It’s about time that we return to a simpler era—when work was work, and home was home.
That seems to be the message I hear from bosses these days, and even from a lot of employees. After 2 ½ years, some people tell me, they are tired of the blurred lines. Employees are sick of never really being sure when the workday begins and when it ends; bosses are sick of wondering just how much work is getting done at home, and of the casualness undermining traditional workplace culture.
But as workers head back to the office (at least part of the time), my advice is the opposite: Let the blurring continue! Instead of seizing on the return to office as a chance to restore a clear boundary between our work and personal lives, this is the moment to appreciate what we’ve all gained from blurring the lines, and to look for ways to hang onto those benefits.
Years in hiding
I now have more than a decade of experience working from home while intermittently home schooling a special-needs kid, but most of those years were spent hiding that fact. I didn’t want my boss, and later my clients, to think I was distracted while working from home. So I booked calls only during the windows when I had two layers of backup child care, and curated careful backdrops meant to disguise the fact that I was working behind the only locking door in our house (the bedroom). Even if I heard all hell breaking loose while on a video meeting, I’d fake my way through with the illusion of full attention.
The pandemic meant everyone else was suddenly home schooling, too, and I was finally able to stop the charade. Admitting that I had children at home was much less distracting than trying to keep my juggling act a secret. And on the rare occasion when parenting really did interfere with my work and attention, I could gracefully take my leave from a call, deal with the kid crisis immediately and effectively, and then return to work with full concentration. That’s when I realized that it isn’t the juggling of work and home that’s so draining—it’s trying to keep them neatly and perfectly separate.
Once I let go of the church/state divide between workday and home life, I necessarily loosened my hold on the boundary of 9-to-5. Precisely because I sometimes needed to handle kid-related stuff during the day, I traded daytime flexibility for occasional late night, early morning and weekend work. I discovered that a couple of hours of early-morning work were often worth more to my colleagues than predictable 9-to-5 availability: It meant I could have draft documents waiting in their inboxes when they woke up, and I found my creativity and effectiveness were often greater in those early quiet hours. And if I did take a break in the middle of the day—whether to help with a home schooling lesson, or get some errands done while the stores were relatively empty—I typically returned to my desk with greater focus and energy than I’d have after five or six hours of uninterrupted work.
How freeing it was to stop pretending that a medical appointment was the only legitimate reason to take a break in the middle of the day. There’s nothing unprofessional about admitting that you are an actual human being who needs food to survive, and finds it easier to go grocery shopping at 10 a.m. rather than 6 p.m.
The more fluidly my days flowed between work and family, the more I saw improvements in my creativity, productivity and well-being. If I took an unapologetic break from work to go for a 2-hour walk with a friend, the combination of exercise, fresh air and conversation often led to a breakthrough on a business problem or writing challenge. If I wore my sweats or PJs all day, instead of putting on the constricting clothes so many experts prescribe as key to getting in a “professional” frame of mind, I was able to focus on writing or data analysis without wriggling from the itchy discomfort of a jacket or dress.
But the bosses…
OK, OK, I can hear the critics carping, all that’s great for you. But what about the people who actually pay your salary?
The truth is that managers have just as much to gain from letting those boundaries blur. For one thing, it makes for employees who are not just happier (and more likely to stick around) but also more productive.
That begins with letting employees blur the definition of a work “day.” After all, do you want your employees giving you the hours of the day that happen to fall between 9 and 5, or do you want them giving you the hours when they’re smartest, most creative and most inspired?
Employers win when they’re flexible about the where of work, as well as the when. If we relax our idea of a professional setting, we can encourage employees to meet up in coffee shops or in one another’s homes: It can reduce the commute, facilitate collaboration and maybe even help them build a sense of trust and connection—because really, don’t you feel closer to someone once you’ve met their dog or seen their messy living room?
Leaders can encourage this sort of informality by modeling the idea that it’s OK to let your guard down around your co-workers. Managers who invite the team over without putting away their toddler’s toys, or who admit that they’re taking the afternoon off for choir practice—not a conference or medical appointment—signal that yes, you’re allowed to be a whole human being, and have priorities and commitments beyond work. (Modeling, to be sure, isn’t the same as meddling. It’s really not a manager or employer’s place to ask about an employee’s health or family circumstances, if an employee chooses to keep their private life private. But you can be the kind of manager who everybody knows is available for personal troubleshooting if needed.)
Bosses also need to rethink that boundary between what’s right to wear in the office and what’s right to wear at home. The comfy loungewear of the pandemic era introduced a new possibility: dress in whatever way makes you feel focused and—dare I say it?—inspired.
Admitting some fuzziness between work and personal life also could be the answer to the culture quest that so many companies are now facing. How do we renew our culture when hybrid and remote work mean that our employees barely see each other?
Well, the less we see each other in the literal sense—the less time we spend co-working in the same physical location—the more our culture and bonds depend on seeing each other in the metaphorical sense, as full humans. And we can’t do that if we continue to patrol the boundary between work and home as if every personal anecdote or disclosure is an intrusion on the sanctity and effectiveness of the office.
Instead, it’s time for us to embrace the truth that the shift to hybrid revealed: There is no clear line between work and home. We are the same brilliant, flawed, creative and compassionate people between 5 and 9 that we are between 9 and 5. When we try to draw a divide between them, we are only dividing ourselves. And that isn’t good for anybody.
Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” Email her at email@example.com.