Background Noise | Working from Home, or Living at Work?
Background Noise is a column devoted to conceptual ideas of interest to the research administration community. This month, we want to share with the larger community our thoughts on what both synthesis and work-life balance look like in practice, and how we can define the work-balance to which many aspire but only some seem to achieve.
In the fall, the research administration community at Tufts University gathered virtually to discuss whether we should aim for work-life balance—where work and personal time are distinct and given firm boundaries—or accept work-life synthesis—where work bleeds into personal time and vice versa. As breakout groups pondered how work and life interact, and how those interactions have changed while we are working remotely during the pandemic, sentiments like “have synthesis – would prefer balance.” “have neither balance nor synthesis,” and the proverbial “it depends” were expressed. We want to share with the larger community our thoughts on what both synthesis and work-life balance look like in practice, and how we can define the work-balance to which many aspire but only some seem to achieve. Please note that all quoted phrases within this article are taken from the thoughts of the Tufts research administration community, without whom this column would not be possible.
In our session, participants thought that balance presupposes a degree of separateness, where work and life obligations are separate and distinct from each other “with time given to each” in “equal or appropriate measures,” and each part “is given [the] fair attention it deserves” with a “sense of equilibrium and boundaries.” All agreed that work-life balance is a positive thing to have and that it “implies a sense of equilibrium and boundaries,” “knowing when it is appropriate to do work and then stopping,” and that achieving such balance is good for mental health. While participants cautioned against “waking up in the middle of the night thinking about stressful situations at work,” “allowing work to take over your life at home,” and “checking your phone for work email at all hours of the day,” many admitted to doing all three, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. We got the strong sense that while work-life balance is the desired goal of our research administration community, few have achieved it during our time working from home.
In contemplating the concept of work-life synthesis, the group defined synthesis as “integrated, complimentary, happening together,” “combined-intertwined with no clear end or beginning,” “a flow between work and home.” Others described it as “a mix of work time and life-time” when life-things make their way into work time, and as a consequence, “work things are allowed to creep into the rest of our time.” Even as synthesis “seems like constant multi-tasking between two worlds – work and home life,” it does create the “ability to shift and adapt for the specific situation” and to “make things work under less than ideal circumstances.” Work-life synthesis can allow us to be more flexible and may be “easier for those whose profession is also their vocation.” Our community doesn’t aim for work-life synthesis, but during the pandemic, it appears to be the default mode, especially for those now sharing their ‘office’ with other family members.
Considering that balance “does not have to be equal at all times” and the goal is “having what works best at that time”/“to have a system that works”, is there a role for work-life synthesis as a healthy part of work-life balance? Throughout the pandemic, many of us have enjoyed being able to throw on a load of laundry between meetings, or wash dishes during a phone meeting. Or is synthesis the opposite or complimentary of work-life balance? One of those concepts that sounds good in theory but is only an attempt to “move from myth to reality” in practice? Is the ability to do small chores from 9-5 worth the time work is taking from 5-9? Is work-life synthesis as a solution only suitable (and perhaps unavoidable) for the unique pandemic situation and outside of these circumstances, should we all strive to “work when it is work time and get off work when it’s not work time?”
As we consider these insights and questions, we conclude with advice from one of our participants, who states a research administrator’s practical bottom line answer to this theoretical question: “Be flexible, take ownership of your work rather than worrying about hours, and don’t burn out.” And don’t forget to go outside, regardless of the challenges of work-life synthesis: “photosynthesis on the other hand, excellent concept. Let's work on that!”
||Zoya Davis-Hamilton, Associate Vice Provost, Research Administration and Development, Tufts University
||Laura Lucas, Knowledge and Development, Tufts University
||Sarah Marina, Associate Director, Research Administration and Development, Tufts University