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The year our personal lives took center stage at work

2020's blurring of professional and personal boundaries exacerbated disparities, humanized leaders and put personal values front and center.

WFH

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs and privileged enough to be able to work from home, our whole selves were bared at work this year. Our homes and faces were blown up for virtual inspection. Our children's demands and crises filled our working hours, and our working mothers became schoolteachers and housewives, whether they wanted to or not. Our illnesses became vital public information, and our tragedies shared. Our work lives ate into our social lives until there was no boundary between them.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work. Remote work might be the most sexy 2020 trend, but for the CEOs and leaders I spoke with, the de-professionalization of work could be the most important effect on a personal level. It's the one that has caused the most harm to women in the workplace and destroyed work-life balance for basically everyone. It's also what has contributed to the majority of work-from-home Americans being more satisfied with their work lives than they were before, mostly because they feel more connected to their families, they're able to set their own schedules and they're more comfortable at home, according to a Morning Consult poll. While we can't know exactly how many and who will be going back to the office just yet, as long as there is some kind of flexible work schedule, people's personal lives will be part of their work lives and vice versa.

"In some respects, it has created intimacy in a way we didn't expect. Because you can't hide your life. You can't hide your whole self," explained Erika Fisher, chief administrative officer and general counsel at Atlassian. This can allow people to set their own schedules around their needs and increase empathy between workers and their managers. The increased intimacy also became an equalizer in meetings, because it democratizes participation and gives everyone the same physical space online, according to Fisher. "You don't have to worry about the man-spreading that happens in meetings, literally or metaphorically," she said.

Personal politics and activism at work are also an element of newly blurred professional boundaries. The summer of protests following the killing of George Floyd, combined with the chaos of the 2020 election cycle, spurred more than just diversity pledges by corporations; it created a new wave of people bringing their politics and values to work. While Brian Armstrong stirred up support in some corners when he declared that political and social beliefs had no place at Coinbase, his memo also crystalized for others that personal identity and personal values should be welcomed where they work. Company leaders at SF-based edtech startup Outschool encouraged their employees to get involved in the 2020 election, while people like Kary Campbell, Airbnb's former director of design, told me that "companies and societies can no longer just exist to create profitable numbers for their shareholders. We need to evolve as human beings to be more creative than that."

While global comms provider Mitel has never taken explicit political positions, the historically quiet company saw a big jump in activism, affinity group creation and values discussions among its workforce this year. "I think we can agree that people need to be treated fairly and that we should embrace and welcome who people are," said Mary McDowell, the company's CEO. "That is part of people's whole selves. It's part of what they bring to work now, when it wasn't before."

But while falling professional boundaries have been good for some people and some parts of work, they've seriously damaged others. Just because personal lives are now dictating work schedules and kids, pets and houses take center stage on screen doesn't mean that workers' relationships with peers and managers are as healthy or social as they were before. Instead, intimate personal information is shared without the buffer of friendship and companionship that can be found in the office, making most workers feel more lonely, isolated and judged, not less.

"Increased intimacy also makes differences much more acute," Fisher said. And it's those differences that contribute to the fact that one in four women in corporate roles have considered downshifting their careers, according to McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2020 report. The "always-online" remote work norm has made caretaking responsibilities, which fall more heavily on women, increasingly visible at work; now, "worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic" is one of the key factors affecting why working mothers are considering downshifting their careers, according to the report.

But falling professional boundaries could also help solve the problem, said Lareina Yee, McKinsey's chief diversity officer and the report's leader. Many companies have policies that encourage flexibility and leave-taking, but workers don't see their leaders take advantage of those policies. If leaders are clear that they are fighting the same battles, they can "de-risk this perception that their career will be hurt if they actually say they need to use something that a company already offers," she said.

Fisher is focused on physical space in her search for solutions. Some workers are comfortable in their home spaces and willing and even eager to share them on video, but others may not have privacy, or a clean room, or enough space to be conducive to work and to help them feel comfortable at home. Twitter's RoomRater and other Zoom-rating accounts, while mostly funny and well-intentioned, made that abundantly clear, literally assessing the quality of a person's room and helping legitimize the judgment and subsequent shaming of people's personal spaces.

So, whether people go back to the office full time, Fisher wants to find ways for Atlassian to provide a physical space that allows people to enjoy the flexibility of work-from-home while reducing the disparities and judgment that can come with the increased intimacy. "Space is one of the choices that you can extend to people," she said.

In 2021, the conversation about work will be a conversation about the choices we make in physical spaces, and about whether we want to rebuild the walls between our personal and professional lives. Fisher described it best: "There's this wave happening. Even when the wave comes ashore and washes back out … There will be a different direction."

Here at Protocol, we've written more stories about the future of work than I have the energy to count (I got to 20 before I gave up, and that only took me as far back as May). So if you're looking for more on what we learned in 2020, I selected some of the most interesting and important articles we've written this year:

Issie Lapowsky wrote about how remote work is hurting mothers, and Mike Murphy delved into why the future is probably not entirely remote. David Pierce profiled Dropbox's Drew Houston, who hopes to capitalize on a new world of work and interviewed Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra on how to run a remote company on our podcast. I talked to Salesforce's futurist Peter Schwartz about why companies will lose talent if they aren't flexible about work and dug into how new ideas about work will make it easier for companies to diversify their workforce by investing in places like Atlanta.

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