Some time ago I wrote that we are all turning into mangroves, the plants that grow in the salty environments where rivers meet the seas. This analogy was referring to the boundaries, once sharp and well-defined, between our real and digital lives. If we pause to reflect we cannot fail to notice that many other “boundaries” have been shifted, many dividing lines have been uprooted and thrown aside, by Covid-19 and the new social norms that have come out of this episode in our lives. Do you remember when – a few minutes before leaving work for the holidays – you used to turn on the “out of office” as an automatic reply to emails? Millions of people have now been out of office for three or four months, with some firms telling staff not to go back until 2021.
So what does out of office mean now? It now describes a new way of working – smart working – whereas it used to mean going on holiday. Time and our diaries are both part of these shifting boundaries: a sort of mangrove where it is hard to make out the dividing line between time for ourselves and time available to others. Why is this happening? Because once upon a time work was a place where people used to go, and their contracts stipulated a timetable – the classic 9 to 5, Monday to Friday – with regular agendas and a certain number of holidays. Now even this boundary no longer applies, and our diaries and time have taken on a different value and meaning.
This momentous change represents both good news and bad news. Let's start with the good: according to a recent survey, workers – whether employed or self-employed – rate having flexibility in their working methods and timetables as the top factors in choosing a job or staying in it. The bad news is that stretched diaries and total flexibility can be mistaken for unlimited availability, a kind of continuous, 24/7, year-round availability that not only defies all logic but leads inexorably towards a nervous breakdown.
It is up to us, therefore, to draw the dividing line, to clearly define our limits. Give-and-take flexibility is not the same as constant availability.
The connecting thread between these words is easy to understand but difficult to internalise. “What once seemed black and white turns to so many shades of grey, we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay,” sang Bruce Springsteen in Blood Brother. This moving song urges us to rediscover the meaning of life in our relationship to others, in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity. We start from here: even in a tracksuit.