We’re eighteen months in. That “new normal” everyone used to talk about has started to feel pretty hauntingly…well, normal. And even though we all bristled at the concept of “work from home” when it was debuted, at the time we didn’t truly know how it was affecting our collective performance. Now, reports are starting come in from the ground. And as it turns out, quarantine’s effect on workplace productivity might not have been all bad.
PricewaterhouseCoopers recently found in a survey that 83% of employers say the shift to working from home has been successful. A follow-up survey of some 700 CEOs found that 78% believed remote work and remote collaboration will be here for the long-term.
The Pew Research Center has even found that about half of newly “work from home” workers have more flexibility in their lives.
But, other surveys found that only 51% of respondents reported being able to fully, permanently work from home successfully – often workers that carry the majority of their work out on computers and phones.
And across the board, as many as 50% or higher or work from home workers are reporting that they’re finding it more difficult to find balance between their work and personal lives. The lines seem to be blurring.
So, where there might be a new increase in productivity, shortened or erased commutes, or improved virtual “accessibility” to coworkers, there might also be a shadowy creep of working hours and “on” time that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. After all, now that people know you’re stuck in your house and your devices always have fully charged batteries, you’re available. At all hours. It can feel like a hostage situation sometimes. We already had the problem of our phones always being on us – now it’s like the office itself is strapped to a concrete slab on our backs.
But we have eighteen months of practice with surviving quarantine under our belt at this point. And there are some things we can do to turn that pendulum back around.
Your new focus should be on finding, adjusting, and maintaining the balance of your life – work, family, personal life, passion projects – in a healthy way. Believe it or not, there are ways to do it.
Check in with where you are
For starters: where do you personally fit in with the results of those surveys? How are you feeling about your situation? It’s possible, that despite all the upheaval this year, that you’ve found a system that works for you. Congratulations if you have. It’s also highly possible you are still trying to work out something that looks like a healthy life working from home. And it’s also totally normal if you haven’t had the chance to take the time and look around and survey.
So if you haven’t already, take this moment to look around and see how you’re doing. Does your work follow you around the house, and into bed after hours? Does your phone continue to ping during dinner and afterwards? Do you feel obligated to be available for people on the other side?
More importantly – whatever your answers to those questions are, are you satisfied with them? Does it feel okay? Do you feel like if you needed to take a break from work and doing something, anything else, you could? Be honest with yourself.
If you’re not satisfied, on to step two. Let’s start to build some walls.
Set hard boundaries
We spend a lot – and I mean a lot – of our time at work. From a pure “percentage of day spent” perspective, and depending on whether you like your job or not, the numbers can get to be pretty depressing. Conservatively, you are at your job for eight hours a day. For many more it’s closer to ten or eleven. And of course there are the grinders out there with truly punishing work lives that can clear closer to fourteen or fifteen on a regular basis.
Add in a fully non-negotiable seven to eight hours of sleep, and you’re left with precious little personal time. A few hours maybe?
It’s not all bad. You don’t have a commute anymore. For some people, that travel time can take up an hour or two just on its own. You don’t have to deal with the friction that comes from working in a different or “foreign” environments. There is precious “putting work clothes on” time that you save every day.
But you should still seek to try to pull back some of that time for yourself.
Tell yourself, based on your job and your team and your work expectations, how many hours you want to work each day. Pick something realistic. But when you pick it, stick with it. When 6pm or 8pm or whatever rolls around, tell yourself you’re “clocking out.” Every day. Set phone alarms if you have to.
Pick a room – or a corner – and make it the office
This process can be helped by ascribing physical space to the work you do, and the mindset that you have when you’re in there.
Space in our homes is limited. Even if we’re lucky enough to have large living areas, we likely share them with someone. If you’re lucky enough to live alone, it’s probably somewhere smaller. These are generalizations, of course. But in general, it’s hard to find space to carve out an entire office and work area. But that’s exactly what you need to do.
We’re trying to build clearly delineated lines between your work and personal life. Previously plenty of things like offices and commutes and communal burnt coffee did that for us. But now we kind of have to play pretend.
Very simply: when you’re in your office, you have your work hat on, and you’re doing work. But then when you leave that space and sit on the couch, you’re just in your home again. Work is back over there.
You’ll know you’re getting good at the process when you feel calmer as you step out of the area. Your posture might relax and your breath might come easier. It’s like the feeling you used to have when you stepped into your home at the end of a day at the office. The spaces between those phases are just shrunk now.
Communicate with your team
One of the good things about the universality of this problem is that nearly everyone – especially those at your job – can relate to the same challenges. Everyone in your orbit is very likely the same level of tired, and has faced the same types of obstacles with maintaining sanity and productivity during this time.
They’ve all tried little strategies and hacks too, and continue to try new ones. And I would wager they’d be fine if you wanted to try a few yourself.
So start easy. Tell everyone you need to tell, simply, that you need to set some boundaries.
You’re still available for emergency or time-sensitive matters, and you’re still going to get your work done on time just like before. But after 6pm – or whatever time you pick – you’re going to be a little bit harder to reach. And that’ll be fine. Way more fine than you may think.
Remember how it used to be? How you would literally be driving away in a car at 6:10 or whatever, and if someone needed you at 6:15 it was basically “too bad, we’ll catch him first thing tomorrow?” Let’s get back to that.
Throw your phone across the room – literally
But there are two parts to the accountability on this one – theirs and yours. You’re still going to get emails. You’re still going to be CC’d on things that don’t super pertain to you but will still flash your problem-solving synapses. Remove yourself from that environment. Thankfully, your TV doesn’t have push notifications yet. Books and cooking supplies and beds and dogs are even more wonderfully analog things to spend time with.
Keep yourself comfortable
Remember – all the trappings of your home are still around you. Over the past year they might have shifted from comforts to cruel boring reminders of our collective situation, but…the coffee you make still tastes good because you make it yourself. Your “break room” is stocked, inexplicably, with all your favorite snacks. You bought that fuzzy blanket yourself to use in your home, and now you get to use it at work.
Do whatever you can, and whatever you need, to keep yourself comfortable. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and can be at peace here. No matter what stressful mess is flashing across your screens right now.
Be diligent and check-in
These issues are sneaky, and can find subtle new ways to pop up in your life. You can be on top of it and thinking things are improving, and then…”one more email won’t hurt.” Or, “I’m in a good groove, it’s okay if I keep going for another hour.”
You make your own choices. If you’re totally at ease or even enthusiastic about working a little bit more sometimes, that’s great. But if you’re serious about wanting to get on top of your life’s balance, you need to deploy diligence. Check in with yourself like you did at the beginning of this process. See how you’re feeling about things. Make changes if you need to.
Hang in there
We’ve heard the terms “unprecedented times” and “new normal” enough in the past 18 months. We also are all far too aware that these new not normal unprecedented times have lasted a full 18 months and counting.
This is hard. It’s okay that it’s hard. Just do your best. Remember what’s most important to you, and don’t let yourself give it up easy. Throw your phone across the room. Good luck finding your balance.