future
As conversations focus on a now largely remote workforce, it’s critical to understand that the capability is not universally shared: not everyone is able to work from home. Employers must also recognize that remote work is not everyone’s shared preference either. Some workers will jump at the opportunity to return to the office because they are inspired by the creativity born of in-person collaboration and serendipitous intersections.

Others will prefer to work from home indefinitely because they find it more productive and in tune with a personal rhythm that values greater flexibility. Still others will want to take a more balanced hybrid approach — which, in the end, will likely become a widely used medium. Companies will have to create environments — physical or virtual — where all employees feel safe, self-empowered, and purposeful.

Most importantly, employers will have to focus on encouraging employees to “leave work” while staying home to achieve work-life balance. Rooted in policy and driven by top-down example, these communications must be genuine and intentional in supporting employees. A well-considered approach might also support the “stuff” of home life and not just the stuff of professional work, by offering things like cooking classes and tips on keeping kids interested and engaged.

As we navigate these unprecedented times, employers who embrace a progressive mindset rooted in empathy will thrive and retain talent.

1 Source: https://brentneiman.com/research/DN.pdf

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