Research has shown that separation between work and life can be very important for health and wellness, as well as for work and life satisfaction. When people work from home, the separation disappears. People may end up working in the kitchen or bedroom. Kids or other family members may interrupt workflow. Employees may be distracted by managing house projects alongside work projects. There are certainly advantages to multi-tasking and reduced commute time, but there are also disadvantages.
Liminality is the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries. It stems from the Latin word, limen, that means threshold, as in a doorway, marking the transition from one room to another. In psychological terms, liminality may be used to describe the transition between work and home. It may refer to the transition between managing the thoughts about completing a work project to getting in the mood for a nice dinner out or the transition between acting in one’s workplace identity as an employee or manager to their identity as a family member, spouse, or friend. When there is no time to make this transition, it can cause frustration, confusion, or stress.
For example, one day several years ago, I was working as a professor, and I was conducting a meeting with my research group of graduate students in my office at the university. Daycare had fallen through that day, so I had brought my 2-year-old daughter to work for the meeting. I was sitting at the table with my graduate students trying to discuss a research project and my daughter started dropping student papers off my desk onto the floor. I remember the distinct feeling of confusion mixed with desperation trying to be a good mom and a good professor at the same time. I felt I was failing at both at that moment when I lost my tempter with my daughter and lost my professional demeanor in front of my students. There was no liminality in that moment, no time for a transition, and it caused me a great deal of stress.
In the more recent times of the pandemic, when much of the world went from working in the office to working from home, people all over the world felt the lack of liminality as family and pets interrupted work calls and work laptops took over family living spaces. Having no time to manage the transitions often created stress and confusion during this time. Now that we are through the pandemic and people don’t need to stay sequestered in their homes, we have the opportunity to offer a transition time to allow for psychological recovery, to create liminality.
One way to carve out liminality is by going into the office. There is research to support the idea that a commute is an opportunity to enter into the liminal space to give people in-between time to make the transition between work and home. Of course, it depends on the commute and a person’s attitude toward the commute. If the commute causes stress on its own, the psychological benefits of liminality are eliminated. However, if a person takes advantage of the commute to use it as a transition time, it can reduce stress and bring about focus.
While many people say the commute is the reason for not going into the office, it could very well be a good reason to go.