The Blurry Boundaries

To make hybrid practices second nature, requires energy, organization and planning.

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The Blurry Boundaries

“Having a permanent hybrid set-up initially came as a relief,” says Zainab, “After years of full-time office work, it felt like I finally had control over my work schedule and busy home life.”

The Covid-19 pandemic changed many aspects of our daily lives. The abrupt lockdowns of early 2020 not only altered how companies operated but also spurred significant changes in how employees worked. Many of these changes, such as staff members working remotely, will likely be part of the ‘next normal’ in some form. However, the next normal won’t be the same for workers across all sectors.

As the months rolled by, however, the novelty of hybrid work soon gave way to hassle and a jarring ‘one-day-in, one-day-out’ routine. Employees feel settled and focused on the days that they work from home, but by the evening they are dreading to go back in, sitting at the desk for eight hours a day in a noisy office, staring at a screen, readjusting to exactly how it was before Covid.

Zainab feels she now has two workplaces to maintain – one in the office and one at home. “It involves planning and a stop-start routine: taking my laptop to and from the office every day, and remembering what important things I’ve left where,” she adds. “It’s the psychological shift – the change of setting every day – that’s so tiring; this constant feeling of never being settled, stressed and my productive home working always being disrupted.”

However, as the novelty of hybrid working has faded, so too has workers’ enthusiasm. A predictable, consistent routine can help people cope with feelings of stress and uncertainty – especially during a pandemic. Hybrid, however, requires frequent changes to those daily habits: workers have to constantly switch things up, so it’s hard to find a routine when your schedule is always in-and-out the office. A familiar routine can act as a well-worn groove that allows flow, but carving out new daily habits – involving a less consistent schedule between workplaces – can chip away at cognitive resources. Moving to hybrid has the potential to disrupt someone’s home-working routine. Hybrid practices haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organization, and planning. You have to form new strategies – hot desking, planning commutes – that you wouldn’t need if you were fully remote or in-person.

Physically carrying work back-and-forth between home and the office may also come with a psychological impact for some. A recent study found that the majority of employees reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling “always on”; struggling to adapt to hybrid, and the permeable boundaries between home and work, were cited as a major factor.

The Elements of Hybrid
Figuring out how to do this is far from straightforward. That’s because to design hybrid work properly, you have to think about it along two axes: place and time.

The place is the axis that’s getting the most attention at the moment. Like Fujitsu’s employees, millions of workers around the world this year have made a sudden shift from being place-constrained (working in the office) to being place-unconstrained (working anywhere). Perhaps less noticed is the shift many have also made along the time axis, from being time-constrained (working synchronously with others) to being time-unconstrained (working asynchronously whenever they choose). To solve this problem, companies need to establish and incentivize clear expectations and boundaries. Develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication and clarify the work-life boundaries for your employees.

Setting work-life boundaries don’t mean that employees should never work outside of regular work hours. However, if such work after hours systematically happens more often outside of emergency situations, there’s a problem that you need to address.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the culture shift to allow for full-time work-from-home (WFH) or hybrid arrangements where you only go into the office part-time.

The traditional 8-to-5 of being chained to your desk is becoming less common for many of us, replaced by more flexible options. In fact, the newer generations of office workers might not accept the more traditional setups anymore, as evidenced by what’s been called, the Great Resignation. Employers are more likely to attract and retain more people if they are willing to offer different working arrangements for their teams.

That said, flexible work arrangements and working from home come with their own challenges, the biggest one being: The blurring of boundaries between work time and…everything else.

Why Working from Home Blurs the Boundaries of Work and Your Personal Life

There are several reasons why it’s so easy to blur the boundaries of work and home:

1. There is No Physical change from Work to Home or Home to Work

Usually, the context change between work and home signals the beginning and end of work. But when you work from home, there are no clear breakpoints for a commute to and from the office. It’s easy for the time to blend with your home routines.

2. Setting Time Boundaries is Hard

Even when working in an office, most people are not good at setting time boundaries. They get booked for meetings at any time, check their emails constantly, allow themselves to be interrupted by instant messages and colleagues popping in randomly, and jump from fire to fire instead of planning out their days and week.

It’s Easier to Be Passive Than it is To Set Boundaries

When you work from home, it’s even easier to:

  • Let your work hours slip a little more and more into your home time.
  • Be distracted by work-related things when you are supposed to be engaged with your family or friends.
  • Sneak in some email or project work in the evening or on the weekends, just to “stay on top of things” because your laptop is RIGHT there.

These are often passive occurrences that happen without a ton of thought about the consequences. They are reactive and, in the short term, seem like no big deal. But over time, they become the norm. Suddenly you realize you are working all the time and neglecting the other important parts of your life.

3. Many Employers Haven’t Set Clear Work-From-Home Expectations

The expectations for what is acceptable when you work from home versus in the office are different in many ways and they need to be stated clearly by your leadership. If it’s not defined, it’s easy to feel uncertain and anxious about when work stops and home time begins, and what’s allowed/not allowed.

There is often a strong sense of obligation to work, which isn’t necessarily matched to the expectations of your employer. That said, no one wants to feel like they are sneaking around behind their employer’s back to drive the kids to school or go for a post-lunch walk.

During the lockdowns of 2020, workers in many fields worldwide switched to working from home. Once people realized that remote work could function as well as in-office, many companies made the switch permanent. Others incorporated a hybrid work model, blending the two modes and allowing their workers to commute to the office only on certain days of the week.

Working from home has plenty of benefits, like no commute, flexible schedules, and taking calls in your pajamas. But when your office is only a few feet from your living room, chances are that you sometimes struggle to maintain a clear line between your home and professional life. Your time boundaries may become eroded to the extent that you find yourself on the clock non-stop.

Benefits of a Balanced Work and Home Life

As a hybrid worker, you may have a sense that things are off-balance, but it takes some motivation to make the change. To give yourself the push to separate work life from home life, you should consider the positive effects you’ll enjoy.

Improved Mental and Physical Health

Your mental health can take a huge hit from a poorly balanced work and home life. You might notice trouble focusing or a feeling of being burned out, or even develop anxiety and depression When you’re able to separate them, you’ll feel more in control of your workday and your domestic responsibilities—and more relaxed, happy, and focused.

Re-setting the boundaries can provide great benefits for your body as well as your mind. You’ll be able to get more sleep and exercise, improve your diet, and reduce tension by improving your work-life balance.

Getting More Done

Believe it or not, letting work cut into your personal time could actually hurt your productivity. Working longer hours can lead to burnout, which will cause you to get less done and make more mistakes. When you keep work life separate from home life, you’ll increase your productivity and efficiency.

Better Relationships

Your relationships with your family and friends will all benefit from your improved work-life balance. Having more personal time will allow you to spend more time with the people you care about. Your quality time with loved ones will also be more meaningful because you won’t constantly be thinking about work.

But the experiences a lot of employees had, don’t necessarily mean that workers should head back to their office desks five days a week, or seek jobs that are permanently remote.

Hybrid can still be a perfect harmony for workers – so long as their employer gets it right. Where the arrangement goes wrong is when it’s a hybrid schedule dictated by a supervisor, employees end up with a working week they have no control over it’s like the fixed full-time office schedule of old, which just happens to be in the worker’s home twice a week.

It’s a broad definition that can be interpreted in many ways: from going into the office three days a week, to once a month. Hybrid can still be the future of work and represent the best of both worlds – but it still needs refining.

Hybrid can be successful when managers liaise with staff, likely on an individualized basis, about how the set-up would work best for them. It’s both employer and employee who need to set boundaries, but there needs to be autonomy for the worker to self-manage their schedule – flexibility needs to be dictated by the individual, not the boss.

Hybrid is a state of mind. It’s the idea that we seamlessly move and work from setting to setting. Therefore, mechanisms have to be in place to ensure employees have the right home-working software and tools.

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