Striking a healthy work-life balance has been a major challenge for people the world over since time immemorial.
It doesn’t matter whether we have families or live alone; juggling career-related goals while making time for ourselves and our loved ones can be difficult regardless of our personal circumstances.
One of the few silver linings predicted by commentators at the beginning of the global pandemic was that the normalisation of home working was likely to result in more flexibility for professionals.
On the face of it, this sounds logical. The ability to conduct work and home life from the same location should – at least, in theory – result in greater flexibility.
Unfortunately, research suggests that this is not what has transpired. A 2021 survey conducted by academics from University College London (UCL) and Northumbria University, Newcastle in the UK, found that – in many cases – home working actually meant working more.
The researchers discovered that many UK respondents reported doing an extra two hours per day when working from home. For US participants, this figure was even higher.
The reasons cited for this trend included the collapse of work-life boundaries, a fear of being surveilled by employers, and feelings of guilt over being fortunate enough to still have a job.
Although this is just one of the many unfortunate (not to mention unforeseen) effects of the pandemic, I can’t help but wonder whether we’re missing an opportunity here.
Few would dispute that technologies embraced during lockdown, such as online meetings, shared documents and team calendars, resulted in certain efficiencies – even if these were not passed on to employees.
Add to this time savings related to not having to commute to the office or travel between meetings, and I’m convinced we have all the building blocks necessary to improve our work-life balance across the board.
We just need to work out how to put the pieces together.
In my opinion, this is a matter of cultivating the behaviours that have proved beneficial and dispensing with those that have not.
Sounds simple, right? Let’s see…
What should we keep?
Virtual meetings and hybrid events
I don’t know about you but, for me, the widespread adoption of video conferencing has been a godsend.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great to meet up with colleagues, partners and clients in person when the occasion merits, but the ability to connect face-to-face (albeit virtually) instantaneously – whether from a different floor of the office or the other side of the world – is a huge timesaver.
This also extends to events. Again, I love to learn and network in person but being able to log into conferences and seminars without having to get on a plane is a major advantage that we should work to maintain.
Online planning and time-tracking tools
Although these technologies certainly existed before the pandemic, they have become increasingly popular as a result of home working.
The capacity to plan as a team without being in the same physical location has changed the game when it comes to ensuring everyone is on the same page.
Whether scheduling, goal setting or target tracking, there’s no longer any risk of someone ‘not getting the memo’.
We should also continue to make use of time-tracking tools. As we continue to operate more flexibly, these simple-but-effective platforms can help us all to avoid working unreasonable hours without realising.
What should we throw away?
Our ‘always online’ mentality
One thing I noticed as my colleagues and I grew used to remote working was the increasingly elongated work hours we were keeping.
A cursory glance at the times emails were being sent demonstrated that people’s hours of activity varied dramatically.
Even today, I sometimes see messages sent before 5am, while I notice other people working late into the night or during the weekends.
Part of the flexible working ‘deal’ is that employees are treated like adults. If you’re an early riser, for instance, why not make the most of the time before everyone else logs on?
If someone is working their allotted hours (just at unconventional times of the day), as long as it doesn’t affect their ability to do their job, it isn’t necessarily an issue.
However, if an individual is online from 5am to 1am, or working seven days a week, then that most definitely is a problem.
The main thing to remember is that, just because you receive emails and messages around the clock, it doesn’t mean you need to respond 24/7.
We all have the right to disconnect.
Our growing aversion to taking breaks
One aspect of our working life that seems to be becoming increasingly rare – and something that I am immensely keen to bring back – is the habit of taking regular breaks.
When working from home, it can be all too tempting to plough on through your coffee breaks and your lunch, eating while you work and sitting in the same position for hours on end.
My suspicion is that working alone, and thus not being able to see our colleagues in situ, has made many of us overly anxious about ‘falling behind’.
But this is not how our work lives should be. Remember when we use to pop out for coffee or food with our colleagues? I miss those days, and I think it’s really sad that this sort of thing is becoming less and less frequent.
So, when we’re working from the office, let’s all make time to renew these traditions. Even if we’re working from home, why not arrange video calls with our workmates to discuss topics that are unconnected with our jobs? No shop talk allowed!
The social aspects of office life shouldn’t be discarded just because the locations from which we operate are shifting.
The inaccurate perception that home working is less productive
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us all that this stereotype is, at best, completely outdated and, at worst, just plain wrong.
Time and time again, employees on every continent have proved that they are more than capable of working hard – if not even harder – when away from the office.
The fact that the vast majority of us have proven our diligence and dedication despite decreased oversight is something I feel should be celebrated, not met with suspicion. It’s high time we dispensed with the old-fashioned notion that ‘WFH’ equals ‘slacking off’.
To conclude, over the past two years, billions of us have demonstrated our ability to remain productive regardless of our physical surroundings.
Our challenge now is to embrace what we have learned and leverage this knowledge to bring about a healthier work-life balance for everyone.