The social distancing and restrictions of movement over the past few weeks has seen a lot of people suddenly working from home. The past week has been when it has really hit me and some of my clients - working from home and some of the pitfalls. It sounds ideal - rolling out of bed 5 minutes before starting work. Netflix over lunch. Everyday is casual Friday. No boss looking over your shoulder. No commute time. But after a few days, the reality is something quite different.
I noticed this within myself, and then I started to hear the same themes from my clients. For me, there was this sense of not being able to separate from work. I was doing the right thing - getting dressed for work, ready to start my day of video conferencing counselling sessions, said goodbye to the family, and then in literally 5 seconds I was at work. And the same thing at the end of the day. I closed the laptop and 5 seconds later I was into family mode. It was incredibly difficult to transition this quickly. What I started to hear from my clients were problems with setting boundaries with work, difficulty managing work and home schooling for children, a fear that they were not performing, and various combinations of the above.
Why boundaries are important
My commute to work varies between 35 minutes to 55 minutes depending on the traffic and time of day. Over the past 2 years I have used this opportunity to listen to podcasts, varying from personal development, business development, and sport. It's a habit I've come to enjoy. Some of my favourite podcasts are released on certain days and I look forward to that drive listening to the latest episode. What this has allowed me is an opportunity to transition into work or "decompress" from work. These commute trips, plus other activities such as driving to the gym, signal the start and end points of the day. It allows me to transition from home life to work life and back again. This is now harder to replicate, especially with the gym closed and sporting seasons postponed. Ashford, Kreiner, and Fugate (2000) wrote a paper on how separating home life from work life leads to less boundary crossing. Obviously, this is work specific - it's hard to be a waiter or zoo keeper from home. Those types of occupations have clear boundaries of when you are or are not at work.
Being seen at work is important
Working from home brings other challenges. One of those is that of visibility. In the office, your colleagues can see you working. There are opportunities to discuss work eg in the tea room, and people get a sense of where you are at. When you go to ask a colleague a question, if they look busy you might come back later or ask politely if you can interrupt. Now that visual cue is taken away. Emails or messages via chat are sent requesting answers to questions, and there are no way of determining the appropriate time to send these questions or to gain a sense of the urgency of the question. Typically, an email or chat notification comes up and we are inclined to stop what we are doing and look at it.
Another aspect of visibility is that you can be "seen to be working". Working from home means now you are judged on output of work. This can bring stress on trying to prove your productivity, with many of my clients worrying that they will be seen as not working enough because a lot of time goes into minimal tangible output, for example writing a report.
Some tips on managing boundaries at work
So here are a few tips that can help manage your boundaries at work, as well as your stress levels.
Have a clear start and end time to your day
Get dressed for work as you would normally do. At the end of the day get changed out of your work clothes.
Take breaks as you would normally do. Eat lunch in a different area to where you are working.
Where possible, have a designated work area.
If you are using technology such as Skype or Microsoft Teams, use the functions to indicate that you are unavailable eg the "busy" function on Teams. This sends a signal to your colleagues when you are and are not available.
Resist the urge to "just send a quick email" outside of work times. This implies you are available to respond and do more work. It also crosses the boundary you are setting up.
Use your "commute time" for personal development - listen to a podcast, do exercise, meditate, journal, whatever you choose. It allows an opportunity for you to separate work and home. Resist the urge to use commute time to do more work.
Set times with your team or supervisors to catch up - this might be a 10 minute video call just to discuss how things are going with work or a project.
'Chat' functionality on our apps can be helpful, but can also slow us down as we wait for responses. If you have more than a couple replies, suggest a phone or video call to speed up the process and improve clarity.
Breathe. This won't be forever.
I hope these tips have been helpful for you. If you have any other tips you could recommend, please leave a comment.