If there’s one thing that working from home has done for all of us it’s blur the lines between life and work.
Whether it’s toddlers crying in the other room, partners making coffee in the background, or cats walking between us and the camera, our home lives have become more visible than ever to our colleagues in our daily video calls.
For some, this has been a revelation. They’ve had more time on their hands without the daily commute or travelling abroad for work, increased their productivity dramatically, and are feeling more engaged at home as partners and parents. Many have taken back control of their time and are able to organise their days as they see fit, with some even starting a new hobby or creative project to take advantage of the extra time.
But for others, it’s been nothing short of a nightmare. They’ve been trapped in their houses juggling childcare and work or stuck in a tiny flat in the middle of a city, isolated from friends or family. Some have even had to deal with the reality of unemployment or the looming fear of losing their job. This has all inevitably put pressure on relationships and if China’s recent divorce spike is anything to go by, the West is in for a summer of breakups too.
Whichever side of the spectrum you’re closest to, one thing that’s certain is the blurring of boundaries between work and life is accelerating. Several major companies are enabling their employees to work from home permanently even when things stabilise around a new normal. Many others may follow suit and this raises an interesting question.
Is it better to keep these two parts of life separate or not?
Separating Work From the Rest of Life
The idea of compartmentalising work has always felt foreign to me, but it’s still surprisingly common. While there has been an increasing focus on mental health in the workplace and a growing understanding that all the parts of your life are linked, compartmentalisation is still the default mindset for most people.
In fact, it’s still embedded in the very concept of work-life balance. This mantra has featured prominently in conversations about managing the different responsibilities in our lives.
It’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. In pre-industrial agricultural societies, work and the rest of life were often one and the same. All family members pitched in to help in the fields and manage different responsibilities at home, as found by Keith Thomas in his piece Work and Leisure in Pre Industrial Society.
But for the last century, our culture has endorsed and fuelled compartmentalisation based on an industrial era mindset which sees bringing our full selves to work is harmful to productivity.
From the perspective of the organisation, the more individuals we have in the factory or office being themselves, the thinking goes, the less likely they are to follow orders, co-operate and act as those necessary cogs in the machine.
On the level of the individual, there are of course circumstances in which mixing work with the rest of life doesn’t feel safe. This could be due to fears over discrimination on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation in places where the culture is not inclusive. I appreciate that this continues to be true for many people.
Apart from those instances, one key reason that people compartmentalise is that they fear one network spilling over into the other with negative consequences. What if your spouse or child says something that upsets your boss? What if your friend reveals what you were really doing last Friday afternoon to an enquiring colleague?
While some boundaries may be valuable or necessary, many are arbitrary. You probably shouldn’t bring your friend who has an embarrassing habit of getting drunk to an office party, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring anyone.
Moreover, the information age has made it possible for work to happen outside the office and sometimes from anywhere in the world. This trend, accelerated by the pandemic, could push the pendulum back to a more blended work and home life not seen since the pre-industrial era.
Breaking the Illusion of Separation
Work and the rest of life are both parts of the same lived experience, so issues from one will invariably affect the other.
What’s more, keeping work separate robs us of the ability to show up as our full selves in the part of our lives we often dedicate the most of our time to. What’s more, it also has a negative impact on different parts of our lives outside of work.
The mindset of keeping work separate has a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Research from Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile suggests that people who have a best friend at work are happier and more productive, which makes them twice as likely to be engaged at work.
Just 20% of people actually have strong friendships that they can rely on in the workplace.
Surprisingly, people who blur the boundaries between life and work also seem to suffer less of a cognitive cost when being forced to switch between work and home-related tasks. It was previously thought that keeping strict boundaries between life and work would reduce the cognitive costs of transitioning from one role to the other on a regular basis but researchers from Ball State University and Saint Louis University have found evidence that suggests the opposite is true.
Compartmentalising your network also makes it far less resilient and leads to more fragile, context-dependent relationships. Research from Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois found almost two-thirds of people at work are seen as “strangers” or “coworkers” while around 35% are classified as “friends”.
But only a small percentage of these work friendships continue outside of work, suggesting a large number of people are still refusing to allow their two worlds to mix. Imagine you have a couple of close friends at work but never integrate them into any of your friend groups outside the office. If you leave that company, those relationships are most likely to weaken, even if you both want to maintain it. You didn’t develop another context in which you spend time together nor build resilience by introducing them to other non-work friends.
Working from home has also reduced the opportunities for spontaneous conversation by the water cooler, grabbing lunch together or getting a drink after work.
The solution to this is making an effort to connect your friends from work to the other parts of your life or to build ‘multiplex ties’ in the parlance of network science. As the name suggests, multiplex ties are ones that have multiple dimensions. For example, a colleague that you also invite to dinner parties with fellow foodies. The same also applies in reverse, where a friend becomes a collaborator on your latest passion project.
Working from home has already had a meaningful impact on our networks and this is likely to continue for some time. It has massively accelerated the blurring of lines between our work and the rest of our lives, highlighting our assumptions about the ability of those two parts of our life to interact with each other.
Greater integration between work and the rest of life increases the chances that those artificial lines we’ve drawn will begin to fade in our organisations as well. When people feel able to show up as their full selves at work, the decisions they make will be more humane and beneficial to the customers and communities they serve. Zooming out, it’s not hard to see the full range of benefits these developments could have for wider society. We can all examine the areas where we continue to draw lines in the sand arbitrarily and start to see our lives as the integrated whole that they’ve always been.