The concept of work-life balance already arose in the context of industrialization in the 19th century. Newly acquired technologies led to a relocation of jobs, which resulted in the separation of the working and living community. In Germany, the work-life balance has been an issue since the 1990s. The compatibility of work and private life, which should be in a balanced relationship to each other, whereby the areas are strongly separated, has various positive effects. Employees should have sufficient room for their private interests besides to their professional activities. This is intended to reduce stress, which ensures lower sickness rates and less fluctuation, while at the same time boosting motivation. The required better time management is also family-friendly.
Borders become blurred
Due to the crisis-related home office, our work moved into our home in March. A spatial separation of work and life no longer exists, and the temporal separation is also becoming increasingly blurred. Colleagues report that they prefer to start work early in the morning, then take a lunch break that extends over several hours and do the rest of their work in the evening. Others take advantage of the situation to sleep late, check their e-mails during their first coffee and start a washing machine or prepare lunch while working.
The important thing is that the balance is right. But if everything becomes more and more flexible, this becomes more and more difficult. The work-life balance turns out to be an unattained dream for many employees today.
More flexible work step by step
Several times in history there have been stages in the working world where increasing flexibility has changed the way we work in various ways. However, this has never applied to every employee and every company in the same way.
Thus, it is still common for the vast majority of people to work locally. This means that the work is done at the place of the employer, for example in an office, and is precisely timed. For some people this has then developed into teleworking. Work performed wholly or partly from home, where a defined teleworking place is provided and working hours are still fixed.
A further step towards more flexibility is the mobile or distributed work. Here it is possible to work while on the move and at locations determined by the employee himself, whereby the working times are still defined.
The level with the greatest possible flexibility at present is then work that can only be measured by results and can be done from anywhere and at any time. In this so-called ROWE model (Results Oriented Work Environment), working times are largely undefined.
Keeping work and private life in balance
In recent weeks and months, many companies and employees have been pushed overnight to another level with more flexibility, but both sides have had to practice dealing with. Everyone had to learn that trust is the basis for flexible and results-oriented work. And each and every one of them was able to see that with increasing flexibility, the work-life balance becomes more and more unstable and more difficult to keep.
Particularly in the home office, it is sometimes much more difficult to separate the areas of work and private life from each other and to maintain the balance. During supposed working hours, private messages are read and answered, laundry is hung up and cooked. Then, during the actual free time, professional messages are read. The digitalization of communication makes boundaries blur. Anyone who has a work mobile phone that they also use privately will know this only too well. The consequence is that important work can hardly be done in a focused, concentrated and uninterrupted manner. Which in turn means that the employee feels stressed. Together with not being able to switch off, these are factors that can lead to serious illnesses.
Fluent transition vs. clear distinction
In the context of work-life balance, work-life blending, or work-life integration is now also frequently mentioned. Here there is a fluent transition or blending of work and private life, which is made possible by new technologies and tools. The clearly separated and precisely defined areas of life and work merge so that work is decoupled from place and time.
The fluent transition in work-life blending encourages the employee to be permanently active: work is done on the side in a café, at the beach or while watching television. On the one hand, the employee can adapt the working hours to his personal needs, on the other hand the blending can quickly have negative consequences on his private life. There is also the danger that blending does not occur, but that working life increasingly overlaps with and displaces private life.
The differences are clear. While the work-life balance clearly separates work and free time, strives for a balance and everyday working life is still shaped by the employer’s working hours and location regulations, the areas merge in work-life blending. For example, free time offers then take place in everyday working life, the employee is more flexible in his or her division of work, the choice of place and time, but is at the same time always available.
As Frithjof Bergmann already wrote in the 1980s in his social utopia on New Work, workers must ask themselves not what job they might enjoy, but what they really, really want to do. And once the answer to this question has been found, work can no longer be classically separated from free time, because the boundaries then become blurred. Because then you look for and find inspiration everywhere. Because ideas can then emerge anywhere and at any time, and because work is no longer bound to a fixed framework consisting of a certain place and time of the day. But switching off is important. Free time is important. Also for your health. In the end, the feeling remains that many people have ended up in work-life blending while striving for a work-life balance.