Rethinking work-life balance in an era of connectivity
|Datum:||19 maart 2021|
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been working from home. This is not possible for everyone, as bus drivers, pilots, surgeons and cleaners still have space related jobs. But in Europe, 50-90% of the working population has flexible work which can be performed partly independent of place and time (OECD, 2016). This is mainly made possible by the capabilities of digital technologies such as smartphones, laptops and notebooks. These technologies enable continuous connectivity and accessibility, and not only influences the way we work, but also how we experience our family life, maintain our social relationships, travel and play. Should we perceive these blurring boundaries as a threat for the quality of our life?
A dominant view from the past is that ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ are clearly distinguishable. This view is based on the 19th century perspective that work and home are different domains whose boundaries must be impenetrable to protect the free space and time for disconnection and recovery from work. The terms ‘work-life’ balance and ‘work-life conflict’ wrongly suggest that work and life are fully discrete areas and that work is not life.
Digital technologies permeate established boundaries between work and life, and make the distinction between "work" and “home" in terms of time and place unclear, which can be perceived as intrusive. Especially boundary thinkers, those who implicitly assume that work and non-work should be clearly distinguished, believe that eroding boundaries are unhealthy and can ultimately result in health complaints, such as burn-outs. Political parties are therefore advocating the right of employees to be offline and some companies turn off the e-mail server between 5:00 pm and 8:00 am to protect employees' free time. These are attempts to limit the possibilities that digital technologies offer and to protect employees from a too intrusive work environment.
The question is whether a clear separation imposed from above between the domains of work and life is appropriate today. Perhaps we should learn to deal with a situation in which a time and place independent way of working is the norm. In that situation the metaphor of a boundary or wall between work and non-work becomes less useful. Maybe we should rethink work and life in a more inclusive and less conflicting way.
For employees, this means learning to deal with the possibilities that technology offers and taking control of the technology (e.g. if and when they should be online), the place (where they have to work) and the time (when they have to work). It also means that homes are no longer the exclusive place for family and relaxation, but also for paid work. In other words, employees should take agency over this new situation and try to benefit from the opportunities in a way that suits them.
For managers this means that they have to adapt their leadership style to a hybrid environment. They should encourage employees to configure their own spaces of work and non-work. Hybrid employees work from their homes, from offices and from other locations at times convenient for them through channels that suit them. Just like homes, workplaces have to be hybridized by offering a collaborative working climate with opportunities for concentration, relaxation and conviviality.
In short, we need to move away from rigid ‘work-life’ boundaries and from the often suggested contradictory nature of work and life. We should figure out how to have agency over the use of digital technologies and learn how to engage healthily and sustainably with hybrid spaces and technologies in hybrid times.
OECD. (2016). Be Flexible! Background brief on how workplace flexibility can help European employees to balance work and family (pp. 1–19) [Social Policy Division]. Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. www.oecd.org/els/family/Be-Flexible-Backgrounder-Workplace-Flexibility.pdf