In these unprecedented times, many workers who are still employed find themselves working from home. For the majority of that group a home setup is uncharted territory. What may have once seemed like an idyllic setup; A dream scenario, in reality can prove to be incredibly challenging for the average person to manage. Whether it’s a lack of space, constant interruptions, or house hold distractions, working from home is not as easy as it seems. I understand the struggle far too well as I’ve worked from home for the majority of my career and I grew up in a home where my Mom did as well. I know how easy it can be to slip away from your computer to fold a load of laundry, make a cup of tea, or to do the dishes, and to find yourself two hours later glued to the couch bingeing on Netflix or engrossed in a book, having achieved very little work and worrying yourself sick over it.
Working from home is a big psychological adjustment for most people who are used to being in an office environment. The home sphere can be full of added stress and complications for those who have family members such as kids and their spouse also at home while the stay at home order is in place.
To help some of you out during this trying time let me start by saying working from home is never a perfect set up. It is never fully distraction free and you need to let go of expecting perfection. It is a constant, evolving juggling act. It takes effort and consistency to make it work. However, there are a few simple things you can do that I’ve taken from my own experience and from my graduate research, to help you make a more successful transition.
When completing my Master’s thesis in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, I studied the impact working from home had on feelings of work life balance and job satisfaction, across a nationwide sample of over 500 employees working from home for a Fortune 500, global company. I looked at the factors underlying people’s feelings of whether or not they had good work-life balance and found one variable that impacted feelings of work life balance for virtual workers more than any other; the presence of a door! Those who had a door separating their office from the rest of their home reported experiencing a greater sense of work-life balance than those that did not.
When you think about that from a psychological perspective it makes absolute sense, because it relates to the concept of boundaries. People need mental and physical boundaries separating their work from other parts of their life in order to disconnect and re-connect with their families, friends, accomplish self-care, and nurture their interests. For a lot of us, working in an office helps us separate the different parts of our lives because we literally show up to work then walk out the door and leave it all behind. This physical and mental separation becomes more complicated when your work is physically intertwined with your home environment. Given this reality, what can you do in your own home to create the boundaries you need to feel more balanced?
CREATE PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES
Do whatever you can to create at least some physical boundaries around your space if you aren’t able to dedicate an entire room to work. This could be as simple as a privacy screen, or if you have to work at the kitchen table, make sure when you’re done you pack away all of your work tools and materials in a place where you cannot see them. Out of sight out of mind!
If you don’t have an entire room with a door and your work has to be completed in a shared space, it’s important to set yourself up in a place where you can maintain physical separation from nagging chores or distractions. Don’t setup for the day in the middle of a messy kitchen, next to a pile of laundry, amongst a toy littered room, or in front of the tv; it’s too hard to avoid the temptation to pick up, clean up, organize, fold, watch, etc., and you’ll struggle to focus.
If you do have a separate space with a door, make sure you’re using it effectively to maintain balance. Don’t allow your kids to play in the background, don’t fold laundry in your office, don’t store excess junk or piles of stuff in the back corner, and so on. Treat it mentally the same way you would treat your normal office. Open the door when you’re ready to work, bring your snacks, lunch, coffee, and anything else you would normally take to work in order to sit down and focus for a period of time. Then when you’re done, same idea applies; shut the door and leave it all behind until tomorrow. Resist the urge to “pop in quickly to check an email” because you’ll most likely open a can of worms. Hold yourself accountable to disengaging!
SET AND KEEP TO A SCHEDULE
Evaluate your work load each morning and block out time (in realistic chunks) in your calendar, then stick to it no matter the interruption. You have to be disciplined when working from home. If you regularly commit to finishing work at 5pm but then you start taking calls at 7pm while also trying to give your kids a bath, or while you’re on the Peloton, you’re creating unhealthy habits for yourself that will be hard to break! I have fallen into this trap many times, going beyond my planned work time and taking a call “here and there” thinking I was serving my clients to the best of my ability, but in doing so I was damaging my own family time, stress levels, and overall health. I ended up burning out trying to do everything all the time and be all things to all people. Sometimes things can and have to wait until tomorrow, and you’ll have to be strict with yourself about staying disengaged from work when it’s time to show up in other parts of your life at home. If there is one lesson this pandemic has taught us, it’s that sometimes the things we think need to be done right away, aren’t really all that important and don’t necessarily need to be at the top of our priority list.
SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS WITH OTHERS
If you don’t live alone, once you’ve set your schedule communicate clear expectations to those you live with and/or your family to minimize disruption. Do it with love and kindness. To your husband or wife this might sound like, “I really want to be present with you to enjoy dinner and our favorite show tonight, so I’m going to ask that you please give me the space to work from 2 – 6 uninterrupted, and that you tend to the kids during that time, so that later I can shut down for the day and be fully present. Does that sound fair?” With kids it might sound like this, “Mommy loves playing with you so much, that I’m going to work really hard for a few hours so we can play uninterrupted after. When I’m finished we can play dinosaurs and make some potions with your science kit, does that sound fun? Great, it’s a date. In order to do that, I need you to ask Daddy for whatever you need until I come tell you that I’m finished.”
In my house I use a reward system with my kids in addition to setting the expectations and it works really well. My kids have reward jars and if they can practice good phone manners when I’m on the phone and follow the rules they get rewarded with beads in their jar, that they can cash in for screen time or a special treat. If they are into crafts, you could also get them to help you make a “busy” or “working” sign for your office that you can put on the door at their eye level as a reminder to them when you’re working to respect your boundaries. Visual schedule tools work well also and there are a lot of resources online for how to make one.
This also applies to your Manager, co-workers, team, clients, etc. Let those you work with know what you’re dealing with at home and ask them to respect your home time. If you’re homeschooling your kids in the morning, ask that they schedule calls or virtual meetings with you in the afternoon. Again, when you ask do it with kindness, vulnerability, and respect. Don’t be afraid to let them know if you’re struggling and what you need from them in order to succeed. We are all in the same boat so let go of the need to appear to have everything together all the time and don’t be afraid to politely let those you work with know that you have other priorities, it doesn’t make you weak it makes you human.
Bringing it back to the original message, if you’re struggling to balance your work and home life while working from home, pay attention to the boundaries and rules you set and the expectations you set intentionally and subconsciously (or don’t set) and how they are or aren’t working for you. By adopting some simple changes to the boundaries you put in place for yourself and others and applying them consistently you will have more success and hopefully less stress.