I have seen a lot of talk about blurred lines of late. How the pandemic enforced homeworking has blurred previously clear(ish) distinctions between work and home. Although before Covid-19 there were plenty of people that had worked from home at least some of the time, those that worked remotely permanently were in the minority. Homeworking had never taken place on the scale it has since March 2020.
Although we are all living through the same pandemic, we are experiencing it differently. How, or to what extent it impacts upon us varies, both personally and professionally. Work life balance is just one example of this. For some, the absence of a commute has led to overall work life balance improvement, with more time for exercise, family or life in general. For others, the grind of trying to balance work and family (especially for those undertaking home-schooling) has led to significant wellbeing and balance issues.
The idea of blurred lines between work and home is nothing new. Technology has been driving this trend for years, ever since office equipment went portable and we all got ourselves a smart phone. The potential of homeworking to lead to reduced work life balance is nothing new either – prior to the pandemic research suggested that it could lead to work extensification (longer working hours, with a tendency by employees to work during what would have been their commuting hours) as well work intensification – employees working harder at home as they felt that they owed their employer additional effort as some sort of thank you for flexibility.
There are a number of factors at play right now, related to these blurred lines. One is that we have more people working from home, many of whom had never worked from home in the past. This means that they had little knowledge of those work life balance techniques that can support healthy homeworking. We also have to contend with a huge rise in online meetings, leading to what we now refer to as ‘Zoom fatigue’ (interesting research on that here). Thirdly, many of us do not currently have a commute to support the mental transition from one state to another (work to home, home to work). Even though commuting can long and stressful, commutes also serve a purpose. They provide a gap, a space, in which we can decompress. We also use them to engage in other activities; reading, listening to music, calling a friend. This is lost when the transition amounts to closing a laptop. Finally, we are back to tech again. Working tech is ever present in our homes. Frankly, before the pandemic lots of people didn’t use all the tech that was available to them. My working from home days in the pre-pandemic world used to be meeting free because many colleagues had never heard of Zoom or used MS Teams chat. Increased skills, more channels in use and more people using them – this all leads to increased interruptions including those outside of so-called normal office hours.
When it comes to blurred lines, these are more of a problem for some than others. There’s some interesting research into work life balance (here’s an example) that talks about the different types of working styles and preferences. At one end of the spectrum there are those that need significant separation between the work and non work aspects of their lives. We can assume that those folk have found this last year long and hard, and the great work from home experiment may well have led to increased levels of stress. At the other end are the integrators. Those that generally have the work and non work stuff combined most of the time anyway. They might have their work email on their personal phone, check emails on holiday or be relaxed at swapping between work and family activities. These individuals may well have been much more comfortable with enforced homeworking.
So when we talk of blurred lines, we should not assume that this is something everyone is experiencing. We should also note that there are many issues at play when it comes to working from home, and the idea of blurred lines may itself be blurred by mixing the concept with related challenges such as too many online meetings and too much tech.
As many businesses contemplate a more flexible future, these issues need to be in the mix. We went to work from home in an emergency, without many of the things that would have been planned for and organised if remote had been a intentional business strategy. Helping people understand how homeworking can lead to poor wellbeing outcomes (for some) and how to avoid those outcomes, how to manage transitions and boundaries, and how to effectively and mindfully switch off – these are skills that we now need to retrofit.
We should also remember that working from home does not necessarily lead to blurred lines, and blurred lines do not necessarily lead to reduced wellbeing. Like most work stuff, it is contextual – and very personal.