Building Work-Life Boundaries in the WFH Era - HBR
Remote work used to be an option... but that changed with the arrival of Covid-19. The fact that working from home was mandated seemingly overnight for many knowledge workers makes it more difficult to psychologically detach and recover from work, and creates a need to more actively manage boundaries between work and family.
Integrators and Segmentors in The Office
Back when you worked at an office, you may have regularly taken work home (integration), or you may have tried to separate home and family, taking work-related calls at work and family-related calls at home (segmentation).
Integrators tend to blur work-family boundaries; segmentors, on the other hand, strive to preserve clear ones.
Generally speaking, there are two key dimensions that integrators and segmentors have to navigate: time and space. Understanding these dimensions will give you an idea of which category you fall in.
Integrators tend be comfortable performing work tasks during “family time” and doing family tasks during “work time.” They often work after office hours and take care of personal matters, such as paying bills or making doctor’s appointments, during work time.
In contrast, segmentors strive to focus on work during work hours and on family during family time. Research shows that segmentors are happier and more committed when they have access to flextime, as this allows them to block their time in a way that preserves a clear distinction between work and family.
Integrators tend to be more comfortable blurring spatial boundaries. Research shows that integrators are happier and more committed to the organization when they have access to workplace practices that bridge the spatial divide, such as on-site childcare.
Segmentors, however, like to keep these spaces separate and are likely to need a physical barrier between work and home, like a room with a door.
Integrators have an easier time transitioning between different roles compared to segmentors — and that was true even before Covid-19.
How, then, do the characteristics and needs of both working styles change when employees are required to work from home? I see some new challenges both work types face today, and offer some practical ways to address them.
Integrators and Segmentors in The Age of COVID-19
Today, segmentors’ strong desire to keep their office and family lives separate is almost impossible to satisfy while working from home. For integrators, the sudden and fully immersive blurring of work and home boundaries can be difficult if they’ve never felt the need to separate work and home in the past but might have to now.
Here are ways both segmentors and integrators — and their managers — need to reconsider both time and space.
Putting boundaries around your time is important regardless of whether you are an integrator or a segmentor.
This might come easier to segmentors, who crave clear boundaries. In particular, sticking to a schedule of predetermined working hours will be important for segmentors to feel in control of their work life. A second technique that may help segmentors is to dress for work, feeling like “going to work”.
Integrators, on the other hand, may not need a strict schedule. They may be very productive working in their pajamas. But they too need to set some boundaries while working from home. For example, they should deliberately block out time for important meetings or for solitary, focused work. Doing so might involve rearranging their schedule to align with those of their family members.
Managers’ behaviors toward employees also need to change when it comes to time. For example, a segmentor might have had a boss who expected emails to be answered in off-hours before the pandemic. Now that boss may want to escalate those interactions into video calls at all hours, while the segmentor would prefer an audio call or an email exchange so that aspects of their home life remain sacrosanct. A manager who is an integrator may not be able to easily recognize the segmentors’ concern; as a result, they need to learn what routines will help each team member perform at their best.
One way a leader can do this is by asking people about their preference for meeting times and modalities, understanding that not everyone always gets their first choice if schedules and needs vary among team members.
For example, a manager could tell the team: I want to maximize everyone’s ability to focus — what times do you think you can consistently be available? If the schedule is variable, ask to do weekly polls to optimize the times, but rotate them to make sure that one team member is not always getting their last choice.
Whether you are an integrator or a segmentor, you need to select your work-from-home space carefully — but where you set up shop may be different.
Integrators may be comfortable setting up their home office somewhere central, like the kitchen or dining room, where they can keep an eye on what is happening with family members.
However, segmentors should choose a room with a door, if possible. They should also pay attention to what home-related items are in their office and consider moving them to another room, so that family members don’t need to come in and look for items while they are working.
Managers can help segmentors gain more control of their boundaries and encourage integrators working in a way that suits their individual needs and preferences.
How WFH Norms could Change due to COVID-19
Keep in mind one of the most unique aspects of the pandemic’s mandatory work-from-home restrictions: There is little to no divide between people working in the office and those working remotely. At many companies, a majority of people are doing the latter. This has a number of advantages.
First, managers aren’t making assumptions about why people want to work from home, which in the past could result in biased conclusions about someone’s commitment to the organization. Second, employees’ concerns about missing out and being overlooked may be lessened and equalized, because no one is in the office. Hence, there is less FOMO.
However, this also means that managers and employees have to work more intentionally to build and maintain relationships. Scheduling virtual “watercooler” time provides an opportunity for team members to check in with and get to know each other better. Informal bonding and relationships help to fuel better communication and allow people to interpret each other’s meaning better when they are communicating while physically apart.
The Covid-19 crisis also has caused many managers and organizations to expand their definitions of what types of jobs can be done remotely. This may lead to greater numbers of managers being more open to work-from-home options, creating the opportunity for many workers to increase their flexibility in the future — something we know segmentors in particular appreciate.
At the same time, the extreme blurring of the boundaries in the Covid-19 world may further push societal views — particularly those stemming from the Industrial Revolution ethos of work-home separation — toward a norm of integration. Kids interrupting a work conversation may become less taboo. Having a window into the home lives of one’s coworkers may become not only acceptable, but even expected.
There are potential costs and benefits to this. On the one hand, team members who are different from their coworkers — racially, socioeconomically, or along other identity-related dimensions — might find this increased transparency challenging. On the other hand, and with organization support, this may help these diverse team members find strategies for revealing aspects of their cultural background that allow their teammates to connect with them better.
Further, this window into our home lives may also help segmentors build a greater tolerance for family intrusions, both from their own family and that of their colleagues. Integrators may find that they develop new limits to how much they are willing to blur the boundaries when put to the test, finding ways to use segmenting strategies to be more effective while working from home. Under these extreme conditions, both integrators and segmentors might gain deeper perspective and broader skills over time.
While Covid-19 presents us with a crisis, exacerbating the challenge of the permeability of work-family boundaries, it also allows us to think more systematically about how we approach workplace flexibility and remote work. Now is the time to learn more about your own integrator and segmentor tendencies and those of your team. By understanding how everyone works best from home, leaders can turn this unexpected crisis into opportunity as we develop new and better ways of working in the future.
To read the full HBR article, please click here.