Helen Wilkinson - working@life

Helen Wilkinson - working@life - We live in the era of Community plc. The hot soap series of our time - Ally McBeal and the UK's very own dot.com drama, Attachments - depict a world where work is the new community, the place where we forge friendships, fi

by HELEN WILKINSON, founder and CEO of elancentric.com(hwilkins@netcomuk.co.uk)
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We live in the era of Community plc. The hot soap series of our time - Ally McBeal and the UK's very own dot.com drama, Attachments - depict a world where work is the new community, the place where we forge friendships, find new loves and seek new kinds of belonging.

In Ally McBeal, the characters don't go anywhere except the work bar and don't have any friends or partners that are not somehow connected to their professional network. Work has become their whole life, woven seamlessly into their total existence. In Attachments, the two co-founders of the dot.com business are partners in the richest sense of the word. Their love-making is interspersed with casual chats about business strategy, funding difficulties and new investors.

And as business creeps into the bedroom, elsewhere community spirit is being exploited for commercial gain. In a climate of intense competition for talent, leading-edge companies in Silicon Valley have sought to recreate the kind of community feeling that you once typically might have felt closer to home, in an effort to extract even more value from their team.

The corporate village is commonplace: you no longer need to leave work to have an energising swim, squeeze in a session of psychotherapy, get a massage or do your dry cleaning - it is all laid on for you. These new totems of belonging - volleyball teams, company logos on clothing, as well as the creature comforts of microwaves, TV and VCRs - enable people to feel that they are working home from home.

In an environment where work/life initiatives have become the critical tool both for retention and recruitment of staff, more and more companies are seeking to bring life to work. As a formula, the strategy seems to be working; research suggests that as a result of these home-from-home benefits, people are becoming happier in the workplace than they are in their own houses.

In her book The Time Bind, sociologist Arlie Hothschild describes a topsy-turvy world. In the factory she studied, people loved their work and for a variety of reasons preferred to work than to go home. The company, she noted, capitalised successfully on the feelings employees had for their work.

However, as a long-term strategy, this approach may be flawed. Lucy Daniels, an associate of the Work-Life Research Centre in the UK, argues that companies that try to make the office more pleasant than the home do not win in the long run. Employees often end up with even less of a balance than they had in the past - working longer hours less productively, and ultimately burning themselves out.

There are also signs that a backlash is setting in against Community plc. A recent article in the US new-economy magazine Fast Company describes a new breed of saner start-ups where futons and sofa-beds are banned, and social gatherings for co-workers kept to a minimum.

The goal is to send out a positive signal that having a life outside work is critical to creativity, innovation and renewal. Does this mean that those of us who wish to bring some life into the workplace to enhance creativity have got it wrong, after all? The answer is yes and no.

In the end, the real challenge facing all of us is to find ways of coping with the processes of work intensification that have become the hallmark of change in the new economy. Making work fun and cultivating a play ethic is critical for creativity and innovation, and a sense of community, camaraderie and teamwork should always have a crucial role to play. At the same time, it is critical to avoid the squeeze on time that affects our relationships and networks outside the workplace.

The corporate response - to bring community into the workplace without focusing on the time pressures that keep people at work - may in the end be a quick fix rather than a permanent solution. The challenge is to promote new ways of working, to encourage people to take time out and take advantage of learning opportunities and sabbaticals, as well as cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience.

Above all, companies at the cutting edge of the new economy need to recognise that Community plc must compete for time and attention alongside friends, lovers, hobbies and outside interests.

So the next time you go to the bar for a quick drink with your colleagues, before heading off home, ask yourself some questions. Have I become a member of Community plc? If the answer is yes, ask yourself a more challenging question: am I content with the balance that I have between work and the rest of my life? And then take action.

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