Boundaries take on new meanings

While some are working long hours at the frontline, others must stay at home. Ph

While some are working long hours at the frontline, others must stay at home. Photograph: USZ/ Corinne Widmer)

With many of us thrown into an unusual work situation, now’s a good moment to think about boundaries, says Gudela Grote.

Working from home has long been a wish for many, but not a widespread practice in companies. In a survey we carried out in 2016, over half of the 1,200 Swiss companies that took part said they didn’t offer employees the option of working remotely. 1 COVID-19 has pushed us into extremes: some of us have to work from home the whole time, while others are needed more than ever before at their place of work. Not to forget those who have no work at all any more.

Finding the best compromise

After many years of researching the opportunities and challenges of working from home, we know that managing boundaries is a crucial aspect.2 When work and personal life are no longer automatically separated in time and place, we must redefine boundaries for ourselves.

There are basically two strategies here. The first is integration: some of us like to mix work and non-work activities, whether by making business calls at dinnertime or doing a little online shopping during working hours. The second is segmentation: others prefer to keep work and home strictly separate, even when working from home, by keeping office hours and donning business clothes, for instance.

Right now, we’re all confronted as never before with blurred boundaries between our various spheres of life. We need to learn our own preferences and the preferences of work colleagues and our family and friends, and to talk this over with them. And then try to live the best possible compromise. When space at home is restricted, it’s particularly hard to keep the various areas of life separate.

No substitute for the after-work drink

The second theme relates to collaboration between people who are physically separated. Much experience has been gathered in companies that have long relied on virtual teams - for example in global engineering, where development teams work together around the globe and across different time zones. But even there, managing a decentralised workforce is not always easy: misunderstandings and conflicts arise and escalate more quickly; superiors and employees are less able to establish relationships with each other. With technology such as Skype and Zoom we can create a virtual closeness like sitting around a coffee table together - but it’s no substitute for a pint together after a hard day’s work.

Fortunately, many of us who now have to work remotely with colleagues can build on long-standing personal relationships, but it’ll still be a challenge to establish new work practices. The COVID 19 pandemic forces us to learn how to stay in touch with others and perhaps even forge new relationships - from a distance of at least two metres.

The right tool at the right moment

Technology can help with collaboration, but we need to have a good feel for how to use it. Short factual information and agreements work well via e-mail, Slack and the like. All means of communication that also transmit images, such as Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp, create personal closeness - which not everyone may always want, as I suspect most people are sitting in a makeshift office and not wearing work clothes these days. For discussing complex and personal matters, the telephone is still often the best means.

In addition, rules on how to deal with potential permanent availability become even more important when working from home. In the case of part-time employees, for instance, agreed work-free days must of course continue to be observed.

Leading virtually

When we don’t see each other "naturally" anymore, we have to plan when and how to meet. A key task for managers is making sure they stay in contact with their teams and colleagues. It is precisely this crisis that tempts some to think only in operational categories. There’s a danger here, as I ascertained in 1985 when interviewing employees of an insurance company in the US that had pioneered a working from home experiment: out of sight can quickly turn into out of mind.3

Regular team meetings and discussions with employees should take place as usual, simply through other media. Even shared coffee breaks and lunches are feasible as virtual meetings - although, to avoid overloading the internet, once a week rather than daily. Lastly, informally asking after a colleague now and then can substitute for the quick daily chat at the office door. Seeking contact in work-related or personally difficult moments is now more important than ever.

Bridging worlds

At the moment, many of us are forced to stay in our own small worlds. We need to rearrange these worlds under very difficult circumstances, with small children that demand attention, and amid worries about fragile or ailing family, friends, and colleagues. At the same time, we need more than ever to stay connected with the larger world that depends on our solidarity to get help - medical, social and economic - to those that need it most.

1 Bericht zur Untersuchung zu flexiblen Arbeitsformen und Digitalisierung in der Schweiz

2 Broschüre zu Home Office; Untersuchung zu flexiblem Arbeiten bei Microsoft Schweiz

3 see also Chancen und Gefahren der Telearbeit in a 1986 SRF broadcast.

Your experience is valuable

On Wednesday, the Chair of Work and Organizational Psychology headed by Professor Gudela Grote launched a survey involving all ETH Zurich employees. A short weekly questionnaire is to record their experiences with the current work situation. The researchers hope to draw conclusions on how to improve cooperation at ETH Zurich, and also to learn more about a future scenario in which, in view of climate change, everyone would travel less for work. The research group also seeks interested comapnies to carry out such studies. Any questions about the survey and possible participation by companies should be directed to Professor Gudela Grote:

Prof. Gudela Grote

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