How can we switch off from work in an era where mobile phones and working from home are, for many, the norm? And even if we want to switch off, is it desirable?
Welcome to The Future Work blog series! In each piece, I explore a theme from my research report, Future Work, about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on workers and employers.
In this blog, we discuss how working from home can blur the boundaries between our lives at home and at work, and how one might cope with this shift.
Coping in the age of remote work
“43% of our sample miss the formal separation of work and home”
How can we - and should we - switch off from work in an era where mobile phones and working from home are, for many, the norm?
Whilst it’s not always easy, there are simple things we can all do to minimize the blurring of home and work, if indeed we want to.
Here we explore our research findings on the experience of working from home during the pandemic, ask whether it is indeed desirable to switch off, and consider some simple steps that both employers and employees can take to better manage how, when, where, and for how long we work.
There have been some tangible benefits to working from home
Our research focused on those working from home during the pandemic and for whom the experience of home working was a relatively new one. Most of our sample identified some real benefits of working from home including significant improvements in productivity and quality of life (despite living through a pandemic!), greater flexibility in how they worked, and a more balanced lifestyle. Just over 7 in 10 respondents enjoyed no longer having to commute!
There have been challenges, often including burnout, fatigue, and the blurring of boundaries.
At the same time as reporting tangible benefits associated with working from home, respondents to our research also identified some challenges:
52% reported a significant increase in their workload as a result of working from home, and
40% of the sample said that they were regularly working longer hours, with 38% saying that they were either unable to or forgetting to take regular breaks.
Perhaps, therefore, it’s not surprising that 51% of the sample reported the experience of burnout or fatigue.
Although it is unlikely to be the principal cause, it is likely that this issue of workload and fatigue is exacerbated by the blurring of work and home life for some:
43% of our sample miss the formal separation of work and home
37% said that they were struggling to unwind at the end of the working day, and
23% said that they felt the pressure to be in ‘work mode’ even when the formal working day had ended.
These challenges were more of an issue for those respondents without a separate and dedicated office/workspace in the home, and particularly so for those who were working from the kitchen table!
The boundary problem
Creating suitable boundaries has long been recognised as a key challenge of working from home: it was one of the issues most cited by people in my own dissertation research into the working from home experience over 20 years ago.
The boundary issue has not been helped by increasingly mobile-friendly technology. I recall doing research for a software provider in the early 2000s, to understand what impact having a prototype always-on tablet computer (well before they were widely available on the market), would have on their employees in terms of productivity, wellbeing, etc.
You can probably anticipate what we found: although employees loved the flexibility these little prototype beauties afforded, they complained bitterly about the sense that they themselves were expected to be always on, even though at no point did anyone in the organization say they needed to be available 24/7, and there were countless orders from senior management to the contrary.
I vividly recall one of the individuals in the research telling me that his wife had threatened to leave him when he took the thing to a family wedding and was distracted from the proceedings as he constantly responded to emails and requests from his overseas colleagues!
The problem is that:
a) we humans just aren’t very good at self-regulating and
b) the simple ‘sense’ of something being expected is enough to generate an ‘always on’ culture that in turn causes unhealthy and unconstructive behaviours.
Not only is this intrusive into our personal lives, in the longer term, it’s unproductive; research shows that our capacity for concentration and creative thinking is limited when we are fatigued, and our brains actually work better when we have had time to refresh and recharge.
Aside from the serious issue of fatigue that being always ‘on’ can foster, we should also recognise that people may differ in how much they wish to separate or integrate their home and work lives, and therefore how they choose to structure their day.
For many, the notion of pitching work against ‘life’ is pointless and even an unhelpful paradigm For them, working from home affords greater flexibility: an opportunity to work at different times – either when they feel that they are at their peak, or at quiet times when, say, the children have gone to bed.
For others, particularly where there is a desire or imperative to replicate typical office hours – and where perhaps the commute provided a spatial, temporal, and psychological separation of the two – such blending of home and work might feel intrusive and, potentially, downright damaging to mental and physical well-being.
So, what do we do?
In the Future Work report, I describe what I have come to call the BAIRE Necessities of home working life. Two particular aspects of the BAIRE Necessities are particularly relevant to those who are struggling with the blurring of the boundaries between home and work: boundary detachment, and agency/autonomy.
Going to the office offers something that is more difficult to replicate when working from home: the temporal and locational transition between being in ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ mode. Working remotely will continue to bring challenges around boundary management for many. Tactics for improving boundary management broadly fall into four categories:
1. Behavioural – common rituals such as getting ‘dressed’ for work or doing something pleasant at the end of the working day. During this period, when my partner and I have both been working from home, we have made a ‘ritual’ of going out for a takeaway coffee and a walk in the park to mark the end of the working day. I have also made my lengthy morning walk before work part of my daily routine; in the depths of lockdown, it afforded time on my own, space to think, much-needed exercise, and fresh air.
2. Physical – creating a ‘space’ for your work, particularly important where a separate office is not available, and where possible, shutting the door to create privacy. In order to accommodate my partner’s several computers, I decamped from my office to the living room. To minimize disruption to normal life, I keep all my work gubbins hidden away in the wine cupboard (!) and when I am done for the day, I close my laptop, and push the living room table back against the wall. For both of us, a closed door is a clear signal that we are on a call and to keep out!
3. Temporal – designating specific times of the day for work, and disconnecting from your workstation at all other times. My partner is brilliant at this, and I have learnt to become much better at sticking to set times of the day to work so that my working pattern does not impinge on his free time. As a result, we have both enjoyed spending more quality time together as a result of working from home, and a greater sense of respect for each other’s needs.
4. Communication – informing family members/house mates of when you are not to be interrupted. This latter tactic is extremely simple but thought to be widely underutilised. Workers may need to be more proactive in letting colleagues know when it's acceptable to contact them and to block out quiet working time so that their day doesn't fill up with meetings and interruptions from colleagues.
Agency and autonomy
Agency and autonomy are about so much more than boundary management, but that certainly plays a part. Many people blur the boundaries out of a sense of what others expect; this is largely down to workplace culture and so managers need to set the example and support staff to exercise their own agency and ensure that boundaries are honoured.
For example, it will be imperative that they check in with staff regularly – without micromanaging – to encourage breaks, discuss ways to build in rituals and boundaries to book-end the working day, to be clear about expectations around working hours, and signpost staff to support should they sense it is needed.
We are all individuals; there is no ‘one right way’
We need to remember that the ideal separation between work and home really is a case of ‘different strokes for different folks’. Some people prefer a high degree of separation between these aspects of their lives; others prefer a high degree of integration. Neither integration or separation is good or bad per se; it really is a case of finding what fits for the individual and building rituals and routines to support that preference.
However, what we do know is that the fatigue, pressure, and burnout that comes from being ‘always on’ is the enemy of productivity, creativity, and good health, and therefore employers and employees must do what they can to create suitable boundaries and enable and encourage each other to ‘switch off’.
More from the Future Work blog series:
Future Work: The Report
What does the future hold for the workplace, post pandemic?
Our research, conducted in 2021, looks at the experience of working from home, and examines the evidence regarding productivity, mental health, and employee engagement. We consider the pros and the cons of embracing a new workplace paradigm.
Marianna Virtanen, Archana Singh-Manoux, Jane E. Ferrie, David Gimeno, Michael G. Marmot, Marko Elovainio, Markus Jokela, Jussi Vahtera, Mika Kivimäki, Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Study, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 169, Issue 5, 1 March 2009, Pages 596–605, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwn382