The Importance of Rituals and Boundaries When Working From Home

Without carving out necessary breaks in our workday, the flow of the day can seem overwhelming.

Mint Images/ Getty Images
Mint Images/ Getty Images

Let’s face it: Working from home can be exhausting. You may not even see why, at first. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, explains the dissonance that comes from video calls, when your entire work world is virtual. “Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says in an interview with the B.B.C.

Video calls require more focus than a face-to-face chat, because we can’t always see all of the nonverbal cues we’re used to. Body language comes in  incomplete sentences. It’s harder to process facial expressions and tone of voice. Research shows that delays of 1.2 seconds via video will make people perceive a responder as less friendly or focused, when it’s really just their internet connection!

Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, tells the B.B.C. that part of the stress comes from performance anxiety — a natural stressor that shows up when you’re always confronted with your own mugshot in a video call. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Seeing yourself, especially in back-to-back meetings, is a surefire recipe for self-consciousness. It’s a shift from an in-person meeting, where (thankfully) I can’t see myself when I’m talking with you. Want a quick way to reduce stress? Find the button so that you can hide your own image. Problem solved!

Staring intently at a person’s face when you’re talking to them just isn’t natural. On a video call, the only way to show we’re paying attention is to look at the camera, according to the Harvard Business Review. But in real life, how often do you stand within three feet of a colleague and stare at his or her face? We are used to casually looking at the person we are talking to, not seeing dozens (or even hundreds!) of faces gazing intently at us. Researchers at the University College London have studied gaze duration — that is, there actually is a science around staring, and it’s alive and well in the U.K.

While researchers found that people are happy to stare at people they feel comfortable with for longer periods, looking intently at someone for more than three seconds is typically uncomfortable, especially when you’re in a meeting with your boss, or your team. While you’re just being attentive, your gaze might get misinterpreted.

It’s all happening at once, Petriglieri says. Every interaction happens via Zoom, or some other online video platform, and that can be confusing. “Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed,” says Petriglieri. “Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents, or date someone; isn’t it weird? That’s what we’re doing now… We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.” He calls the problem “self-complexity” — where everything happens via video calls. Everything, it seems, except variety.

All the more reason to establish boundaries and create separation in your home office, so that your online world doesn’t become a jumbled mess of insecurity and confusion. And, in an upcoming chapter, we’ll come back to the virtual world of video conferencing — with powerful ideas for improving your impact and conquering the challenges that pop up when your work world comes in through a single window.

But first, let’s get back to finding a better way to work; video calls are just one aspect (albeit a huge one) that we’ll cover in more detail later. First, let’s explore some of the other challenges that can keep you from finding success, particularly when trying to conquer your calendar. Working from home requires a deliberate design around your schedule — those boundaries are essential to your long-term success. Many rituals and routines change when your home becomes your workplace. For example:

A strong start

When you go to the office, you have a get-ready routine because you have to be somewhere, dressed a certain way, and ready to work at a certain time. What happens if this habit doesn’t carry over to your home office?  When your commute changes from  60  minutes to six steps, it’s easy to fall out of a standard routine. But business is a process: Working from home is a process as well. What can you do to be purposeful about “going to work” when you don’t have to worry about traffic on the highway and you can literally roll out of bed and log into emails? As human beings, we need a break — a change — that’s a deliberate signal that we are shifting into a different mode. What’s your going-to-work routine when you’re working away from the company office? If you don’t have an answer right now, find one. Don’t leave your career to chance — don’t freestyle your way to success. Establishing a schedule is the first step in setting the rituals that matter.

Are we done yet?

When working at your company, the prompt to leave that office was likely something like beating the traffic. Or picking up the kids from daycare, letting out the dog, watching your soccer star play in her latest game… You get the picture. As I write these words, all of those reasons have evaporated — except the dog. Dogs don’t evaporate, and they still need to be let out. But letting your dog out the back door doesn’t involve driving home from work. You depart and rejoin your life and interests much more easily right now — and whatever commute you were experiencing before actually has evaporated. Disappeared. Consider folks (like me) who would routinely drive to the airport and fly to various locations, some of them international. Or think about the cities with the longest commutes in the U.S.A. According to CNBC, four of the top 10 are in California, with cities in the New York metro area rounding out the list. Jersey City, for example, has an average round-trip commute of 73.6 minutes. All of the top 10 cities boast commute times of over an hour. Now, those commuting hours have been returned. Are those minutes a gift, or a curse? According to Bloomberg, people are reporting that they are working an average of three more hours each day. Maybe that’s because of managing homeschooling schedules. Or maybe it’s just because the pantry is nearby. An executive at Intel reports clocking 13-hour days, working from home — and another says he has to set an alarm to remind himself to stop and eat. Are you managing your time, or is time managing you? Being deliberate about how you use your time — especially time that’s been returned to you — is critical to your success. Believe it or not, you can always make more money. But you can never make more time. Choose wisely: Align your time in a way that’s deliberate. That way, you establish new routines that help you to take advantage of what you’ve been given.

Old school versus new knowledge

Remember the old days, when you would listen to a podcast, or call your mom, or just maybe listen to your favorite Spotify playlist on your drive home from work? What about driving from work straight to the gym, or maybe going to a happy hour meetup somewhere? These transitions signal your brain to transition from work — to change the channel and give your mind permission to leave work. What are you discovering as the new transition? Because you need one if you are going to be successful at working from home. Putting in long hours and pumping out great execution means building in the breaks that make the time more productive. Think about listening to music for a second: I’ve always loved music, and I often sit down and play piano to help myself decompress. But you know what  I see every time I look at a piece of sheet music? A lot of white space. Without a pause, music is just noise. The rests in music aren’t signs that the composer is being lazy — it’s the composer being smart. The space is what matters as much as the notes! The pause makes room for what’s new. For discovery. For connection. For change. Working from home asks you to compose your life on your terms. Have you built in the pauses that you need? Imagine a composer saying, “This melody is so awesome, I’m just gonna keep the sound going without a break for three minutes and people  will  love  it!” No. No, they  will  not. That’s not a  song, that’s just an unwelcome and haphazard racket. Frank Sinatra sang  it best: “Without a song, the day would never end.” Ask yourself this question: Where does the music come from? Is it just the notes, the words, the melody… or something else? Hear how the pauses make the music meaningful. Put those pauses back into your day, if you want a break from the noise. I know I do. Sometimes just taking a walk around the block is exactly what I need. How about you? Maybe tonight’s the night you surprise your significant other with a dance party before making dinner together. (May I suggest you dance like no one’s watching?) Or reading a chapter in a book (you’re already off to a fine start, I commend your excellent taste). Others meditate or write in a journal. There’s no right answer here, so choose the powerful pause that suits you best.

Insights into peak performance

What every high-performance athlete knows is that periods of peak performance require periods of  peak rest. Jim Loehr, author of The Power of Full Engagement, studied the intersection between high-performance athletes and high-performance executives. “Balancing stress and recovery is critical not just in competitive sports,” he reveals, “but also in managing energy in all facets of our lives.”

“We live in a world that celebrates work and activity, ignores renewal and recovery, and fails to recognize that both are necessary for sustained high performance.” He continues, “Energy,  not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

How well are you managing your currency?

Divest before you invest

In my book Success With Less, a story about an important promotion reminded me about how balance works. Have you been there?

Earning a promotion was important to me. And I had been working toward the promotion for years. So, I invested.

Not only did I invest, I overinvested. Nights. Middle of the nights. Weekdays. Weekends. No hour was too late. Or too early. No slide deck was too elaborate. No voicemail was too detailed. No email was too lengthy.

I ran full speed into a burning blaze of activity every single day. Without hesitation. No matter how I might get burned or fully consumed at every moment.

Because I overlooked one important safety procedure. Divest.

When you invest in something new, you must divest of something else. To make room in your schedule and in your mind to make the most of your new path. When I chose to invest in the high stakes project at work, I failed to divest of any of my other responsibilities. Inside of work. Or outside of work.

When you fail to divest before you invest, you lay the foundation on which to build damaging stories. And habits. “I have to keep all the plates spinning!” “I’m sure I can do it all if I just try a little harder!” “I don’t want to be seen as a quitter!” “I’m so busy that I must be important! And successful!”

Back-to-back video meetings have suddenly become the new routine. Beyond the warnings from the experts, let’s bring it back to a personal question: Is that always-on routine serving you? Putting you at your best? I assert that most people do not have a clear definition of what success looks like at work, and rarely have a sense of how they’re spending their time.

Time shifts when you work from home. One moment flows into the next, am I right? Without the breaks and separation we have been taught to expect, the flow of the day can seem overwhelming — or invisible, until it isn’t. Until you realize you’re exhausted, but all you’ve done is sit in Zoom meetings all day. You’ve become a Zoombie — a walking zombie — as a result of too many video calls.

Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Working From Home by Karen Mangia. Copyright © 2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.
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