Are We Working from Home or Living at Work?

The general sentiment among my loved ones - those lucky enough to still have jobs - is that working from home has transformed their jobs on even the most basic levels. Meetings are on Zoom, group tasks get completed at a different pace, and communication styles have rapidly evolved to account for the lack of face-to-face interaction (how many “virtual happy hours” have you been on since March?).

For the past year I have been working as a remote consultant, and even when it was safe to work in an office, I spent most days working either from my living room or from the coffee shop. The move into a consultant role gave me freedom that I didn’t know was possible, but the “work from home” part of it used to be completely voluntary.

My work, my flow, my day-to-day, and my projects have all undergone radical shifts as a result of everyone working from home. My work week feels different than it did a year ago because the lines between “home” and “work” have also shifted. In light of the last ten months, I can’t help but wonder: Are we working from home, or are we actually living at work? Is a life balance even possible?

The question felt silly at first, but its implications are very real. The concept of the American work/life balance was tenuous to begin with. I’ve worked for organizations that touted their positive work/life balance only to be disappointed. Worse, I’ve worked for companies that claimed, “There is no work/life balance. There’s only life, and work is part of that life.” Unlike at holistic companies, those experiences were only work and no balance.

Consider that there are 168 hours in a week. Subtract the 40-hour work week, and then subtract another 8 hours per night for sleep, and you’re left with less than half of your week to yourself. This doesn’t factor in the amorphous hours spent commuting, taking time for lunch, and checking email from your phone while you do other activities like leisurely reading, catching up on TV, and completing projects around the house. While this is not inherently negative, conflating work time and personal time in the same space may fan the flames of imbalance.

As of May 2019, burnout is officially recognized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon.” It’s listed in the International Classification of Diseases. And the research that went into this classification happened prior to shifting to near-mandated work from home. A common theme among those experiencing burnout is a diminishing boundary between work life and personal life. If so many workers were experiencing burnout at the start of the pandemic when working from an office, how many more experience it today from their living rooms?

The time for work and the time for life blends together more often these days, whether it’s taking a shower between Zoom meetings or putting in a load of laundry while you’re on a call. The bottom line is that homes have become offices, schools, gyms, and restaurants. The space that’s supposed to be a sanctuary - has come to fill our every need, but not everyone was prepared. I sure wasn’t - Had I known this was coming, I would have sprung for an apartment with office space instead of having to build a schedule for my partner and I so that we’re not taking calls from the same room at the same time.

Nothing is “normal” or “balanced” right now, but I’d posit that the change and adaptation that we’re currently experiencing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but growth is always uncomfortable - it should be uncomfortable if we’re making progress. We’re uncomfortable because we’re laying the groundwork to ultimately outline a new definition of work itself, and this will have a positive effect on generations to come.