In January, Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was leading a workshop about diversity, equity and inclusion practices in front of a remote audience of academic surgeons. Their work environment, she observed, would usually be a fairly formal one; still, she beamed into the doctors’ homes while sitting in her own living room in Philadelphia, with a vase of flowers on a table in the background, a painting of a wine bottle and glass on one wall.
“It felt like, ‘If we are going to talk about this topic we never talk about, we should break all the rules,’” said Dr. Creary, who focuses on issues of identity and diversity in the workplace. “I think people felt more comfortable receiving it because it took the formality down.”
Throughout the past year, many of our personal spaces have similarly pulled additional duty as offices, schools, gyms, even psychiatrist’s offices or music studios. “We’ve all had a front-row seat to people’s homes and their living rooms,” Dr. Creary said. And at the same time, many of us have had to click into different roles (professional, parent, student) from the same space. Naturally, the boundaries blurred: Kids careened into the Zoom frame during meetings; workout clothes doubled as office attire.
We’re now beginning to make our way back into the public sphere, and though social media platforms and videoconferencing apps will continue to feature in how people log on for work and leisure, such a shift may be prompting you to consider: Is it time to reassess and create new boundaries for our online and offline selves? Here are a few ideas.
BRING MORE OF YOUR PRIVATE SELF TO WORK.
Before the pandemic, casual personal conversations may have been a feature of your workplace relationships – but you probably didn’t have quite the transparency and community with co-workers that developed from frequent video calls from home. Simply having a window into other people’s home environments may have deepened your connections. “Traditionally, there’s been a pretty large division between the personal and the professional,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, an author and speaker who focuses on relationships in the workplace. “I think one legacy of the pandemic is that’s just no longer acceptable for the vast majority of workers.”
If you found the shift to be a positive, try replicating elements of it more intentionally when you see people in person. Mr. Poswolsky suggested setting aside time at the beginning of in-person meetings to have the kinds of personal conversations that might result from observing an intimate detail (what kind of tea are you drinking? is that a relative passing through?) in the corner of your camera frame.
Throughout some of the darkest months of the pandemic, Corinna Nicolaou, a college personal-essay writing instructor in Pullman, Wash., almost never saw her students’ faces – they rarely turned their cameras on in class. “I felt like students were reacting in some ways to that forced sense of intimacy,” she said. “There was a weariness, I felt, to the online thing.”
Nevertheless, she switched on her own camera for each class, allowing her students to see her in a more relaxed setting – she sometimes appeared in comfortable clothes, or even in bed. It introduced a new vulnerability and ease to their relationship that, she thinks, set an example for her students: They, too, could open up, at least in their writing. “The essays that I got out of students this semester were really revealing and very deep,” she said.
She hopes that she can now take those lessons back into a physical classroom. “Over these last semesters, teachers have had to be flexible, be vulnerable, not have all the answers,” Ms. Nicolaou said. “Once you’ve been through that, you’ve changed.”
CONSIDER YOUR COMFORT LEVELS.
Some people have preferred not to put their private lives on screens.
“This sense of being exposed has been a challenge for people who do not have an environment that they feel comfortable showing to whoever is on the other side of the line,” said Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies health and well-being online. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have dedicated work spaces, she said, might not want to share with classmates.
As an actor in New York, Anna Suzuki has fielded a fair number of video calls for work this past year – discussions with directors, table reads for television series and so many other Zoom meetings. She also shares a studio apartment with her partner.
“Because I’m a pretty private person,” Ms. Suzuki said, “I had to figure out a way they would only see a blank wall behind me.”
The solution was to carve out a section of a storage space in her mother’s apartment, conveniently located just below hers. Her “public” perch – an oak-coloured table and black office chair –
has provided some separation between her work and personal lives, allowing her to turn on and off her “performer brain,” as she described it. It hasn’t always been easy. “I really have to compartmentalize,” she said. “I still had to create a public persona at home.” Yet she also found that being able to stake such a clear divide between public and private was comforting, she said.
If you’re not enthusiastic about sharing so much, that’s OK. “It’s fair for someone to say what their needs are,” Mr. Poswolsky said. “Create a boundary around, ‘I don’t want to let people into my space in a vulnerable way.’”
And consider taking your time easing back into situations that now give you pause. Dr. Creary said she observed two sources of concern for those who enjoyed the firm boundaries they formed working from home and are now anticipating a return to the workplace: that the change of location will decrease productivity because distractions abound, and that it will increase exposure to unhealthy social environments. She suggested two possible strategies to establish boundaries anew: Think about what time of day you tend to work best and plan meetings and other obligations accordingly, she said, and weigh which social engagements – dinners, happy hours and the like – are essential and which ones you can decline.
“It’s about pacing ourselves,” Dr. Creary said.
KEEP HAVING TOUGH CONVERSATIONS.
According to Natalie Bazarova, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University who studies public intimacy, social media users largely shared positive personal information before the pandemic. But over the course of the past 15 months, there has been a change. “There is more acceptance of negative disclosures,” she said, citing research she published this year. “There is this common circumstance that we’re going through, and so that shapes our perception of how we think about what’s appropriate.”
So what does that look like? Some social media users have posted more frequently about how the pandemic has affected their mental health, Dr. De Choudhury said. And, posts detailing social justice resources and recounting experiences with racism spread across Instagram last summer as people sought to engage online with the widespread protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. According to a 2020 article in the International Journal of Information Management, social media users have also posted more regularly about their health, particularly underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19 — in part aiming to encourage others to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously.
Such conversations can have a destigmatizing effect, making it more acceptable to be frank about the challenges individuals and groups have faced this past year (or longer; many of the structural inequalities the pandemic exposed well predated it). If you feel comfortable participating in them, continue to do so both online and off — but be mindful of sharing too much. “We have to be very conscious of the information we put out there for everyone to see,” Dr. Bazarova said.
RECONSIDER WHAT YOU POST, AND FOR WHOM.
At the same time, you may have avoided sharing certain personal events because you thought they might garner negative reactions – maybe a workplace achievement you feared would appear tone-deaf, or travel that might be seen to contravene public health recommendations. “Who knows how many times people stopped themselves from sharing something positive?” Dr. De Choudhury said. And even if you do go ahead and post, say, a photo from a social gathering, you might feel the urge to preface your caption with an assurance that everyone in your group is vaccinated, in order to avoid judgment.
Some of that restraint can be productive; you may want to give additional thought to what you share online, as well as your audience and motivations. Ask yourself: Who will receive this? What’s the context – that is, what else are people posting or discussing right now? Why do I want to share this? Is it for my own benefit, or for others? But engaging with social media shouldn’t be anxiety-producing; if it is, consider staking a clearer boundary around your accounts by making them private, or limited to close friends. Remember, too, that the boundaries that you set around personal disclosures online might be at odds with those of other people and will continue to change as the pandemic recedes.
Such reflection won’t just spare you some potential negative feedback; it may also prove valuable for those who see your posts. “This idea of a communal social orientation, I think that’s a productive change,” Dr. Bazarova said. “We all have social responsibility to what happens online.”
By Katherine Cusumano © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.