Working from home used to be the prerogative of small business owners or freelancers but the global pandemic has reshaped the world of work, with more employees now having the opportunity to do their job remotely part-time or fulltime.
There are lots of advantages to being able to work remotely – less time commuting, more flexibility to take care of family responsibilities and the ability to set aside time for tasks that need to be done in a quiet space. It’s even left some people better off financially, with fewer work clothes needed, less money spent on parking, work lunches or takeaway coffees and the opportunity to keep a job at a city-based organisation but move to an area with more affordable housing.
But one of the disadvantages of working from home can be the difficulties around setting clear boundaries between your professional and personal life. It can be hard to switch off from work when your office is constantly a few metres away. Conversely, sometimes it’s tough to concentrate on your job when you are surrounded by domestic distractions or chaos.
Here are some tips on how to set boundaries and maintain work-life balance when you work from home.
Keep a regular schedule – it doesn’t have to be nine to five. You might want to start at 6am and finish by 2.30pm. Or you might want to divide your workday into two parts to fit in exercise or after school activities with your kids. Whatever hours you choose, it helps to have a daily routine. Having structure helps you focus on working during work hours and relaxing the rest of the time.
Create a dedicated workspace. If you are working at home on a regular basis, ideally you will set up a workstation in a home office or spare bedroom. Then you can shut the door to keep out distractions during your working hours and to leave work behind at the end of the day. If that’s not possible, think about whether you can screen off part of a large bedroom or the lounge to act as your office. That way you can set up a proper desk and ergonomic chair, which is better for your body, and you don’t have to see your workstation once you finish for the day and move into home life.
Get dressed for work. While it’s fine to dress more casually at home than when you are in the office, putting on ‘work’ clothes is a signal to your brain that your workday has started. It also means you are not caught out if you get an impromptu Zoom call from a colleague.
Ban distractions. Make sure that the laundry that’s waiting to be folded is out of sight and you are not tempted to watch an episode of your favourite Netflix show when you are supposed to be analysing this month’s sales figures. It’s great to take breaks and you can do household chores or spend half an hour watching something online during those breaks but don’t fritter away your work hours on domestic chores, then spend the evening sitting at the computer catching up.
Agree a plan with other people in the house. Whether you have flatmates or a partner also working from home, or children vying for your attention, it’s important to have some rules about when you are available. Agree on a time for lunch or morning or afternoon tea to spend some time chatting or dealing with what the kids need, but make it clear you expect to be left alone, except for emergencies, during the rest of your working day. Make a Do Not Disturb sign for times when you are on calls or really need to concentrate without interruption.
Take breaks. When you are in an office or workplace, you take breaks even just to fill up a water bottle or make a cup of tea. You should also do that at home. Make sure you have at least one longer break in the middle of your workday, whether that’s to eat lunch, do some exercise, take the dog for a walk or run errands/pick up children from school. You need breaks to refresh your energy and return to work with a renewed focus.
Use technology to help you maintain boundaries. If you are starting and finishing early or taking a longer break in the middle of your work schedule, set an out-of-office rule on email letting people know when they can expect a reply. You can opt to put a mobile number on your out-of-office message so people can call or text if a matter is urgent. This can stop you fretting about checking emails when you are away from your desk as anyone who needs you is able to get in contact. Some people may prefer not to do this as your definition of urgent may differ from that of your colleagues or clients.
Practice saying no. That might mean saying no to a 4.30pm online meeting if your agreed workday finishes at 4pm. Being only a few steps away from your computer does not mean being on call all hours. Or it might mean saying no to picking up a friend from the airport if you have a full work schedule. Working from home doesn’t mean you are always free to do favours for others.
Set up a personal email address separate from your work email. It will make it easier to avoid answering work emails after hours or get distracted by emails from friends or family during work hours.
Don’t forget to clock out. When you work from home, you don’t have the physical separation of getting in your car or jumping on the bus and going home. But you need to mentally clock out and stop working at the end of your scheduled day. That means shutting the office door or shutting down the laptop and not returning until the next day. You can even change your clothes to reinforce the message that your workday has finished. It’s tempting to pop back later and check emails or get a couple more things done but resist the urge. It’s important you switch off completely so your brain knows it’s time to relax. If your job is Monday to Friday, try not to work at weekends. It's a slippery slope – before you know it, you will be working seven days a week.
Take days off and holidays (as well as your weekend). Although working a couple of days at home each week is a change from being in the office, it’s not a proper break. We still need to take a day off here and there to recharge and fill our cups with the activities and people we love. Longer breaks are important to stop burnout and improve our physical, mental and emotional health.