Covid-19, and the sudden shock to our systems it has caused presents many examples of tangible issues we need to deal with. It has also brought into our lives a less obvious, though just as concerning issue. That of identity. In a world of isolation and work from home, what has happened to the boundaries between our professional and personal lives?
The wonders of our information, and communication, technology have become abundantly clear. Organisations, that only a decade ago would have had to go into hibernation because of the virus, can continue to function. Employees can remain in contact on an ongoing basis through the mediums of text, voice, and even video. Data and tools are secured via virtual private networks (VPNs), and work trundles on, unabated by lockdown protocols or infection fears.
For those of us lucky enough to be in a position to work from home, digital technology must be looked upon as providing us a great privilege. However, we also must be aware of it’s impact on our lives. In particular, communication technology has become so ubiquitous that we often fail to see how it changes our actions, our relationships, and ourselves.
In this regard, my biggest concern is the merging of the work place and the home. When the two are separate they provide a place in space that allow us to be our professional selves at one location, and our personal selves at the other. Coupled with the invasion of digital communication devices on our person and in our home, where do we now go to escape our working identity?
When we go to work we become a different person to the one that said goodbye to our family, partner, friends as we left our residence that morning. The way we talk, the image we espouse, the actions we take, even the words we use are completely different to when we are in the company of someone we know more personally. How you interact with your mother is different to how you interact with your friends. Even the location can change who you are, when I’m having a drink with friends in public, I’m more introverted than if doing the same thing at a private party.
This is just how we get through life. Who we need to be in a competitive environment like work, is simply different to who we can be in the caring surroundings of home. This is the fabric of the social contract that keeps work work, and home home.
Now that home is work, there is the real possibility that many of us will suffer a blurring of these boundaries. Our tacit, but distinct, identities will all of a sudden start to melt and merge together. Because we aren’t even aware that we project different faces to the world around as we need to, working from home could be potentially more damaging than many people realise.
I have already noticed that many of my colleagues are working longer. Typically the hours they might have spent travelling they are now online. Some are working over weekends. Many have commented on increased demand, stating ‘I’m now working harder than ever before’. There seems to be a low lying fog of expectation that because people are in isolation they are available like a software service. A service to be reached out to and turned on at any time, one that can scale up, and down, as demand requires. That their professional identity now exists outside the space, and time, boundaries that existed pre covid-19.
This has led to me personally experiencing the melting of my identities. I have worked longer, and accepted additional work ever since we were told to isolate for the good of the country. I have done so not because of an evil corporation, or a demanding boss (I have quite the opposite), but because I have allowed the wall that created a boundary between who I am at work, and who I am at home, to crumble.
The fact that I can at any time connect to my work through technology, coupled with not having anywhere to go to get away from it, has led to my personal identity being eroded. As you might imagine this isn’t sustainable. Burn out will eventually hit me, motivation will evaporate, and there is potential that my family will become more disconnected from me.
The great thing about our digital technology is that it keeps alive our connections, even in times like these. Somewhat ironically, it was a connection to a cohort in work that made we realise what has essentially become the contents of this blog. As a member of the intern committee, I am tasked with connecting with this year’s interns as much as possible to ensure they are coping with the unusual circumstances. In this case, the opposite occurred.
In a recent meeting the interns spoke about their coping mechanisms. From what they told me, it was clear that everything they had introduce to their new way of living was about maintaining the boundary between professional and personal identities.
They spoke of; getting up at the same time as usual, utilising travel time to do something positive like exercise, have set times to get away from your work station during the day, shut down at the same time as you would leave the office, use this travel time to connect with friends (or family), and ensure you take time for yourself in the evening.
All of these things seem obvious to me now. They are the simple things, but sometimes we forget about the simple things. Don’t forget about the simple things.