When stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus forced many Americans to work from home, most of us expected it would be temporary. But remote work may be the norm for the foreseeable future: Google, for example, recently announced that their workers would not return to the office until 2021, at the earliest.
Unfortunately, this means the boundaries between your work life and home life are blurring together more than ever — and that’s not good, says productivity and organizational consultant Julie Morgenstern. It affects your ability to manage stress and can quickly lead to burnout. Here are some ways to help create a healthy separation between home and work.
RECOGNIZE THE NEED FOR BOUNDARIES
“During the workday, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh, this is so great, I can wash a load of laundry between my calls,’ ” Morgenstern says. “Or, ‘Oh, I can get started prepping dinner.’ But the reality is that these distractions can really affect our ability to focus on the work at hand. Then we find ourselves logged into the computer on Friday night at 9 p.m., working on an assignment due on Monday, because we weren’t able to focus during the week.”
Think back to your last conference call. From children bursting into frame to dogs barking or partners vacuuming the next room over, loud distractions are all too common. “It’s important to realize that they affect our ability to work at our best,” Morgenstern says. “This blurring impacts our ability to feel productive and to stay focused and efficient. And, in the extreme, it can lead to burnout.”
CREATE A DESIGNATED WORKSPACE
Our homes were designed for us to live in, not to facilitate remote work. But if you’ve been making do with working from your kitchen table or couch, it’s past time to carve out a space specifically designed for work. Doing so helps you create a boundary between work and life.
If work only happens in one specific spot in your home, then you know as soon as you sit there that you should be in work mode, which can improve your focus and ability to remain productive, Morgenstern says. Then, when you move to any other part of your home, you know that you’re in life mode. This helps you relax and unwind when you’re no longer on the clock and makes it easier to maintain your work/life balance.
Choose any spot that can easily be converted into a makeshift office and invest in some easy home office upgrades to improve your productivity even further.
The one spot you should always avoid working from?
“Whatever you do, just don’t work from your bed,” Morgenstern says. “Or else you risk disrupting your sleep/wake cycle. As soon as you lay in bed, you want your body to know that it should be preparing for sleep — not answering emails or preparing for meetings.”
There’s a misconception that we have all of this extra time on our hands now that we’re working from home.
STICK TO A SCHEDULE
Just as kids need structure to their day to get through distance learning successfully, remote workers need a clear and consistent work schedule. Setting your hours makes it more likely that you will be able to fall into a routine and helps you build those all-important boundaries.
“You need to designate very specific work hours during which we’re ‘on the clock’,” Morgenstern says. “To the degree that you can mirror the schedule that you’d be working in the office, you should.”
For those workers with kids at home, that can mean posting a sign on the door of a home office that indicates one parent or the other is in work mode or on a call.
Morgenstern also notes that there’s a misconception that we have all of this extra time on our hands now — after all, we no longer have to commute to and from work. But parents are now having to juggle childcare with work. With full-time, in-person school in question for the fall in many states, this juggling act may only grow more difficult to manage.
And while some of us may have fewer meetings, others may be attending even more — or have increased responsibilities.
“We feel like we’re supposed to have more time to get stuff done,” Morgenstern says. “But we don’t. That extra time that we’re not commuting is being eaten up by the complexity of doing all of these new things for the first time: Figuring out our technology, adjusting our workflows, writing emails in place of a 30-second in-person chat. Everything just takes longer.”
IMPLEMENT TRANSITIONS INTO YOUR DAY
To keep your work life and your home life from overlapping, Morgenstern recommends that you try to create transitions over the course of your day to signify when you’re “in the office” versus when you’re “at home.”
Pre-COVID, your commute time served as a transition. On the way to work, it created a mental and symbolic signal to your brain to start getting into work mode, and then into home mode on the way back. Unfortunately, when we work from home we no longer have this natural transition.
“Building some transitional rituals into our days to separate our work time from our home time is tremendously powerful,” Morgenstern says.
Here are some things to try out:
- Change into “work clothes” at the beginning of the workday, and then change back into “house clothes” at the end of your shift.
- Go for a walk around the block to simulate your commute — both at the start of your day and at the end of it.
- Use auditory cues, like music, to mimic the way in which you might listen to music on your drive to and from work.
Ultimately, the goal is to give your brain the time that it needs to transition so when you’re working you are fully focused, and when you’re done for the day you are able to wind down or spend time with family.