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Home office success is a matter of type

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Managers need to help their teams draw boundaries between work and personal life in the home office. How you can help yourself - and your employees - find the time and space to work productively.

Home office used to be an option, but not for everyone. Employees first had to painstakingly convince their supervisors that they could do their jobs well from home. That changed with the spread of the coronavirus.

For many, the transition to the home office was remarkably smooth, aided by fast Internet, smartphones, and video and audio conferencing. But these technologies have also blurred the lines between work and family roles. In many cases, employees have to handle email and video conferencing while sitting next to family members who are also working or studying at home. In addition, many people have had to switch to the home office from one day to the next. There was no thoughtful plan, no adequate preparation, and no choice. All of this made it difficult to mentally detach from work and recover. Employees therefore need to take a harder look at where they draw the line between work and family.

Over the past 20 years, my research has focused on how we delineate our different areas of life. This is currently more important than ever. Executives and their teams around the world are usually facing more months in the home office. It's critical to understand how you and your employees have framed the boundaries between work and family in the traditional office environment - and how you need to adapt your approach. You need to structure home office work in a way that is not only productive, but also respects everyone's boundaries in the long run.

Integrators and segmenters

When you worked in the office: Did your family occasionally stop by to visit? Did you regularly take work home with you? Or did you categorically separate your personal life from work - professional phone calls you made at the office, private conversations at home? These preferences - integration and segmentation - show where we draw our boundaries. Integrators tend to blur the lines between work and family; segmenters want to maintain clear boundaries. Basically, there are two dimensions in which both types must operate: Time and Space. Understanding these dimensions will give you an idea of which category you fall into.

Time

Integrators usually have no problem completing work tasks during "family time" and family tasks during "work time." They often work outside of office hours, but in exchange they take care of personal business during work hours - paying personal bills or making doctor's appointments. A strong integrator takes work calls after hours, but doesn't mind showing up for a parent-teacher conference at 10 a.m. - during his or her actual work hours.

In contrast, segmenters focus on work during work hours and on family during family time. A strong Segmenter is eager to make professional calls at work, even if it means staying in the office a little longer. He would only attend a parent-teacher conference if it was during his lunch hour. My research, conducted with Tracy Dumas and the late Katherine Phillips, shows that segmenters are happier and more engaged when they work flex time. Then they can schedule their hours in a way that clearly separates work and family.

Space

Integrators have fewer problems with spatial boundaries becoming blurred. They are better able to work from home; in turn, they like to post pictures of their family members in the office. In fact, my research shows that integrators are happier and more committed to their employer when the employer helps them bridge the spatial divide, for example, with a company daycare center.

Segmenters like to keep these spaces separate. Sometimes they divide work and home by getting different calendars and even key chains for each area. They are unlikely to voluntarily set up a home office. If they have no other choice, they will likely need a physical barrier between work and home, meaning a separate study with a door they can close.

These time and space differences also mean Integrators are more likely to be distracted and interrupted, as they tend to let work and family activities coincide. Segmenters are often better able to focus on an important task because they draw a sharper line between work and home. Yet integrators have an easier time switching between roles - this was true even before the Corona crisis.

So how do the characteristics and requirements of both work styles change when employees need to move to the home office? Both groups have their own challenges to overcome. There are a number of practical approaches that can help them.

The types in corona time

Currently, it's nearly impossible to meet the strong desire of segmenters to keep office and family life separate. For integrators, too, the sudden and complete blurring of boundaries can be difficult: they may feel the need to separate work and home for the first time ever, because the two now mix too much - and that may be a completely new challenge for them. Both groups have to learn to use space and time differently.

Time

It's important to set boundaries when allocating time, whether someone is an integrator or a segmenter. Segmenters, who crave clear boundaries, tend to find this easier. Integrators may have to work harder and develop new schedules and workflows for themselves.

For segmenters, it's especially important to keep scheduled work hours. This gives them a sense of control over their work life, especially when the whole home office environment reminds them of family. However, they need to realize that pre-set schedules can change once in a while if they have family members to care for at the same time. The advice here is to negotiate your "work hours" with your family and colleagues - and then stick to the outcome as best you can. This will make your job easier, and you'll feel better about having to work from home.

A second technique that can help segmenters: Put on work clothes, whatever that means for you. This doesn't have to be a suit - perhaps choose an outfit they would have worn to the office on Casual Friday in days gone by. What you shouldn't do, on the other hand, is sit in front of your computer all day in pajamas or sweatpants. This will make it easier for you to distinguish between your professional and personal life. You'll feel more like you're "going to work," especially when you close the door to your study.

Integrators, on the other hand, may not need a strict schedule. They can be very productive even in their pajamas. But they, too, need to set some boundaries when working from home. For example, they should set aside fixed times when they can attend important meetings without interruption or when they can focus on a specific task. This might mean rearranging their schedule to match that of their family members.

Executive behavior also needs to change when it comes to work time. For example, a boss might expect employees to respond to emails outside of actual work hours - because that's how it was always done before the pandemic. Now that executive might want to turn those interactions into video calls. A segmenter, however, would usually prefer a call without video or email traffic to keep his or her personal life protected. If the leader is an integrator, he or she may not readily recognize the segmenter's concern; therefore, he or she must learn what routines help each team member perform at his or her best.

One way is to ask employees about their preferences for meeting times and schedules. Teams need to understand that not everyone's first choice can be facilitated when schedules and needs vary from member to member. For example, the leader might say, "I want to maximize everyone's ability to focus - what times would you be available throughout? If fixed scheduling is impossible, you could conduct weekly surveys to optimize times. But rotate to make sure someone isn't always falling behind.

Space

Whether you're an integrator or a segmenter, you need to carefully choose the space you work in. However, you should consider different aspects when making your decision. Integrators may set up their home office in more of a central location, such as the kitchen or dining room, where they can keep an eye on their family members. Segmenters, on the other hand, should choose a dedicated room with a door, if possible, as mentioned earlier. They should also pay attention to what items are in that room. If other family members need to come into the room regularly because they need something from there, they should move the items in question to another room. This will help them work undisturbed.

Managers can support segmenters by regularly clarifying the goals and tasks their team members need to accomplish. This can also add structure to the work itself. To be sure, this doesn't necessarily have a direct impact on considerations of space. But it can reduce the stress that comes with blurring boundaries. It helps segmenters more easily adapt to private spaces that they also use for work.

Managers should also be tolerant of integrators who work in ways that suit their own unique needs and preferences. If an integrator keeps disappearing during an online meeting to tend to a child or other family member, the leader should recognize: This team member probably cares about bringing his or her whole self to work. He or she will be happier and more engaged if he or she can also show this side of him or herself and know that it is welcome.

New rules will apply in the future

The Corona crisis has forced millions of workers and employees to move to the home office. One of the most important aspects of this change is this: there is now little to no distinction between those who work in the office and those who work from home. In many companies, the majority of employees belong to the second group. This brings a number of benefits.

First, managers no longer make assumptions about why someone wants to work from home. In the past, this has led many a manager to assume a person lacks commitment - whether consciously or subconsciously. Second, employees are less concerned about missing out and being overlooked. After all, their colleagues and bosses are also out of the office.

But that also means managers and team members need to be more intentional about building and nurturing relationships. One way to do this is to set a time for a virtual coffee break. Informal exchanges improve overall communication and foster understanding of one another. Managers need to be even more mindful of this when their employees are physically separated from each other.

The Corona crisis has caused many executives and companies to expand their definition of what can be done outside the office. Many employees will be able to work more flexibly in the future - we know that segmenters in particular will welcome this development.

At the same time, societal attitudes will change - especially those that date back to the days of the Industrial Revolution and concern the separation of work and private life. The norm will be to link the two more closely. When children interrupt a work-related conversation between their parents, they are no longer breaking a taboo. That managers get a glimpse into the private lives of their employees might not only be accepted, but even expected. This has advantages and disadvantages.

On the one hand, team members who are different from their colleagues - in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic situation, or other identity-related dimensions - might find the increased transparency challenging. On the other hand, it could also help them: If they manage to show their colleagues and supervisors certain aspects of their cultural background, this could lead to closer and more understanding relationships. Their companies can and should support them on this path.

Developing other perspectives

Insights into personal lives can also help segmenters develop a greater tolerance for intersections with family life - both their own and that of their colleagues. Integrators, on the other hand, may realize that they need to draw new boundaries between personal and professional lives when the two become too intermingled. They will then have to figure out which home office demarcation strategies are appropriate for them. In these extreme circumstances, both types might acquire new as well as broader perspectives and skills.

We are still figuring out which private topics are acceptable in the work environment and which might be taboo. It's also unclear what impact working from home has on issues like team building or authenticity more broadly. As you, your team and your company begin to explore these issues in more detail, ask yourself why certain things feel more appropriate than others. After forcing a move to a home office, some assumptions about the separation of work and family have already been proven inaccurate that few would have questioned before.

Finally, in many places, the return to the office will not happen in one fell swoop. Gradually, it will become clear which of the well-rehearsed routines will persist and which will change. Segmenters striving to reestablish boundaries between work and family will want to return to the office more quickly than integrators. Managers will need to keep those who are still at home regularly informed about what is happening in the office. This hybrid form of work makes clear and regular communication even more important. Just as the virtual coffee break now plays a significant role in building and deepening relationships within the company.
Conclusion

The Corona crisis has made the boundaries between work and family more permeable. This has presented many of us with new challenges. But it has also made us think more systematically about how we manage flexible workspaces in the office and at home.

Now is the time to find out more about your own integration and segmentation tendencies and those of your team members. By understanding how everyone works best from home, leaders can turn this unexpected crisis into an opportunity. And at the same time, we can develop new and better ways of working for the future.


Author

Nancy P. Rothbard is a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She researches how people balance personal and professional lives and how new technologies are changing the way we work.

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