By Alison Jones, Lead Consultant
The other day, a colleague floated me an article about the Japanese concept of ikigai, which essentially translates into your “reason for being.” To achieve full ikigai, four parts of your life must align: your passion, your mission, your profession, and your vocation. When this happens, your life is lived with joy. The article goes on to talk about five areas of the world, sometimes referred to as Blue Zones, where people live the longest and seem to achieve ikigai. Okinawa and other longevity hotspots around the world have been identified as the Blue Zones. Studies show that one of the most important characteristics shared by these Blue Zones is a very high degree of social engagement.
As someone who has worked from a home office for 20 years, this got me thinking. Is working from a home office blocking my path to ikigai? Am I missing out on essential social interactions that could be happening every Monday through Friday from 9 to 5? And from a broader perspective, is the widespread use of the home office turning us into recluses who lack social skills, as we shave years off our lives?
Will the Home Office be the Death of You?
I don’t think so. While I believe socialization is a key component of health and wellbeing (I’m a bit of a social butterfly myself, and, truth be told, I seek out socialization like air to breathe!), I truly don’t believe the rise in telework is putting anyone’s ikigai at risk. After all, there are many avenues for socialization, not just between the hours of 9 to 5. I, myself, feel very socialized, as do many other teleworkers I know – or those who do not work outside the home at all.
Still, those who work from home offices may sometimes feel cut off, as they are not free to run out during the work day for social engagements. I recently conducted a survey on wellness in the home office, and the results showed that the largest perceived gap of the home office was in the area of socialization. The lack of face-to-face interaction with coworkers – or any human beings – can sometimes feel isolating.
So, apart from eating more soy and taking up gardening (also a common link among Blue Zoners), what can we as telecommuters do to up our inner ikigai quotients and avoid becoming socially awkward office-dwellers?
Drawing on my personal experience working from a home office all these years, I offer these suggestions:
1. Leave the house
Yes, leave the house and that desk you thought you were supposed to stay chained to for eight hours straight. There’s most likely no reason you can’t leave the confines of your house at lunchtime or for a mid-morning break to take a quick stroll around your neighborhood. Along the way, you might encounter other neighbors who are eager for a brief hello and some chit-chat. Just make sure you are ready to say, “I really need to get back to work” if you live next to a Chatty Cathy.
Or, visit your local coffee shop or library. Sometimes, it’s the very nature of being surrounded by people, not necessarily interacting directly with them, that makes us feel connected socially. When work allows, consider setting your laptop up at the local Starbucks, library, or any other area that provides tables, relative quiet, and free Wi-Fi. (Believe it or not, this type of setting actually has a name now – coffice. Really! Look it up!) You may be surprised what the change of scenery will do to boost your spirits and your productivity.
2. Go online
While trolling the Internet all day would certainly be counterproductive, taking a break here and there to interact with others online is probably a healthy thing to do if you work from home. The reality is that the Internet is here to stay, and there are many positive aspects that can enrich our lives. As we all know, many online social networking sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, provide this opportunity to feel connected. But a word of caution - five minutes can easily turn into 20, so you may want to set a timer.
As stated by Jennifer Carpenter in her article, Building Community in the Virtual Workplace, “The Internet is not simply a medium, like the telephone or mail system – it is also a place, a virtual community where people meet, engage in discourse, become friends, fall in love, and develop all of the relationships that are developed in physical communities.” Use this resource and use it wisely. There are many pitfalls online as there are in the physical world. But find your online community and feel free to interact with them briefly from time to time when needed. Just keep it brief.
If you’re an employer with teleworkers on your staff, make sure to provide online professional networks where they can take breaks to stay engaged with colleagues and to keep up on company news. Enterprise social networks, such as Slack and Yammer, allow people within an organization to connect from remote locations and to stay engaged throughout the day via chat channels that can be arranged by project or topic. Organizations can also use simple videoconferencing apps (such as Zoom) to provide employees with the ability to schedule a videoconference, or even to start an impromptu one.
3. Make your evenings and weekends count
While it is tempting to put our feet up after a long day in the office and to stay home all weekend to catch up on household chores, it’s critical for the home office worker to get out and socialize when not working. I’m not talking about every evening or a non-stop string of activities, but we must make time to connect with others. Whether it’s the gym, book club, religious gathering, dinner with a friend, theater group, whatever – the point is to get out and engage in meaningful interactions with others. Sweat it out, talk it out, laugh it out. That human connection is so important. And home office workers may actually find that when 5:00 hits, they're ready to bolt out the door for the socialization and change of scenery.
4. Focus on quality rather than quantity
No matter where we go – work, our communities, online – there are interactions that are “fluff” (Monday morning quarterbacking types of conversations that are somewhat neutral in nature), interactions that are toxic (think gossip, drama, backstabbing, or otherwise non-supportive interactions), and interactions that are enriching and life-giving. In a typical work environment, there tend to be many fluff interactions, with a sprinkling of toxic and enriching interactions. While there’s nothing wrong with fluff conversations (as long as they aren’t distracting from more important activities), make it your goal to maximize the enriching interactions and to minimize the toxic ones.
When you work from a home office, you have the opportunity to be more selective in who you interact with on a regular basis. Strive to engage with those who inspire you, who make you want to do and be better. Seek out those with similar values and interests. I don’t think you'll miss the office drama or politics once you replace those types of interactions with more positive, life-giving ones.
Flutter on, Home Office Social Butterfly
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter WHERE your socialization takes place, as long as it takes place regularly and is high quality. Don’t trick yourself into believing you can do without it. Whatever you want to call it – your tribe, your posse, your moai (so called in Okinawa) – find your patchwork of friends who are mutually committed to your ikigai, and vice versa. Deep down (deeper for some than for others), we all crave connection and community. The home office should not be a barrier to this. So close your office door when the work day is over, and go out and do what you love. Your moai – and perhaps a longer life - awaits you.
Not everyone works from a home office all the time. For more information about optimizing your office space, click here.