How Much of Their Personal Lives Should Employees Bring to the Office?

Competition for talent is high, and employers have reacted by finding creative ways to attract new employees and retain current ones. But, whether these tactics end up being successful at boosting recruitment and retention or not, they almost always have large implications for a company’s work culture — specifically, they sometimes tend to blur the line between employees’ office lives and their personal ones.

But efforts to enhance office culture by making it feel more like home may not necessarily sit well with employees. A 2019 Workplace Boundaries Report found that 37% of employees say their coworkers are too informal on workplace chats. Just over 65% believe that coworkers should not be allowed to bring pets into the workplace, and 62% say the same thing of their coworkers’ children. Surprisingly, these opinions do not break down along generational lines. A majority of employees across all age groups would prefer to minimize their personal lives in the office.

The report ultimately found that many workers feel their office culture is becoming too casual: They say there’s too much physical contact in the workplace, that inappropriate communication methods are becoming commonplace and that employees are increasingly treating their workplace as if it were their home.

Some of the most common workplace initiatives to improve an office’s work culture, though well-meaning, have the opportunity to actually create tension. Taking a look at how your employees react to new changes reveals ways you can support employees as they navigate the gray areas between their personal and professional lives.

Work Culture Initiatives That Can Blur Boundaries

Some of the most popular methods of bringing colleagues together and strengthening team bonds — such as team lunches, bring a child or pet to work days, casual clothing days, heritage celebrations — can obscure personal and work boundaries.

Trust-building exercises sometimes involve sharing personal details, for example, while themed trainings and workshops often actively invite attendees to share their feelings. To some employees, this may be fine. To others, that kind of information is reserved for friends. Many employees actively avoid getting too close to colleagues, whether in person or online. Social media and other communication channels, whether internal messaging systems or public platforms, can also cause personal and work lives to overlap.

Red Flags for Blending Personal and Work Boundaries

In today’s divisive political climate, it may be smart to institute a policy around political expression that underscores the need for mutual respect in the workplace. Avoid social causes or nonprofits that have an explicit political orientation.

Be thoughtful about how you can get your entire workforce involved in initiatives that make your workplace more welcoming without requiring employees to share private thoughts or information. In taking on issues of diversity, for example, remember that it shouldn’t rest on members of the minority groups in question to explain concepts or guide their colleagues based on their personal experiences. On social media, employees who post private information risk accidentally sharing it with their colleagues — and there’s also the potential for others to see the political and social views of your employees as those of your organization.

Though it may not require a formal policy, be clear as you communicate with employees about the extent of their right to privacy. Outline which trainings and programs are voluntary, and make sure your employees understand that they are under no obligation to interact with coworkers through public social media platforms or their personal phones.

Working Toward a Workplace Culture Is Worth It, With Caveats

Given the intense competition for talent, organizations will (and should) continue to build a culture that can attract and keep quality employees. Make sure that the culture you are building is something that your current and prospective employees really want.

Generational stereotypes can lead organizations down false trails. Making wrong assumptions about what workers want based on their age can in fact exacerbate retention issues, alienating as many employees as you attract. Misalignment among leaders or a lack of preparation for negative consequences can create strife and possibly even lead to culture wars, especially if one part of the business has a casual day or a remote work policy when others don’t.

Finally, be wary of introducing programs or policies that may have collateral effects. Not everyone with a diverse heritage wants to share that publicly, and your on-site therapy animal program could just be a hassle for employees who are allergic. The more you listen to your employees and invite their perspectives, the better you will be able to encourage a healthy culture that allows employees to balance their private and working lives.

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