Roopa Raveendran-Menon Where have we headed for work-life balance? September 6, 2021

During a customary phone call with one of my friends in Dubai, I noticed a change in the tone of her voice. Gone was her chirpy upbeat tenor; in its place was a hollow, anxious voice.

When I pressed her, she said that her boss informed her that the company was reinstating the work from office policy. Her days of waking up at a tolerable hour, and making a beeline for the computer, dressed in her pajamas and a coffee mug in her hand, were on their way out. It was back to an Orwellian world.

It was back to crisp suits, never-ending metro rides, sitting in a cramped cubicle—surrounded by noisy colleagues, cups of tepid vending machine coffees, and a micro-managing boss that shadowed your every move. As a freelancer who had already tasted and relished the working from home setting, I understood her anguish. Yet my friend (let’s call her Miss A) was not alone. Around me were many like her who, having embraced remote work as the new normal, were trying to grapple with the return to the office situation.

As she returned to enjoying her last office meetings in her pajamas, I found myself at my home desk mulling and reading, and researching. Interestingly, while the conversation around working from home and working in the office had picked up steam, the narrative seemed to throw a handful of phrases in good measure, namely flexibility, work from anywhere, and work-life balance.

Ah…the quintessential work-life balance. A point of focus for almost everyone around, every professional, every company. This phrase has been bandied about so much it has even stopped making any sense anymore. That was when questions rolled off my mind. Questions that I cared about. And assuredly ones that would also interest the likes of Miss A. Do we truly understand work-life balance? Do we really get it, believe in it? Is it actually possible? Is it working for professionals? Or is it just another fancy term to beat around the bush?

I knew I had to visit the 80s when the phrase ‘work-life balance’ was first coined. However, the conversation around work-life balance had started earlier in the 70s when many professional women and mothers trickled into the labour market in the US and elsewhere in the world. Customarily, work and life outside work had been seen as separate worlds, but including women in the workforce had led to the challenging of this myth of a separate world.

In a discourse by a renowned psychology professor, Kathleen Christensen, she discussed how there was a conflict, especially between women trying to fit themselves into a structure, and it didn’t work. And, sometimes, she observed that they just changed themselves to fit, and in other cases, they dropped out, leading to a nuanced discussion around the then appealing three-word slogan ‘work-life balance.’

While this phrase started off as an appeal to working women to “have it all” with an equal measure of private and professional success, today, it refers to both men and women, has been overused and spun in so many different ways that it has left us with more questions than answers. These questions only preponderated during the pandemic when remote working policy was introduced in many offices around the world.

Many, like Miss A, found themselves thrust into a new normal, wherein they got the freedom to work from anywhere. This disruptive work culture should have been the answer to finding the perfect work-life balance, but it didn’t. Many missed the whole face-to-face collaboration, while others felt they were prisoners of their own laptops. Exceptions like Miss A, who took to remote working without many hiccups, were far and few.

While exploring why some didn’t take to the remote working condition and others, I also stumbled upon some uncomfortable facts. According to the International Energy Agency 2018 report, even in developed economies like the US, where about 90 per cent of homes have air conditioners, it came with a hefty price. For those who can’t afford inflated electricity bills or even access AC, having a flexible work schedule all of a sudden—and working from home in their pajamas—seemed more of a trap than a godsend. This throws forth some uncomfortable questions: whether a remote working style is for a privileged few? Whether a work-life balance can be experienced and/or achieved by a select few?

Perhaps, this is why, despite mulling over the work-life balance for the three decades, we have not really progressed much. On the contrary, it is these muddled-up versions of work-life balance that have led to the rise of many recent radical trends. Take the case of tang ping, a new movement that has recently arisen among the Chinese youth. This trend is described as an antidote to society’s pressures to finding jobs and performing well while working long shifts. ‘Lying flat is my wise movement,’ chirps many of its advocates.

Probing further, I learned that the idea behind “tang ping” was being satisfied with more attainable achievements and allowing time to unwind. In short, it is lauded and described as a spiritual movement. One where its proponents leave no room for overstretching. Their goals and expectations are simple: wanting a more relaxed life and a staunch refusal to be overwhelmed by work pressures prescribed by society.

As the whole tang ping phenomenon catches on and memes related to the trend inundate the social media channels, I tried to scratch beneath the surface. Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong problem. The actual problem is not the act of practising tang ping or la dolce far niente. It is not even retaliating against trends and philosophies that challenge the puritanical work ethics and culture. Doesn’t the rise of trends like tang ping signify our desperation and endless quest to find the answer to our less-than-healthy work culture? Isn’t a change in our working culture in order?

I came across an article where there is a discussion around the model of time-spatial job crafting where workers are given considerable flexibility regarding where and when to work, and how this is fast becoming a popular approach to redesigning work. It is a theory that is still in its nascence, but it holds a lot of promise for today’s workforce that is torn between returning to the office and working from home.

This theory doesn’t claim to find a water-tight solution, instead it recognises that even if we do experiment with time-spatial flexibility, its success or failure depends solely on how each individual makes use of the flexibility, and the extent to which they manage to optimize the time/spatial-demands fit.

While we may not yet get that call from the HR manager discussing our time-spatial job crafting or time/spatial-demands fit, the conversation has already begun. And I can’t wait to tell Miss A to not give up on the hope of attending board meetings from the comfort of home in her pajamas.

Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.

Roopa works as a content writer, based in Dubai. Some of her short stories have been published in international literary magazines and included in some Indian anthologies. When she is not busy chasing project deadlines or writing fiction, this self-confessed Sylvia Plath addict loves staring into space, tuning into Netflix, and dabbling in tarot card reading (not necessarily in the same order). Say hello at roopa.raveendranmenon at gmail dot com.

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