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How to Keep Centered When Home Becomes Your (Quarantined) Office

Is it possible to maintain a work-life balance when the usual boundaries between the two are suddenly and indefinitely removed?

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In an America under quarantine, millions of people have found themselves forced to renegotiate the delicate equilibrium between their professional responsibilities and home lives. 

In recent weeks, the United States has become a global epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting more cases than similar hotspots in China and Italy. The wildfire spread of the virus has prompted extreme public safety measures across the country. Over 160 million people nationwide have been ordered to stay home so far. In my home city of New York, schools have been closed, restaurants and entertainment venues shuttered, and all non-essential business offices firmly locked shut. 

By necessity, businesses have needed to follow workers into isolation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just under a third of Americans can take their work home with them. Rather than face furloughs or layoffs, these fortunate, tech-connected workers have the privilege to keep earning a living from the quarantined safety of their home offices. In these trying times, having the ability to work remotely is a gift — but it does come with its share of challenges. 

When we work in isolation, we no longer have the physical boundaries or routines that separate our working lives from our at-home environment. While we once might have prepared for work by picking up a cup of coffee on the way into the office, we now can roll out of bed and over to our desk in seconds. We can’t leave work stresses at the office because our home has become the office. One study published in a 2015 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that these blurred boundaries can, over time, create greater stress, overwork, loneliness, and family strife.

That said, remote working isn’t always detrimental for employees; in fact, many prefer it! According to a survey from FlexJobs, 65 percent of surveyed workers say that they are more productive working from home, noting that they enjoy fewer interruptions, limited office politics, and reduced stress from commuting. These statistics show that it is possible to have a positive remote working experience — but you need to find a balance between your professional responsibilities and at-home life. Below, I’ve listed a few tips on how to renegotiate your home-work equilibrium. 

Create Artificial Boundaries

It might be tempting to stay under the covers and work from the comfort of your bed in the morning — but you would be better off avoiding the urge. To borrow a quote from the Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Being More Productive, “Unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel like you’re always at work and losing a place to come home to.”

Having a threshold — a visible line that cordons your working space off from your relaxed, non-work environment — is a necessary part of maintaining a balance while working remotely. What that threshold might look like will depend on your home situation. If you live in a studio apartment in New York, you might not have a spare bedroom or home office to use as a designated work zone. However, you can strategically rearrange furniture or use a folding screen to separate one room into distinct zones. 

Self-isolation protocols may prevent you from leaving work behind by physically exiting an office building, but you still have the ability to shut a door or step away from your working space in a tangible way. 

Don’t Slouch into Bad Habits

When you work at home, adhering to corporate dress codes is optional. If you want to roll out of bed and trudge to your home office in pajamas, you can — but that doesn’t mean that you should. Getting dressed and following a regular morning routine empowers you to better oscillate between a professional and a relaxed mindset. Some research indicates that adhering to a daily routine could help fend off the depression and loneliness associated with extended periods of isolation. 

“Now that our interactions with the outer world seem poised to be put on hold, getting dressed takes on a kind of necessary transformative power,” journalist Rachel Tashjian wrote in a recent article for GQ. She has a point; in a time when every aspect of your life must take place in a single environment, having some way to distinguish them is a necessity. Sure, that distinguishing act might only be putting on business-casual attire during the day and switching back to sweatpants at 5:01 PM — but it still helps. 

Establish Clear Lines of Communication — At Work, and at Home

Make no mistake about it: working at home requires a different set of expectations. If you’re working from home while looking after children or a sick family member, you need to proactively tell your boss what you can and cannot get done during a remote workday. 

Similarly, you may need to have a discussion with your family and explain that you will need space and quiet during your working hours. In my home of New York City, children have been asked to attend school remotely. For those suddenly being asked to look after their children at home while simultaneously sticking to work responsibilities, it’s important to create a new daily schedule that lays out expectations for the family’s morning routine, daily tasks, and post-work family time. 

The coronavirus has thrown all of us off-balance. With quarantine in effect, we lack our comfortable routines and easy office-home separation — but that doesn’t mean that we can’t renegotiate a new work-life balance. With a little work and thought, we can bring some level of normalcy and equilibrium back into our daily lives. 

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