In my last post, I wrote about how to set better boundaries at work without feeling guilty. I discussed the importance of identifying unrealistic expectations, how to get past boundary-blurring guilt, and the benefits that come from setting better parameters around yourself and work.
Today, I want to talk about the boundaries you can (and should) place between your work, and your life, when working from home (WFH). I’ve been speaking to organizations about this since last spring, with the massive pivot to remote work. Right now, with so many organizations implementing hybrid work policies, and delaying “return-to-office” dates, this remains an important conversation.
Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D., a leading social scientist, researcher, work-family expert, and professor at Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, has published numerous papers on work-life boundaries. In a 2016 article on “Managing Work-Life Boundaries in the Digital Age,” she states that “effectively managing boundaries can help you not only effectively balance your career with your personal life, but can also be more effective as a leader who manages others.”
In that same article and others, she describes different boundary management styles, from “separators” who strive for a greater divide between work and life, and “integrators” who like to blend work and non-work roles.
In the last year and a half, many of us have found ourselves to be unintentional integrators. We hit the ground running last spring, thrust into working from home. The boundaries between work and life became blurred and stressful. We’re working longer to try to maintain productivity. We deal with constant interruptions. It feels like there’s no relief. I’ve heard this over and over from people at organizations of all kinds.
When we think of WFH boundaries, most of us think of a laptop and papers taking over the kitchen table, or trying to take a meeting while getting the kids ready for school. These are physical boundaries (or a lack thereof), but there are also temporal and mental boundaries to keep in mind, and put in place.
Improve your physical boundaries at home
There are a number of ways you can do this:
- Create a dedicated space in your home for anything work-related that you don’t use at any other time.
- If your workspace is in a common or multi-use area, put all signs of work away when you’re done for the day.
- Put on “work clothes” when you start your day, and change out of them when your day is over. At an educational session I did this year for the U.S. Navy, a leader shared that he puts on his full uniform before he goes down to his home basement office for the day. When his day is done, he switches into civilian clothes. A fantastic example of this strategy.
- When working, put your phone on "do not disturb" mode. Program it so that only certain calls or messages come through. This has been a game-changer for me in the last few months.
Create time-related boundaries
When working from home, it’s tempting to flow back and forth between work and your home life, without drawing any lines. Every time you stop a work task to attend to a personal situation, you lose concentration and focus. It can take significant time to get back in this zone. These "process losses" affect your productivity, efficiency, and stress levels.
- Have a dedicated time to start your workday, and a fixed time when you’ll finish it. You’d be surprised by how much more efficient you can be when you have a forced end-time.
- Set times for breaks and lunch, and stick to them. Encourage family members or anyone else who is at home with you to wait until these breaks to chat or spend time with you. This minimizes interruptions and distractions.
- Set a time after which you won’t check email, or won't do anything work-related (e.g., 6:30 p.m.). Do this in discussion with your team at work, to adjust expectations.
- Have protected times, whether it’s evenings or weekends or other time blocks, where anything related to work is off-limits.
Practice mindful management of mental boundaries
In our 24/7 world, it’s easy for thoughts of work to dominate your life, even when you’re not working. Working from home makes it harder to prevent intrusive work-related thoughts and worries. I coach my clients to pay careful attention to work thoughts that invade their personal time, through a practice of mindful awareness.
If you find it hard to turn off thoughts of work, for example when you’re spending time with your family, cultivate mindfulness around this. Commit to noticing work thoughts as they pop up. Instead of engaging with the work-related thought, let it pass and immediately refocus your attention on what’s in front of you (your child’s smiling face, your partner, nature, whatever is around you).
This can be very soothing and reassuring, as you’ll learn that you have control over your thought life. By practicing this, you can impact your stress levels and how your personal time feels. This is so much better than feeling like you can’t get away from work, even psychologically.
As an exercise, make a list of five ways that your work encroaches on your personal life at home, or vice versa. Next, based on that initial list, list five ways (one for each) that you can implement a helpful boundary. You’ll be glad you did. Your life and work will feel noticeably better.
© Copyright 2021 Dr. Susan Biali Haas.