A commentary by Irene Oksinoglu, Director of Future Work at OTTO
A seamless transition from private to professional life. Two worlds become one. The family is integrated into the company for which we live, work and breathe. In work-life blending, the exact focus lies on blending the ‘living world’ and the ‘working world’ together. Organising leisure activities? Why not have them on the company campus. Going out to eat? It’s free in the company’s restaurants. Hiring a car? Do it through work. Renting an apartment? Best to do it directly on company property. Does this all sound absurd? That’s because it is. Yet some researchers are predicting a future of work-life blending. It is the flipside of work-life balance. No, it is even more intense than that: it is the dissolution of ‘work’ and ‘life’.
The idea of “tomorrow’s city”
As with all things, it is a balancing act which is dangerous if it becomes too extreme. I think that blending can be appropriate and practical in some situations – but a clear separation is definitely necessary. I maintain that a conscious division promotes the activation of the ‘creative self’ and that a permanent blending leads to ‘blindness’.
The seamless shift from professional to private life was discussed back in 2016 in the Wirtschaftswoche magazine, and in 2012 Hans-Jörg Bullinger introduced us to the subject of a smarter working life in the city in his book, “Morgenstadt” (“Tomorrow’s City”). In “Morgenstadt”, the author and co-author, Brigitte Röthlein – with the help of a research initiative by various Fraunhofer Institutes – sketch out new methods for using city districts, which produce their own electricity and heat, use electric cars and build intelligent houses. Other topics discussed in the book include energy, mobility, construction, home life and the working world. Bullinger gives us food for thought when we consider what city living could look like in the future. In terms of home life specifically, the decoupling of work from time and location is the prerequisite for ‘work-life blending’. This means that not only cultural activities but also the workplace are integrated into it on a practical level. There is now a barely perceptible jump between professional and private life. Of course there are companies that rave about this idea. They are ultimately giving rise to employees who are ready to work at all times.
There are firms whose premises resemble a mixture of a uni campus, holiday resort and housing estate. On this site, employees not only breakfast together, but also spend their weekends on the campus. It is a form of communal living. There is a large catalogue of amenities: beach volleyball facilities, multiple gyms, climbing walls, bowling allies, cultivated vegetable and herb gardens and dozens of restaurants. Alongside this, doctors, dentists, psychologists, hairdressers and masseuses are of course also on hand. Employees need never leave this world again.
Separation of work and leisure can be healthy
All aspects of one’s own life suddenly have something to do with work. It may seem as though the ‘outside’ world is very unappealing. There’s just one problem: the view of the ‘bigger picture’, the exchange of ideas with differently-minded people, is lacking. As Director of Future Work at OTTO, I advocate for flexible working hours and locations. I think that working from home should be normal, so far as it is conducive to the job. We pay attention to working and overtime hours, promote leisure activities off campus, separate the worlds. Work-life blending is not an alternative to work-life balance. Of course it is sometimes true that “no one size fits all” – therefore the balance between blending and division must be found independently and it also depends on the working context and the individual employee.
The separation of work and leisure time can certainly be healthy, and I’m not the only one that thinks that, as numerous studies confirm it. An example is the study by the University of Zurichfrom 2017 which was published in the “Business and Psychology” journal. The researchers discovered that the boundaries between work and leisure must be drawn so that wellbeing is not compromised. According to the study, the amalgamation of professional and private worlds makes it harder for employees to relax. Not just physically, but also mentally! The result of the Randstad Arbeitsbarometer (‘Randstad Work Barometer’) from 2018 also shows that around two thirds of employees in Germany under the age of 25 find it difficult to switch off after leaving work. And how can this be expected to stop with work-life blending? Perhaps the concept ties people to a company through various goodies. But in the long term, only “switching off” can lead to a good work performance. And because of this, staff must be able to clock off and live outside of the company world.