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The line between work and play blurs

I sent someone an email late on a Saturday night, recently. His jokey reply asked why I was working so late on weekends. Which made me stop and think. I wasn’t working, exactly; but nor was I not working. I was doing my regular scan of my Twitter feed, and came across a link that looked like it would be of interest to my colleague and his team in their project. So I emailed it. This was work and play, as it usually is for me these days.

What’s happening here is that the line between work and leisure is getting increasingly blurred. When I first started working, the line was very clear indeed. You worked during ‘working hours’ and you had your leisure time outside of these hours. You worked for five days a week, and then you took two days off to recover. In addition, you received 3-4 weeks of official ‘leave’ in the year, when you took your holidays.

Where did those structures come from? From a bygone age when most people were expected to work to earn a living, but not to live while they worked. There was a clear distinction. You worked because you had to earn enough to live, but you lived elsewhere. With your family and friends, in your home, in clubs and bars, in churches and mosques, in leisure resorts. You were not really expected to be truly alive at work – just alive enough to work.

That was an artificial world, and thankfully, it is slowly fading away. If you are a modern knowledge worker, as so many of us have become, when are you not working? Or not at play? When both your work and your leisure are done with your portable, connected device, that distinction disappears fast. The same device becomes your primary hand-tool of life, no matter what you’re up to.

I think this is a fine thing. The distinction was a fake one, created for an industrial age in which workers traded labour for remuneration. We have to stop pretending that people only have purely professional thoughts in the workplace; and nor should we imagine that people don’t think about their working lives at weekends. The human being does not live in clearly marked boxes; we have complex brains that handle a multitude of thoughts at any one time.

Even the places in which work/play are done are changing. A recent study found that more than 36 million Americans work remotely (at least partially); and that number is expected to nearly double in the next couple of years. More and more people are working from home or other connected locations. This allows the employer to save money on office space; and the employee to create a more natural schedule blending work and play.

Bizarrely, many of these employees work at home – and come to work to play. Wise employers realize that working alone from home is not ideal for organizations that need to build a collective culture – and so they call them to the central workplace from time to time to engage in team-bonding and joint relaxation.

It’s not very evident in Kenya just yet, but a revolution in the nature of work – time and place – is bubbling under the surface. Wise employers would do well to start thinking about these changes now. The answers are not simple. Resisting the changes would be foolhardy, but so will leaping into new working patterns without forethought.

Teleworking can only work for certain types of organizations and workers. 24/7 work immersion will not suit all types of workers. Too many diffuse thoughts are not conducive to deep contemplation. There are real challenges in making this change. Will you cope? More thoughts on the subject of work and workspaces next week.

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