01/03/2022 • 3 min read

Beyond the Looking Glass

A perspective on work-life balance in a post-pandemic era

by Priya Manoharan

The journey through the COVID-19 pandemic has been the sort of experience where we entered an almost fantastical world—finding ourselves climbing through a tunnel of self-reflection and cruising down a rabbit hole of repeated rituals day after day.

Having stopped or limited our interactions with the outside world on a regular basis, our vision of reality is becoming skewed. The lack of face-to-face human interaction has many of us feeling a sense of collective anxiety.

In my opinion, the distinction between work and home was rather stark pre-pandemic. For many, work took place in a physical office or on location. Because of that, our personal lives took a backseat. When you were home, you felt you could unplug and allow work to leave your mind for a while.

The constant struggle was to maintain a contrast—not letting work and your personal life bleed into one another. But when the pandemic hit the globe, this contrast became extremely blurred. Suddenly work, personal life, social life, hobbies, and everything else began to occur simultaneously. 

Pre-Pandemic Work-Life Balance

Research allows us to understand which aspects of pre-pandemic work-life contrast versus the new work-life integration employees find supportive. For some people, working from home allows them to get focus work done much faster and easier, whereas in the office, they often felt distracted by various tasks or interruptions. For others, the opposite is true. So, what is the perfect balance to strive for?

Design Adjusts for People and Purpose

Let’s step back and reflect on the post-Cholera-pandemic era that occurred towards the beginning of the 1900s. At the time, modern architecture was emerging using geometric plans, long walls of expansive windows wrapping around façades, light-colored rooms, wide roof terraces with railings like cruise ships, and light-filled spaces.

Design was driven as a response, or rather, as an evolution that allowed a building to function as a much-needed medical facility. During this period, design included fewer surfaces for accumulating dirt, whiter surfaces that appeared cleaner, and column-less spaces that let in fresh, natural air.

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Adapting in a COVID-Influenced World

The next chapter in the series of designing for people and purpose is “Beyond the Looking Glass,” as I like to call it. To design today, we must reflect on the last year and push ourselves to go beyond what currently exists.   

Resilience is a powerful and emerging theme in response to the concept of collective anxiety and other stressors we’ve all faced in recent years. The ability to bounce back from adverse conditions—where we adapt infrastructure, activities, and our behavior to maintain productivity and build durability—is the resilience that we exhibit over the course of events.

Everyone has different thresholds of stress and a subjective state of balance, or normal. In fact, research indicates that a certain level of regular stress is healthy and gives people motivation to learn from challenges. Organizations that increasingly allow for this activity to play out in the workplace support happier, healthier employees. A workplace of resilience is one that allows people to express and cope with stress as a part of their workstyle.

A People-Centric Work Culture

We can all learn from the current pandemic experience, as well as those of the past, as we consider how to manage our personal and working lives. Organizations have the power to create sustainable, people-centric work cultures.

I like to think of it in comparison to the “Room of Requirement” as noted in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling—a flexible haven of space that can transform into what a user needs it to be. Organizations can design activity-based spaces where employees access what they need and then act—whether that is an area to complete focus work, relax and recharge, or collaborate with peers.

How we blur the boundaries of work and life should be determined by everyone individually—the office is merely a palette for creating opportunity. A strong workplace culture promotes employee choice, variety, and flexibility, ultimately leading to a strong ROI for organizations as employees are often happier and more productive. 

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