3 ways to get personal at work
he 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.
That’s the conclusion of a piece I recently published in The Wall Street Journal, Returning to the Office? Let’s Keep the Line Between Work and Home Blurry. I wrote the article in response to all the folks who have really suffered from the shift towards remote and hybrid work, because it’s led to their working lives eating into their personal time and priorities.
But there’s a flip side to that problem, if you can carve out the freedom to organize your working life in a way that works for your whole life. That means giving up on the idea that the best way to get back to a 40-hour week is by drawing a clear line between work and home; instead, embrace the opportunity to infuse your working life with the passion and authenticity that too many of us have long left outside the doors of the office.
Blurry, meet blurrier
Of course, there’s always been some room for our personal lives and interests to show up at work. If you’re a sports fan, you can talk about last night’s game before the meeting gets underway, and wear your team’s jersey during play-offs. If you’re a sci-fi or comic nerd, you can decorate your open cubicle with postcards or figurines that constitute your office “flair”. And if you work someplace really funky, you can even bring your dog to work!
But the shift to hybrid work, with all its attendant spillover of work into personal time, means it’s time to elbow our way to a fuller vision of work/life integration. Go ahead and book that standing Tuesday-afternoon tennis game, if that’s when the courts are free — you know you’ll more than make up the hours. Let yourself take Zoom calls from bed, if that’s where you’re comfortable — and don’t bother disguising your headboard with a background blur. Book your company’s under-used boardroom for your D&D group, and proudly leave your character points on the whiteboard!
A case study in blurring work and home
Depending on the nature of your work, you may be able to combine your work and personal lives in ways that create entirely new opportunities on both fronts; I was lucky enough to do that just last week. I was invited to give a talk to Microsoft Research on equity in the hybrid workplace, and decided to make it into a two-day road trip to Seattle with my 16-year-old son. It’s the kind of messy overlap that makes for a tidy case study in the kind of blurred work/personal boundaries that I took a long time to embrace as a remote worker.
Here are three core practices for blurring work and personal life in a satisfying way — and what that looked like for me, last week.
1. Let personal priorities “intrude” on professional commitments.
It is really aggravating and exhausting to have your working life creep into your evenings and weekends…unless and until you let your personal life creep into your workdays. Bringing my son along for the trip allowed me to turn what would have been a short, virtual session into a longer, in-person presentation and visit, so it was a professional win. But it was also a personal win, because it was a chance to have some one-on-one time with my kid.
I’ve long appreciated the times when I can include a kid in one of my business trips, because it takes what is often a work/life tug-of-war (“How short can I make this business trip so that I can get home to the kids?”) and turns it into a special family experience. (As long as I have local childcare, or a kid old enough to solo in a hotel room!)
2. Infuse your professional work with your personal passions.
Getting your personal life mixed into your working life isn’t just a matter of scheduling. Throughout my career as a researcher, writer and consultant, I’ve translated topics I’m interested in or struggling with personally into projects I can work on professionally.
Last week was a case in point: In my Microsoft talk, I explored what neurodiversity means for the way we approach hybrid work, a line of thinking inspired by what I’ve learned about neurodiversity as the parent of an autistic kid. One part of my talk covered all the adaptations that were made in the classroom when my son was first raising hell in kindergarten, and how much those adaptations parallel various aspects of how we organize the modern workplace. While my son was eavesdropping on my rehearsal, he offered some feedback that ensured I clarified the relationship between autism and disability — which made for a much better talk.
3. Use personal context to make professional connections.
I’ll confess that the reason I suggested giving this talk in person is because I was keen to visit the Microsoft campus, and I am so glad I did! After my presentation wrapped, my host gave me a tour of the research building, which was covered in so many gadgets and whiteboard diagrams and loose bits of tech that I was in utter heaven.
I was especially delighted when I walked past one unoccupied office that was crammed to the rafters with various boxes of interesting-looking gadgets. Based on the sheer quantity of technology and chaos, I couldn’t help commenting (as I glanced at the nameplate on the door), “I’ll bet Jim P.* was a handful in kindergarten, too.”
A few minutes later, as we rounded another corner in the building, I heard someone call out, “hey, Jim P!”
I turned to find a smiling man responding to the hail.
“Are you Jim P.?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And were you a handful in kindergarten?”
“I was,” he confirmed, smiling even more broadly.
Then I introduced myself, explained how I’d just talked about my own kid’s kindergarten experiences, and how his office had made it apparent he was a kindred spirit. We had a terrific, interesting and very warm conversation — establishing the kind of genuine connection that can take forever to make in a professional context, unless you’re prepared to throw out that first, human bridge.
Facing the fear
I’ll admit, it is a little bit scary to cross the line between personal and professional in all of these ways.
It was a little bit scary to leave my kid solo in a hotel room for a few hours in which I would absolutely, positively not be reachable.
It was a little bit scary to show up in a professional context and then talk about my experiences as a mom, which feels like a setup for being taken less than seriously as an expert and colleague.
And it was super scary to be so inquisitive and personal with Jim P. — I mean, on what planet is it remotely appropriate to ask a stranger what they were like in kindergarten? — though to be honest, the whole thing happened so fast that I didn’t get scared until the words were already out of my mouth.
But the fear that rises in these moments is inextricable from the joy; from the soaring sense of expanding possibility that happens when you knock over one more brick in the sacrosanct wall between work and home.
Knock one of those bricks over, and see for yourself.