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  • Angelica Accurso

Redefining 'work-life' balance in the digital age

Often the life of the digital nomad is portrayed on social media as a utopian reality where one works on Miami beaches among the palm trees and where working hours are punctuated between a swim in the sea and a hike in the mountains... and this may be true, but only for a few. Most people work from home or often in coworking spaces to try not to lose the human contact that motivates us to work and move forward, in a world that is increasingly leading to isolation.


We at LeafCo are studying this new phenomenon and focus our activities on increasing the wellness of digital nomads/remote workers. To do this, in addition to conducting a review of scientific research on the topic to be applied in the practice of our activities, we organise meet-up events, specifically designed for digital nomads, in which we ask participants how they cope with this lifestyle and what are the greatest challenges or opportunities they encounter in their daily lives.

On Friday 25/08/2023, we led a meet-up event that had “work life balance” (WLB) as its main topic: how this concept has changed over time, how difficult it is to achieve in terms of a digital nomad, and what strategies can be put in place to best achieve this goal.

It is clear to everyone that after COVID-19 many working boundaries have been blown, with greater need for people working to manage their own working time with less supervisory support: this is where self-discipline becomes essential!

Those who are predisposed to set and manage their own personal and temporal boundaries can find many improvements and ways to discover the world, themselves and find their personal freedom through digital nomadism. But what happens when one is unable to establish boundaries?

Many people report feeling overburdened by work: being behind a computer often leads to supervisors or colleagues asking for “favours” or to perform tasks even outside working hours. Time seems to speed up and, taking a break from work for a couple of days (perhaps for holiday), leads people to feel they have to catch up on all the information lost in those two days to get back on track (especially in fast-paced, competitive work environments).

So, the digital age presents several challenges, such as an “always on” culture that leads to burnout; however, technology also offers remedies such as asynchronous communication and time-tracking apps, promoting efficient working hours and personal time off. In this blog we discuss work-life balance as an evolving concept in the digital age, highlighting opportunities, challenges and strategies for digital nomads seeking to build better balance in their personal and professional lives.

Understanding work life balance: definitions and evolutions overtime/the impact of covid-19


When we talk about work-life balance, we come up against different definitions that have a slightly different nuance. In the review of Zainab Bello and Garba Ibrahim Tanko (2021) it is possible to find different definitions of WLB. For example, Clark (2000) defined WLB as a “satisfaction and good functioning at work and at home with a minimum of role conflict”; or, for Pillinger (2001), instead, WLB was “the flexible working arrangements that allow the employees to avail of working arrangements that provide a balance between work responsibilities and personal responsibilities”.

Hence, the most classic definitions of work-life balance create a clear separation between the work environment and the family environment, based on several reference theories developed by scholars with different backgrounds. For example, the “Border Theory”, presented by Clark in 2000, it is based on the concept that individuals operate within distinct domains of life separated by temporal, physical, or emotional borders. These borders influence transitions between domains such as work and home, and the ease of these transitions affects the synthesis between the two domains and the level of conflict; while the “Boundary Theory”, developed by Zerubavel in 1996, focuses on how people define work and home and how conversion occurs between these domains. This theory shares similar premises with the Border Theory but exclusively centres on work and family. It aims to achieve balance between the two domains by reducing role conflict (Zainab Bello & Garba Ibrahim Tanko, 2021).

With the advent of technology and flexible work arrangements, the concept of work-life balance has taken on a new shade: work and personal life can coexist harmoniously, allowing individuals to benefit from both aspects without compromising either. From this moment on, WLB starts to represent the goal to create a positive synergy between the work and personal domains, allowing both to positively influence each other and contribute to an enhanced overall quality of life. Greenhaus, J.H et al., 2003, defined WLB as a state wherein individuals experience contentment due to their equal involvement in all aspects of their lives, without feeling overwhelmed in any particular area.

Later, the pandemic has further redefined the concept: with the widespread adoption of remote work, the boundary between the professional and domestic environments has become clearly blurred. Now, achieving a good work-life balance includes the flexibility in organizing work and personal activities, as well as a focus on physical and mental wellness.

Nowadays, there is a great deal of confusion in the literature as to whether this sudden shift to remote work has positive or negative consequences on the achievement of this balance. There is no doubt that maintaining a harmonious work-life balance is crucial for a healthy, stress-free environment that lets employees reach their potential. It is also clear that the challenge of achieving this balance has grown during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (Lina Vyas; 2022).

In her article “ 'New normal' at work in a post-COVID world: work-life balance and labour markets”, researcher Lina Vyas, with a review of the literature, finds studies that argue. Does the creation of a work environment that promotes flexibility improve the overall wellness of the workforce?

Based on such studies, she explains how people who work remotely today choose their working arrangements according to the nature of the tasks and goes on to argue that this adaptability can have positive outcomes for health, family dynamics and general wellness. However, the article also shows the other side of the coin: while many people have adapted to these changes, some find it difficult to maintain a clear boundary between working time and personal time. Some employees tend to extend their working hours because they are often forced to deal with urgent matters even during non-working hours, blurring the boundaries between work and free time. Indeed, the researcher shows a study by Palumbo (2020) that reveals how employees engaged in remote work during the pandemic reported an increase in work-related fatigue and a blurring of the lines between work-related and non-work-related activities; but, in contrast, her article also references the investigation conducted by Putri and Amran (2021) demonstrated a favourable impact of WFH (working flexible hours) during the COVID-19 pandemic on employees' work-life balance in Indonesia.

Looking ahead, the digital era has the potential to further redefine the work-life balance in a positive light: some organizations are beginning to adopt flexible modes of work, focusing on goals rather than working hours, and the shift towards a flexible "life-work" perspective is also leading to the conceptualization of holistic wellness that involves various domains to achieve personal balance: for example a 2023 article by Hyo-Sun Jung, Yu-Hyun Hwang, Hye-Hyun Yoon, found a correlation between psychological wellness, job satisfaction, pro-social service behaviour, and work–life balance.

Digital Nomadism: Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving Work-Life Balance

In such a new dynamic landscape, it is difficult to determine what the effects of digital nomadism will be and whether it will lead to more positive or negative aspects. What we can say is that, when it comes to WLB, digital nomads are in front of various challenges but also opportunities that summarise what has been said so far.

The main challenges can be summarised as follows:

  • Personal boundaries and overwork: the blurred distinction between work and personal life can result in overworking, as digital nomads encounter difficulty in disconnecting from work-related responsibilities. This challenge ultimately impacts their overall wellness.

  • Isolation and loneliness: frequent traveling and shifting environments can give rise to feelings of isolation and loneliness. This situation hampers the formation of a steady support system and has implications for mental health.

  • Disrupted consistency and routine: the perpetual change in surroundings disrupts regular routines and stability, posing challenges in establishing consistent practices that contribute to a well-balanced lifestyle.

  • Challenges of time zones: navigating work across varying time zones can introduce difficulties in communication, collaboration, and maintaining a structured schedule.

While the main opportunities can be summarised in the following way:

  • Flexibility, autonomy, and task-centric focus: digital nomads have the opportunity to reshape their work dynamics beyond predefined hours and focus on tasks instead of time. This autonomy empowers them to design work schedules that foster a balanced routine aligned with personal preferences and needs.

  • Exploration and enrichment: the capability to work from diverse locations offers digital nomads the chance to immerse themselves in new cultures, experiences,and environments. This enriches personal growth and adds depth to their life experiences.

  • Cultivating Seamless work-life integration: digital nomadism not only provides flexibility but also encourages a dynamic approach to integrating work and leisure. This lifestyle prompts individuals to curate their professional commitments to harmonize with personal interests and activities, fostering a holistic and integrated way of living. This integrated approach often allows for a more balanced distribution of time between work and family, contributing to an overall improved quality of life.

Ways that Digital Nomads are approaching WLB

Achieving work-life balance as a digital nomad/remote worker involves the implementation of conscious optimisation strategies that require personal adaptations, capitalising on the opportunities such a lifestyle brings. And to overcome challenges and leverage opportunities, in this moment of flexibility and autonomy, everyone must calibrate their own strategies and understand which ones work best for itself; but here at LeafCo we have the goal to help in this process.

That’s why we operate with a holistic model of wellness that encompasses six areas of interest to achieve comprehensive wellness:

  • social,

  • physical,

  • emotional,

  • cognitive,

  • vocational (professional),

  • and spiritual.

All these domains are interconnected. Having a high level in just a few of these domains doesn't allow us to experience complete satisfaction. Hence, to achieve a good WLB, we must work on each of these domains.

Our August meet-up at Comuna Garage in Porto explored the concept of work-life balance. We asked participants to complete a “wellness check-in” based on a holistic model of wellness.

Participants scored their “level of wellness” across each of the domains. Six posters corresponding to each of the aforementioned domains were scattered around the room and, once

they had finished filling out the wellness check-in, we asked participants to go to the domain in which they felt was fullest and energised (the one they scored highest) to discuss and share tips and strategies for building wellness in this domain. After stimulating group conversations, participants from each domain shared the following suggestions:

  • Social — focus on deeper connections & quality of the relationships; explore common interests; ask for help- offer help (we are all anxious at time, it’s okay!); just ask new people that you meet whatever they want to do stuff; ask questions and listen more with genuine interest.

  • Physical — priority; consistency every day; habit; do it early; cross-benefits (ripple); mind-body performance healthy.

  • Emotional — be gentle towards yourself; work on self-awareness, do therapy; journaling, voice mailing to yourself; make time to rest and relax; keep a support system if not therapy; get a therapist.

  • Cognitive — learn new languages (ex. the one of the place you are staying); journaling; gaming; helping others; work on emotional intelligence; optimization; reading; relevant movies (I like horrors) ; chess (games you like); debates.

  • Vocational — develop an interest (game) in the job that you do; find new content/ ideas to implement and share with others (pod casts, e-courses etc..); find interesting people in your domain; find the ways to help others; don’t work, just choose job you like.

  • Spiritual — trust your heart; spend time on hobbies; find a job you love; feeling vibes; find a balance; meditation; spend time with yourself feeling the bad, the good and the ugly; finding purpose/ contribute to a greater good.

Work-Life Balance Meetup, at Communa Garage. 25/08/23


It is interesting to notice how many of the pieces of advice given by the participants are interrelated, as if to highlight the clear connection between all these domains, reminding us how important it is to have mastery in each of these domains to achieve a good work-life balance. Furthermore, another interesting thing to underline is that when we asked participants to place themselves in the domain in which they felt they had a higher level of wellness, no one chose the emotional domain, the tips for that domain were written later.

In May 2023 we had another meet-up with a similar exercise and no one had gone near the spiritual domain and only two people went near the emotional domain. This time three people placed themselves in the spiritual domain and none in the emotional one. When we then asked for tips, most of the suggestions for building emotional wellness were "therapy". However, no one chose this domain as the one in which they felt they had some confidence, and this is the domain most interrelated with all the others.

All this may be food for future thought. What we can say, for the moment, is that we are amid a paradigm shift that is paving the way for the consideration of a holistic wellness that integrates the different areas of a person's life when it comes to WLB and that maybe, particular attention needs to be given to the emotional domain.

Tips for building balance

By integrating and optimizing the previous strategies, digital nomads can effectively navigate the challenges and opportunities of their unique lifestyle, achieving a harmonious balance between their professional commitments and personal satisfaction; and, in order to achieve an optimal WLB, we at LeafCo designed specific solutions that can be useful tips when it comes to work management. The following list, hence, is only meant to help capitalise on a number of strategies for digital nomads:

  • Setting clear temporal boundaries: develop distinct boundaries between work and personal time to prevent work from encroaching on leisure activities. This ensures dedicated moments for both work and relaxation.

  • Setting clear physical boundaries: join co-working spaces, bars where you can bring your laptop or set up a distinct physical workspace within your living environment dedicated solely to work-related activities. This clear demarcation fosters a clearer separation between work and personal life.

  • Optimal workspace and distraction-free environment: designate a productive workspace that minimizes distractions. This setup promotes focus and enhances efficiency when working remotely.

  • Rest and breaks: Incorporate breaks and rest periods into your schedule to prevent burnout and maintain productivity.

  • Balanced schedule: craft a well-structured schedule that allocates time for both work and exploration.

  • Cultivating a consistent routine: develop a consistent routine, starting with a stable morning ritual, to maintain a sense of stability amid changing environments.

  • Intentional offline periods: set aside designated offline moments to completely detach from work-related devices. This intentional disconnection promotes relaxation, immersive experiences, and guards against work-related exhaustion.

  • Engaging in meaningful social interactions: actively participate in local communities and social circles to counteract feelings of isolation. Join networking events and meetups to foster connections that contribute to your well-being.

  • Participating in work retreats: consider engaging in work retreats that offer dedicated time for focused work, skill enhancement, and personal reflection. These retreats provide a rejuvenating break from the routine and a chance to connect with like-minded professionals.

  • Prioritizing quality sleep and an optimal sleep environment: cultivate a sleep-conducive environment to ensure restful sleep. Prioritizing adequate sleep supports seamless adaptation to different time zones and overall holistic well-being.

In our next meet-up at Selina, 29th September, LeafCo will be discussing the topic of ‘building balance’ once again. We will explore what it means for our digital nomad community here in Porto, placing less emphasis on work versus life, and more emphasis on achieving balance across all wellness domains. We look forward to meeting you there!


References:

Bello, Z. & Tanko G.I. (2021). Review of Work-Life Balance Theories.

Clark, S. C. (2000). Work/family border theory: A new theory of work/family balance.

Human Relations, 53(6), 747-770

Greenhaus, J.H.; Collins, K.M.; Shaw, J.D. The relation between work–family balance and quality of life. J. Vocat. Behav. 2003

Jung, H. S., Hwang, Y. H., Yoon H. H. (2023). Impact of Hotel Employees’ Psychological Well-Being on Job Satisfaction and Pro-Social Service Behavior: Moderating Effect of Work–Life Balance.

Vyas, L. (2022). “New normal” at work in a post-COVID world: work–life balance and labor markets.

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