When you’re sitting at your desk, do you ever wish you were somewhere else? That’s exactly the idea behind Breakroom. Created by virtual reality startup Mure VR, the company imagines a time where we’ll all be at our desks physically, but will be miles away in our minds. Think of the possibilities – you could write emails with waves crashing in the background, or brainstorm on a mountain top.
On paper, this sounds quite cool. But is it? Or is it just another way to make us forget where we are (stuck in an office)? Another efficiency-mad strategy to get us to spend more time at work? You can imagine the companies which are likely to test this out on their employees first. It will be the same ones that introduced the business world to ping pong tables and free beer, hoping to seduce and keep the best talent with their Insta-friendly perks.
For those of us who joined the workforce during a recession, this seemed like a pretty good deal. But the payoff of this casualisation? You sacrifice your own time to socialise with your colleagues, and find yourself at the beck and call of your employer – who insists you’re friends on WhatsApp "because it makes communicating easier".
Organisational psychologist Fiona Cooper has studied the importance of being accessible to your colleagues. That translates not just into being always contactable, but into making an effort to socialise, too. “From an in-group out-group perspective, we are wired to want to find things in common with people we spend a lot of time with, and to form groups,” she says. “Particularly in small and sociable offices, if an individual does not socialise and get to know her colleagues, it is likely they will take offence and subconsciously be saying, 'Why don't you want to be in our group?' This can ostracise people.”
People have always socialised with work colleagues to some extent – it’s how you make better contacts, strengthen relationships and grow your career. 29-year old May Burrough has worked in Shanghai, New York, London and Barcelona so she’s seen first-hand how different cultures respect the need to ease into relationships with potential business partners. “The Chinese and the Spanish are most similar; relationships (guanxi) are valued above all,” she explains. “Long, relaxed meals with plentiful alcohol seem to be the way business is conducted. It's all about trust. You need to get to know individuals really well before even beginning to think about signing deals."
But now that we’re connected to everyone all the time, the idea of being sociable has taken on a whole new meaning. Without internet access, laptops and smartphones, work was confined to the office. Your annoying client couldn’t send you midnight requests. Your boss couldn’t ruin your Sunday with a neurotic email. Computers were meant to help us work less; instead, they’ve led us to work even more. And we’re so used to being connected that we’ve become permanently switched on, constantly waiting for that next dopamine hit from a notification. Being busy is a state of mind, and we’re all addicted to it.
And then there are those of us who have more than one form of employment. Currently, 234,000 Brits are freelancing in a second job. This is made possible by our ability to juggle a busy diary on a phone. And many of these have developed from passion projects into steady additional incomes. Every advertising agency in Britain is full of designers who double up as illustrators, copywriters who moonlight as crime novelists. Now, thanks to the opportunities the internet provides, they can also be monetised. Our hobbies have become a valuable source of extra income.
For companies like WeWork, this is providing a huge opportunity, as people turn to communal working spaces to launch their second career. I asked their Director of Community, Leni Zneimer, if breaking down the boundaries between work and play allows people to do better work. “I think it does,” he replied. “Because when you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing and supported by a strong community, the work feels more like play.” He continues: “We believe that if you bring your authentic self to work – and if you truly know the people around you and have that support system – you’re going to work more efficiently, make connections more quickly, and generally see your business thrive.” Lots of startup jargon, yes, but you get the idea.
Cooper believes that blurring work and play, to some extent, is important for your mental wellbeing. “People need both in order to be happy, and without play, work can become monotonous,” she says. “In the same way, too much play in isolation without any work or purpose can be unfulfilling. We are social creatures by nature, and we usually need a certain amount of this in every area of our lives. We are not wired to always be rational. Certain research has found that emotion is the number one motivator at work, and allowing all types of emotions at work, to a certain extent, will allow us to feel more like ourselves.”
But confusing the distinction between work and play also makes many people uncomfortable. “I know the ultimate goal in life is to feel like you’re not working when you're at work, achieving a totally streamlined work and personal life,” says Burrough. “But personally, I have always found it more natural to have my work hat on at work – where I’m more sensible, shy and professional – and my play hat on outside of work – where I’m more playful, chatty and relaxed!”
This growing trend towards being yourself all the time also adds pressure to make valuable friends and contacts during the 9-5. Jess Wong is a 27-year old media planner who has experienced this. “I often get slated if I slink off to a Thursday night dinner party instead of joining everyone at the pub, or forego a Friday lunchtime bender to work through my lunch hour so I can leave on time ready for the weekend,” explains Wong.
“I have had to learn to say a hard no, so as not to get my arm twisted and later regret it when I miss a train or turn up to a party half-cut,” she continues. “Work for me is just that, and it's a bonus that I work with great people who want to have fun.”
Being always 'on' presents psychological challenges as well as social ones. ‘Burnout’ is a word that’s been lingering for a few years, but what do we really mean by the expression? Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s controversial CEO, described it in 2012: “Burnout is about resentment,” she said. “Preventing it is about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you're giving up that makes you resentful.” For those of us who need downtime, combining socialising with working exhausts those supplies of energy and means we need to spend more of our own time getting our energy levels back up. Ergo, resentment of work.
So as we navigate the murky waters between having fun and being professional, maybe there’s just one more woman’s advice to take. In the words of Hillary Clinton: “Don't confuse having a career with having a life.”