Reconciling work and other life – Help from shared ground rules
Many of us have found ourselves at a job where the time and place to do the work are not well defined. Knowledge- and expert-focused work can often be done both from the middle of daily family life and from the edge of the football field, also in the evenings and on weekends if necessary. It is possible to stay flexible in both directions; you can take your dog to the vet during a work break or catch a quick workout.
A certain kind of freedom or boundlessness is characteristic of modern work. In knowledge work that requires self-direction, the expectations are mainly that the work will be done, not so much when and where. There are also intermediate forms; mostly in the office, but work-related matters are also handled outside the office and office hours.
What are the characteristics and challenges of reconciling (or integrating) modern knowledge work and private life? How can you have great well-being and thrive in a job that you carry home each day inside your head, as knowledge work is often defined?
In the following, I discuss a few practices that support well-being.
DING! – the cave-person reacts to the message
DING is a sound that can grab your attention countless times a day. People are trying to reach you regardless of the time of day or day of the week. Many of us are conditioned to immediately seek out who is messaging us and what it is about. What is going on? DING is a sound which can be hard to resist.
A modern knowledge worker is connected to the diverse work rhythms of their colleagues through different communication channels. DING might ring when your colleague has a great work pace going, but you were planning to take it easy and focus on playing with and tickling your child.
However, when you hear DING, you quickly enter work mode. Our nervous system inherited from cavepeople automatically responds to a stimulus. Our brains are not able to distinguish the meaning of a stimulus just like that, nor whether it is worth reacting to it. Even if you don’t check the content of the notification you receive, your mind may already be building a theory about its origin and purpose: «I wonder what has the manager planned for tomorrow’s meeting?» Your consciousness immediately shifts into the world of work, and there is less of you tickling in the present. The fantastic opportunity to giggle together may be completely over.
As you constantly interrupt your important activities to explore the deepest essence of DINGs, you are at the same time training your nervous system to bounce around different stimuli. Disengagement from work, which promotes recovery, is interrupted. Your ability to concentrate may gradually decline, which is a typical ailment of this time.
So what can you do? Choose when you get the DING notifications. Rarely is anything so important that it requires an immediate response. In many cases, the sender does not even expect a response and they just happened to have the time to send a message. However, if an immediate response is expected at all possible times, it is time to have a more serious discussion. More on this at the end of the blog.
Also, whenever possible, try to schedule the messages you are sending at atypical times to the next morning. Think of your colleagues, the cavepeople.
Awareness of your values helps reconcile freedom and responsibility
As it has probably become clear to you, time- and place-independent knowledge work often involves freedom and flexibility. The ability to be autonomous and control your life generally supports well-being, including in terms of working hours and place.
However, freedom always comes with responsibility, in this case concerning you and your well-being. Timeless, placeless, and limitless work can easily sweep you away. So, it’s worth spending a moment thinking about what’s important to you in life. How do the important things in your life appear concretely in the course of your (work)days? How does work relate to other important values in your life?
When the values that are important to you are slightly brightened, it is easier to endure the discomfort that is inherent in the self-direction of boundless knowledge work. You can plan your day so that various important things get their share of time and attention.
It is sometimes painful to say NO in your mind to unfinished work tasks or to resist the call of the DING sound. However, being in touch with your values will help you say YES at the same time to something important in your life, such as a genuine and uninterrupted presence with your loved ones.
When you are aware of your core values and needs, it is easier to communicate your views when discussing accessibility practices in your workplace, for example.
Shared ground rules and expectations for open discussion
In the previous examples, I mainly referred to the employee’s own efforts to reconcile time- and place-independent knowledge work with the rest of life. However, it is also vital that ground rules are jointly developed to support the well-being and efficiency of all employees.
Sometimes organizations operate within expectations that no one has actually stated. For example, an employee may have the perception that messages sent by a manager in the evening should be answered immediately.
It would be useful to make the organisational culture visible so that the practices of doing knowledge work are discussed at a concrete level. What organizational values reflect, for example, the accessibility practices at our workplace? If a manager or colleague sends messages late at night, do they expect an immediate response? Would it be possible to schedule the messages for the next morning? Overall, well-being is supported if the expectations on which it is based are clear and shared.
It is also worth noting that the needs of employees in setting the rhythm for their work may vary individually and depending on the life situation. What works for Anne may not work for Paul and Janet. What worked for Anne last year might no longer work this fall.
It can be a good practice to share the individual rhythms of work and other life among the team. At what time in the morning does Janet’s family have the circus of getting all the children dressed and she is out of reach; when are the calls and messages possible and desirable instead? Naturally, each employee should share aspects of their private life according to their own will and needs.
The manager plays a key role as a promoter and the mediator of the values and the concrete practices of the workplace that supports well-being. Leader packages from Auntie are intended to support the manager in that important work and also to promote the manager’s own well-being. For example, the Leading Me and the Stressed Out discussion packages are suitable for all employees when there is a need to consider planning and structuring own work and to develop well-being at work.