24 September 2021 — Where for 40 years the idea of work-life balance touted by the women’s movement vacillated between whole-hearted embrace to outright dismissal, suddenly in a span of a few months, work-life integration is the only way forward.
Lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements have caused workers to confront the coexistence of the two major parts of our lives lived out in one place rather than, as it was in the not-so-distant past, a balance of separate realities demarcated by separate spaces.
Work-Life Integration Isn’t New
The separation of work and home was really the blip in human civilisation. In agrarian societies, the family, the home, and the land they worked on were one and the same. Division of labour was among the family and the boundaries between the home and homestead were fluid. It was the industrial revolution that brought people out of their homes into the factories which began the delineation between the two.
You may have unwittingly experienced this integration if you’ve dined in home restaurants or booked a room in a family home through Airbnb. While, as guests, we are thrilled by the novelty of the experience, the hosting family would have long established practices and lifestyles to merge their business with their personal lives.
I witnessed this when I stayed in a 70-year-old ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in Kyoto, now being run by the fourth generation. Ryokans have been around since 705 AD.
Inn Kawashima has 7 guest rooms. Other than the family space on the first floor, most of the other facilities are shared with guests.
Guests and family members meander through the narrow corridors, shared bathrooms, and courtyard. With the same smile the owners flash at guests, they greet returning family members.
As Megumi, the fourth generation family member was taking me through the familiarisation tour of the facility, her children sidled into the room out of curiosity and the topic of family slipped naturally into the introductions.
It was there that I witnessed this fluid merger of lifestyles, an acceptance of interruptions?—?by guests and family?—?and the flexibility of bending to needs without the artificial imposition of space and time.
Cultural adaptation is a skill humans possess in response to stressors in the environment. With the fundamental lifestyle changes remote work arrangements have brought about, it is crucial to change and remodel our perceptions and patterns of lifestyle.
Gone is the luxury of cloistering ourselves in a meeting room with doors shut and the sign that reads Meeting in Progress when we need uninterrupted time for meetings or planning. Families with young children will attest to that.
Flashback to 2017 when the world laughed in sympathy at the professor who was interrupted by his 2 children and wife during a live online BBC interview on probes in South Korea. Four years later we laugh in empathy with him, having experienced uncomfortable, if not downright embarrassing, moments of faux pas during our online work conversations.
Now that the office has intruded into our homes, we need to normalise interruptions and accept the unexpected.
Welcome to life where dogs bark, cats jump on our laps, children squabble in the background, shirtless husbands wander. Apologise for the distraction but not for the natural rhythm of life. Laugh at the candid moments, say hello to wandering children, be curious about the package that just arrived at the door – and carry on. The less fuss we make of life as it happens, the faster we’re able to focus on work when it happens.
Mobilise your workspace
Since most of us work off a laptop, the option is there for us to shift our workspaces anywhere in the home that permits it – the kitchen island, the balcony, the porch, the children’s playroom. Of course, there are distractions along the way as you move into the shared spaces of the home but the point is to build flexibility into your working habits.
The challenge in this process is, firstly, our own mental models. If you’re the sort that has set places for set functions, you will find this
pattern very disruptive. But that’s what integration is all about – the willingness to dissolve the mental boundaries we’ve confined ourselves to and expand the plasticity of our routines.
If I need thinking time, I’ll hide myself away in a place that gives me solitude. It could be my original workspace, or it could be even in my lift lobby where no one can find me. But if I’m running through some routine administrative task or neatening the design and flow of my presentation slides, I’d be happy to work off my kitchen island where family traffic can be high.
The other hurdle to cross is the cooperation and consent of the rest of the family as unspoken lines that were drawn previously are crossed. This calls for conversations and an understanding of this changed reality and new rules to accommodate the new norm.
Actualise New Rituals
Rituals serve to link our practices with our values. As rituals in a church signify reverence for the subject of worship, so do routines tie our habits to our identity. Science has also found a positive correlation between rituals and the reduction of anxiety and stress.
The very familiar and comforting act of getting dressed for work, queueing the podcasts for the commute to work on the train, and the usual coffee pickup at the shop on the way to work cement for many of us our warm-up space for the workday ahead. With the loss of the rituals we have come to rely on to anchor our day, many would unsurprisingly feel thrown off, disoriented from the lack of boundaries and the exhaustion from not having the in-between spaces to refuel, recollect, and be reenergised.
Creating work rituals in the home can help to construct the work presence in the personal space. Getting out of the pyjamas and into a smartcasual outfit can be one way to prepare your mind and body for the work-from-home experience. Getting out of those clothes at the end of the workday can also signal for you the time to de-role even though the surrounding remains the same.
Signing in each new week with a vase of fresh flowers may also be a ritual to set for yourself to brighten the home and lift your spirits for the work week ahead. Or pasting a post-it with a quote of the day in your workspace to mark the start of the day or week could be another pick-me-up practice to get you going.
Grabbing my cup of coffee to start the day and another to signal the middle of the morning and tea close to the end of the workday are things I do to delineate the time. And the chit chat in the kitchen with family as I take the breather segues itself neatly into my home persona, as I take my “work voice” several notches down in projection and energy and joke with my children about the latest PewDiePie video (think water cooler chats, but with family instead of colleagues).
Having rituals established throughout the day to demarcate mental models of the workspace while seamlessly easing in and out of the work (mental) and home (physical) spaces will help to integrate the two.
If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s flexibility. With every wave of infection and changes in protocols, the only way forward is to bend. We are more adaptable than we make ourselves out to be. Yes, it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable and, yes, it involves letting go of set practices. But it’s well worth it if the outcome of integration is a net gain in productivity, relationships, and well-being – in whichever space you choose to be in.