Six months into our giant work-from-home experiment, data is pouring in and analysts are attempting to make sense of and learn from what it shows. And whew, does it show a lot! Much of it is positive, some negative, and all of it enlightening. One attention-grabbing headline is that we are working more hours – on average almost an hour more a day according to a survey conducted jointly by Harvard and NYU’s business schools. We’re also attending more meetings, although they are a bit shorter according to a Microsoft study of calendar data, thank goodness. Data also shows that we are starting our day earlier and ending it later.
There are nuances, as always, to what this all means. Working earlier or later can be a function of doing other things throughout the day, such as homeschooling children, but one thing seems consistent for almost everyone – the normal boundaries that delineate our daily lives have blurred or disappeared. This has left us feeling vaguely unsettled at the least.
The good news is that we can do things to offset this and restore some normalcy and control – some boundaries – back into our lives. Here are a few suggestions, from the personal to across the company.
Mimic Your Usual Routines
Surprisingly, many of us miss our commutes. We miss reading, thinking, listening to music, doing the crossword; we miss the things we used to do during our commute, things we liked. We miss getting dressed for work, our usual stop for coffee, and fresh air when we go out to grab lunch. Routines can be a good thing. They help us demarcate the workday, providing a boundary that separates it from our personal time. These transitional “spaces” are important. They help us focus, get in a work mindset, and prepare for the day ahead. Similarly, it helps us decompress and leave work behind at the end of the day. It’s not surprising we miss it.
One way to fix this is to recreate it. Some people have found that even if you can wear sweatpants all day, it feels better to wear more work-like attire. Maybe not a suit, but a shirt and real pants at least. Put on makeup. Go out to get coffee. Take a walk or a short drive to start your day. Find what works to create a similar feeling. Do whatever helps you create a boundary between home and work.
Don’t Be Constantly “On Call”
We’re all juggling a lot of things – homeschooling, caring for aging parents, simply shopping for groceries – and everything is more challenging these days. We don’t want to be constantly on call though. We can’t. It’s not mentally or physically sustainable. Quite frankly, this was a challenge before the pandemic; the lines blurring, the workday creeping into our personal time. But the current environment makes it all too easy for that to happen.
Try to keep to your normal work hours. If you used to get to the office at 8:00, then start at 8:00 now. If you used to leave at 5:00, then that’s when you stop. Don’t automatically work earlier or later, replacing your commute with work. If you never used to answer email, respond to texts, or take phone calls on Saturdays because you were coaching your kids or at the movies, don’t feel compelled to do so now simply because you are not doing anything else.
Now, this may be simpler said than done. These extraordinary times may mean that you are busier than ever, and the work simply has to get done. If you spent part of your normal work hours doing something else, like homeschooling as so many are, then you need to work outside your normal schedule to compensate. It’s still important to put some boundaries around this. Set a specific start and end time. Two examples of this are: “I’ll answer email after the kids are in bed, but I’ll stop at 10:00 no matter what” or “I’ll let my staff know that I’m available to talk or text any time before 9:00 pm.”
Again, start with what you would do under normal circumstances as your guide, then recreate that level of accessibility in your new remote environment, being mindful of the number of hours and when you work. If you need to do more than that, of course you must; somedays you’ll need to start early AND end late! Still, find time to disconnect completely and create as bright a line as you can between your work and personal life.
Help Everyone Create New Boundaries
Companies can help as well. Those in management and leadership positions should lead by example. Consider setting specific downtimes. It might be a company-wide directive or tailored to individual departments or teams, but setting some basic parameters is a big help. It sets the tone that it’s important. Just offering encouragement to “do what you need to,” no matter how heartfelt and sincere, doesn’t give people the same “permission” as setting a guideline or actual policy. It sends a powerful message to say, “no weekends” and then do it.
As always, communication is key. Find out what your employees need and want. Consider smaller efforts to set boundaries throughout the day and help everyone focus and be more productive. In the office, people could send visual cues that they were busy and needed to work uninterrupted – think of a closed office door or headphones at a cubicle. That’s hard to do when everyone is remote. Deciding on a certain hour or block of time to keep Slack messages to a minimum so everyone can concentrate might be welcomed. Or, set up a block specifically for group texts and conversations. Using technology to mimic casual hallway/coffee station conversations in a virtual way is a good idea. While too many calls and meetings can be a problem, well-planned and focused get togethers that truly meet people’s needs to exchange information are not.
Finally, on an individual basis, respect other people’s boundaries. Try and keep “after hours” communication to a minimum whatever your company’s policy is. Just because you are working at 10:00 pm doesn’t mean you have to send the email then. Send it or schedule it for delivery during regular business hours. Again, this is not necessarily a new problem, but it has certainly been exacerbated by our current situation. A little extra thought before hitting the send button is certainly warranted right now.
It’s not your imagination if it seems like your life is one continuous soup of everything all stirred together. The normal things that distinguish our work and home life, our public and private lives, have dramatically changed or disappeared. Our usual boundaries have melted to blurred lines. It’s ok to feel a bit off kilter – in fact, many of us are feeling burnt out. To get back in sync, we need to create new rituals, new habits, and new ways of working that help reset those boundaries. It’s not just good for our mental health, but also important to overall productivity and long-term success. Individuals and businesses that recognize this and do something will better off – much better.
What boundaries are working for you or your company? Share in the comments below!