What would a new healthy demarcation between work and private life look like?

ADN-ZB/Archiv Deutschland: Heimarbeit am Webstuhl. (Aufnahme: 1914)

Homework on the loom, Germany 1914

Joining a conference call in pyjamas, leisurely answering leftover mails on the weekend, organising summer camp for one’s children from the office… The conventionally staunchly defended borders between work and leisure have liquified over the last two decades, especially in the wake of our relentless digital availability. 

Many labour laws feel, especially to digital knowledge workers, like remnants of a bygone age – relics that, though instituted for the protection of the workforce, now paternalistically hinder them from exercising their freedoms and expressing themselves. This discrepancy arises frequently in discussions between social enterprises like betterplace and unions. Our decentralised, self-organised way of working is so incongruent with the rules of the 20th Century that we mostly face each other over a gulf of mutual incomprehension and speechlessness. 

But perhaps it is precisely the experiences we are making in the time of corona that may lead to a new understanding of (and effort to shape) the relationship between the professional and the private. Could the mandated home office lead us to adequately adapt the structures of the world of work to the demands of the digital-global age? 

Digital time: from leisure time to work hours

Until recently, time spent in front of the computer or tablet was considered by many of us to be leisure time. We associated digital media with entertainment, leisure, and private interaction. This was at least valid for many professional groups that work face to face with people, from teachers, consultants and coaches, to therapists and social workers. 

Suddenly, from one day to the next, digital technology has become the central medium of contact on the professional level. Tools which we had formerly used primarily for private interaction became essential pillars of our professional identity. Social interactions, such as the analogue coffee break, have been replaced by the social kitchen on Zoom. 

But the private and the professional aren’t just mixing through the use of digital tools per se. Some people join video calls in their pyjamas or track pants, colleagues get an insight into my private surroundings, see the living room scattered with children’s toys, or see my partner walking through the kitchen. Maybe I’m even browsing my favourite online shop during the meeting.  

This mixing can stress us out, but it’s also interesting. Because it can help us break up old routines and try new things. 

Showing up as a whole human being 

Perhaps we feel more authentic at home, for it is there that most of us can be ourselves, whereas we usually play a well-rehearsed role at the office. As the Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan writes: “In the office, most of us are working a second, unpaid job: hiding our true self.” 

The current experience of working from home comes with the opportunity to become aware of ourselves more holistically and to channel the energy – that we’d otherwise squandor on concealing our shadow-side and living up to outer expectations – into things that are really important to us. One result could be that we are able to include many more facets of ourselves into our work and that we become more creative as a team. 

We’re also usually more connected to our bodies when working from home: the body doesn’t care whether we’re at home or at the office – it’s just there. This can help us overcome the artificial distinction between the private and the professional – a distinction that costs us a lot of energy. Instead, a state of flow can emerge, we can become more fluid and soft, and thus inevitably become more spontaneous, creative and innovative. 

From our surroundings we are currently picking up on two opposite tendencies: while some are tensing up more than ever (link to previous blog post), others report being more relaxed and actually enjoying the slower pace of life. They’re getting better sleep, eating healthier and going on walks more frequently. From their decelerated vantage-point, they’re looking back on their previous work life and ask themselves why they ever put up with the stress of thousands of conferences, meetings and business trips.

A healthy balance between tension and relaxation

“I’ve been feeling much more relaxed lately,” says one of Bettina’s clients. “This form of relaxation is different from before, where I used to just collapse after a prolonged exertion. This feels much more like a true, deep recovery.”

Exertion and tension aren’t bad things per se. They are more like the natural counterpoint to relaxation. Every life oscillates between these poles and each of us tries to find a harmonious balance between them. 

Healthy people don’t overcompensate the one for the other, but switch between them dynamically and flexibly. Only then can we be truly present – be directly connected to reality, instead of merely being occupied with whatever we think should ideally be the case right now. 

That’s why the corona timeout comes with an interesting opportunity: to experience and explore when I tense up more than is objectively necessary. And then to consciously try to release the tension. 

This is easier said than done. Everyone knows that the call to “just relax” often has the opposite effect. But what I can do is consciously try to engage with the present moment, to ask myself how the room feels in which I’m sitting. How does my body feel right now? What do I feel like doing right now? What is inspiring or irritating me in the video call with my colleagues? When do I need to take a break? How do I want to start my day? (For example, I’ve been starting the past few days by working in my hitherto completely neglected garden for half an hour.)

More self-contact and self-reflection

All of these are questions with which I can learn to become more aware of and to better reflect on myself. What I’ve learned about myself I can include in conversations with colleagues and acquaintances and thereby communicate more clearly. 

The corona crisis is thus giving us the opportunity to update outdated parts of ourselves, overcome old distinctions and draw new connections. How can I be both a father and a boss? How can I combine an orientation towards achievement with relaxation? 

Let’s try to integrate supposed contradictions and thereby create new realities that are healthier and that make us happier.

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Joana Breidenbach, Bettina Rollow, Rivka Halberthstadt 

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