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As people return to the office, some want a less-rigid, work-personal boundary


The pandemic has changed a lot of things about how we work, including our sense of boundaries. A whole lot of people had to start working remotely during the lockdowns. We didn't miss commuting, but our work and home lives got intertwined in a way that was mentally exhausting. Some people missed that boundary. But we got to wear whatever clothes we wanted. We picked up our kids from school and didn't feel guilty about it. Or we quit jobs altogether because we felt like we couldn't be our whole selves there. Now that most Americans are back to the office, some people want that boundary between their work and personal lives to be less rigid.


MARTIN: Today in our series, we're going to hear from three people who have decided to integrate their professional selves with the rest of their lives.

JACK ELLIOTT: My name is Jack Elliott. My pronouns are they/them and he/him. I live in Salem, Ore. Early March, I was probably sitting at this same dining room table. I was married to someone. And I had a different job. I wore different clothes. I even had different glasses (laughter).

FRANK RUIZ: My name is Frank Ruiz. I am an educator, actor, musician and director. Part of what happened with me during the pandemic was I realized I don't want to sit around and wait for someone to make me feel better. Or, like...

KRISTIN ZAWATSKI: My name is Kristin Zawatski. I am a mom of two boys. And I am a project manager in higher education. My last day in the office was March 12. I got an email from my kids' school saying, hey, everything was great today. We don't have a lot of cases still. But we're going to close the school tomorrow as a precaution just to clean.

MARTIN: Right.

ZAWATSKI: And I had a bad feeling about it. So I packed up my laptop. I ordered a monitor off of Amazon to have it shipped to the house.

MARTIN: Each of these people - Jack, Frank and Kristin - had a revelation during the pandemic. The person they were at work wasn't really all of who they were. And they wanted that to change. We're going to start with Jack because Jack changed a lot. The pandemic made them rethink almost every aspect of their life, starting with their marriage.

ELLIOTT: We realized not too long into the pandemic that our marriage had an expiration date. And by November of 2020, we had decided that it was best for us to have an amicable split.

MARTIN: And then the changes started to extend to Jack's work life. They were a case manager working for a housing program. Jack's work was meaningful, but it came with a lot of stress.

ELLIOTT: I think a lot of folks in human services roles say, well, you know, like, it's an honor and a sacrifice to be, like, present for people in their moments of crisis or present for people in a day-to-day basis when they need us to be there. And my thinking was, if not me, then who? And now it's, if not me, it will be someone else. And that's OK.

MARTIN: As a nonbinary person, they felt boxed into a certain public image.

ELLIOTT: And it's complicated. There's always that, you know, voice that says, are people going to take you more seriously if you're wearing a button-down and slacks? Or are people going to think that you're professional if you're wearing - you know, if you look like somebody's art professor from a small liberal arts college? You know what I mean?


MARTIN: Frank Ruiz was also reevaluating his life. Frank used to be in musical theater. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua in the 1980s.

RUIZ: I was always very proud of where I came from.

MARTIN: But he didn't want his cultural identity to determine every role he was given.

RUIZ: It's really difficult when people as a whole are forced to, you know, be this one-dimensional version of themselves.

MARTIN: At the same time, Frank didn't want to hide his identity. He shared a story from when he was in college.


MARTIN: He was studying musical theater and doing really well. His teachers noticed.

RUIZ: But one of those teachers, who, you know, I cared for deeply, you know, really, I felt supported by, told me that, you know, if I really want to do well, I might want to consider changing my last name.

MARTIN: They wanted him to try a name that could help him pass as white.

RUIZ: It was tricky for me to figure that out because I already knew that my first name was sort of an Americanized version of the name my parents wanted to give me. Francisco is, like, a family name. Like, my cousins, my mom, everyone has it. And when I was born, they decided to call me Frank, you know, to try and make it easier on me.

MARTIN: His mother's maiden name is Martinez. And so Frank Ruiz became Frank Martin. The new name didn't stick for long, but the hurt that came along with changing it did.

RUIZ: It's this one, you know, little betrayal, if you will, of not trusting that I can be myself and still be successful, you know? It, like, makes my stomach turn a little bit thinking how quickly I latched onto that idea. And it's still something I deal with now, just thinking about, like, how long it took me to really realize how hurtful that was.


MARTIN: Before the pandemic, Kristin Zawatski always felt guilty about balancing her work with her kids' needs.

ZAWATSKI: I always tried to pick them up, like, between 5 and 5:30 because we usually had cub scouts or soccer or martial arts or swimming lessons, you know, the normal routine. So I would get nervous if I wasn't at work early enough to make sure that I could leave at an acceptable time because I didn't want to have it look like I was leaving early because I was a parent. And I, you know, wanted to make sure everybody understood I'm committed to my job.

MARTIN: And let's just acknowledge that Kristin works in a white-collar job as an IT project manager. So she's had the luxury of work flexibility from the start, which a lot of people don't have. Even so, she felt judged.

ZAWATSKI: My bosses were always like, oh - I always felt like they were looking at their watch when I was leaving to go get my kids. Oh, you know, she's leaving again at 4:15?

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this, was the pushback - I mean, were you getting all your work done?

ZAWATSKI: Yeah, of course.

MARTIN: Even leaving by 4?

ZAWATSKI: Yeah. Yeah, I was getting all my work done. And if I wasn't, I would work at night.

MARTIN: Kristin told me the pandemic has made her think differently about her working life. She doesn't sneak out early from work anymore. She's open about when she leaves and why.

ZAWATSKI: And now, post-pandemic, like, today's my work-from-home day. But I took the whole day off because my kids have a half day of school. They're getting out at 11:15 for the year. What if they want to go hang out with their friends or go out for lunch or something like that? So I took the day off. I took Monday off, and I did field day with my first-grader's class.

MARTIN: And that's a thing you wouldn't have done before? You wouldn't have felt emboldened to have done that?

ZAWATSKI: I would have, but I would have felt guilty about it. And I would have been worried. And I would have been checking my email during the day to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I didn't pull my phone out at field day. Like, we...


ZAWATSKI: I hung out - I mean, I took pictures with my phone. But, like, I didn't check my email. I didn't check my Slack. I didn't, you know...

MARTIN: Why did that happen? What changed?

ZAWATSKI: The pandemic was terrifying in the sense that if I got sick, I didn't know if I would be there the next day to see my kids. When the - I cried the day I got my COVID vaccine. I cried when my kids got theirs. And knowing that life could be short, I didn't want to waste it anymore all the time just worrying about what kind of employee I was because my kids don't care what kind of employee I am. My kids care what kind of mom I am.

MARTIN: Each of these people - Kristin, Frank and Jack - made a conscious choice during the pandemic to stop compartmentalizing their work selves from the rest of their identities. For Jack Elliott, that's meant a new job where they can draw the boundaries they need and erase those that kept them isolated as a nonbinary person.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I gave away pretty much all of my dress shirts.

MARTIN: Chambray button-downs all gone?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much, yeah.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ELLIOTT: I mean, they looked good on me. I looked OK in those. But, like, that's because that's, like, what other people wanted to see me in.

MARTIN: They've replaced the button-down shirts with a new wardrobe staple.

ELLIOTT: You know, like, overalls definitely, for me, represent the perfect, like, genderless outfit, you know, however you want to style it.

MARTIN: And Jack is happier now. They're smiling more.

ELLIOTT: It's like the difference in seeing - you know how you look at the way kids smile and it's just, like, all teeth? And, like, they're not conscious of their...


ELLIOTT: ...You know, of the way their chin looks or, like, if it's flattering or not. It's just pure light.


ELLIOTT: And that's the kind of smile that I get to have now.


MARTIN: Frank Ruiz left acting. And now he runs education programs at an art center in New Jersey.

RUIZ: I feel more authentically myself than I ever have.

MARTIN: And he's teaching kids from marginalized communities to feel that, too.

RUIZ: I'm in a position to, you know, advocate for the people that remind me of my family. I'm able to present, you know, all of myself in a way that I would hope, you know, is a benefit to my students.

MARTIN: And Kristin Zawatski has woken up to the flexibility she already had. And she's not taking it for granted.

ZAWATSKI: I started to realize that all of the hang-ups about being away from work to spend time with my kids, that was all me wanting to be a really good employee. But my work speaks for itself. Like, I do really good work. And I know I do. And my boss tells me I do. And I - nobody's going to begrudge me an hour to go listen to my kid read a story about a gorilla or, you know, take a day off to go to field day. And I want to do those things now because my 12-year-old is going to be 13 in August. And we're getting to the point now where mom is sort of embarrassing when she comes into school. But my 7-year-old still thinks I'm awesome (laughter). So I might as well take advantage of it and go be a mom for a while because I can still be a really good project manager after I'm done at school.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Work by 9, then off past 5. And they work my nerves... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.