Now that more of us are working from home than ever before, the boundaries between our work and home lives have become blurred. Working in the same place as you unwind presents a unique set of psychological challenges. But if you face them head-on, you can reduce the risk of disruption to your work-life balance and overall mental health.
With that in mind, here are our top tips for managing your work-life balance while working from home.
1. Define your ideal work-life balance
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy work-life balance. It’s incredibly subjective, which is why it’s important to decide what a healthy work-life balance looks like for you.
It’s inevitable that your thoughts about what makes a healthy work-life balance will shift at certain times in your life. When you’re establishing yourself in a career or working towards a promotion, the scales might tip in favour of work. When you’re raising a family or grappling with health concerns, your home life might take precedence.
With many of us firing off out-of-hours emails on our smartphones, there’s a very real risk of work activities encroaching on our so-called free time. But by setting your own definition of a healthy work-life balance, you’ll be more inclined to guard your personal downtime – crucial for maintaining healthy levels of productivity, creativity and wellbeing and protecting your relationships.
So, don’t forget to take regular stock of your work-life balance. Ask yourself: what does an ideal balance look like for me?
2. Set boundaries and stick to them
Once you’ve decided your definition of a healthy work-life balance, the next step is to set boundaries to protect it.
Setting clear boundaries will help you make the most of your much-needed downtime. Just because you don’t have to suffer through a commute, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other energy-sapping factors at play. You might find that your sleep pattern becomes irregular or notice a change in your dietary and exercise habits. And then there’s the fact that working from home requires greater self-control than working in an office. Having clear boundaries will allow you to mentally detach from work and replenish the mental energy used up by those repeated acts of self-control.
Here are some of our favourite boundary-setting tips:
Set clear start and finish times
Decide when you’ll start and finish work, and do your best to confine your work to those hours. Muting work notifications outside of those times can prevent you from being jolted back into work mode. The danger of responding to messages outside of working hours is that your co-workers may come to expect this. This behaviour can catch on, creating an unhealthy “always on” culture which benefits nobody. If everybody in your team responds out-of-hours even when it's not time-critical to do so, this might indicate that they're conflating the concepts of looking busy with being effective.
Take regular breaks
We're all familiar with those days that seem like a total whirlwind. You sit down at 8am and the next thing you know, it's 6pm. We become laser focused on a snapshot of what reality is – a tiny computer screen, engrossing us for hours each week. This laser focus prevents us from remembering to take a moment to sit back, take a deep breath, look out the window, and be mindful of what we're doing with our lives. Setting reminders for small mindfulness sections and longer breaks can help with this. A hasty lunch eaten at your desk will do you no favours; it’s important to regularly step away from the screen and practice detaching from work. This could be as simple as spending ten minutes reading a book, listening to a podcast, making a hot drink, calling a friend, or taking a quick wander around the block.
Schedule communication-free times for focused work
Remote workers often feel they need to compensate for not being visible by making themselves continually available to answer emails and chats. But this sort of digital presenteeism can be a drain on energy, productivity and mutual trust and can make it difficult to focus on tasks that require sustained concentration. Blocking out communication-free times in your calendar can help to combat this.
If the thought of scheduling communication-free times feels uncomfortable at first, don’t be afraid to start small. Choose a task you’d like to give your undivided focus to, then close all non-essential work tabs and inboxes and set your status to away on any messaging apps. Then set a timer for twenty minutes. Work on that one task until the time’s up. Even if you only manage one or two of these sessions a day, you might be surprised at your increased output. This can be a great technique to create distraction-free time with friends and family, too.
Tip: If you notice that your organisation seems over-reliant on tracking the green ‘available’ status symbol on communication platforms, why not start a team conversation about this? For most modern technical jobs, more hours doesn’t automatically mean greater output. Instead, creative solutions to ever-evolving problems can result in one worker being vastly more effective than another who appears to be a “hard worker”. Remember to keep your eyes on the real goal – meaningful output rather than the illusion of work. After all, sometimes we all just need a period of time without distractions to get down to the nitty gritty and get work done. Distraction is the enemy of effective work output.
Create transitionary rituals
Build in before-work and after-work rituals to help you to effectively transition between work to home. This might be as simple as tidying your desk, meditating, getting some exercise, writing in your journal, reading a book, or listening to a podcast. This buffer period can help you find focus at the start of the day and decompress at the end of it.
It can be easy to start the day with the best of intentions and a firm commitment to fit in some exercise, only to find excuses not to follow through as the day progresses. Where possible, make it easy for yourself. Set out your exercise clothes in advance. Reduce all possible friction. Say to yourself: "Even if I don't feel like exercising – even if there's still work to be done – all I need to do is put on my working-out clothes and go outside. I can just walk if I don’t feel up to anything more strenuous. It’s only for ten minutes." Often you'll find that the context shift helps, and you’ll want to do more.
Save your brain with a simple decluttering technique
If you’re prone to worrying about work when you should be relaxing, why not jot down any mental clutter (thoughts, concerns, to-do lists) in a notebook? This can often be enough to banish the clutter from your head – at least until the next working day. Better still, you could try pre-empting this by building it into your end-of-work ritual.
Maintain a regular sleep pattern
Getting enough sleep increases your ability to manage stress, be creative, make decisions, and remain focused. Nobody is perfect, so there are bound to be days when you won’t manage your ideal amount of sleep – days when you stay up too late or drink too much. What counts is that you consistently find a way back to your optimal routine.
3. Embrace a range of digital communication tools
When you work in an office, queries can often be resolved in person. But when you replace age-old communication methods with digital ones, miscommunications can follow. This can lead to feelings of frustration that it can be difficult not to dwell on even when work is over for the day.
Emails and chat tools lack the non-verbal clues (like facial expressions, body language and tone of voice) that we’ve come to rely on when communicating with others. The result? We have to work harder than usual to interpret a message or to make our own meaning clear. It can be easy to perceive a message as rude or critical when it wasn’t intended as such. For this reason, it’s important to consider your communication tools wisely and not to place too great a focus on any subtext you may intuit from written communications.
Complex or potentially contentious messages are often better conveyed via video or phone call than in writing. A quick call can also save a great deal of email back-and-forth. The key thing is to be mindful of the range of digital communication tools that are available, instead of always defaulting to email or chat.
And when you do communicate via email or chat, it’s worth considering whether any additional context is needed to prevent your message from being misconstrued.
4. Take time to make social connections
Getting to know your co-workers can sometimes feel like a struggle when you don’t spend much (or perhaps any) time together in person.
One fifth of remote workers feel that loneliness is the biggest challenge posed by remote work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When feelings of loneliness or isolation start to creep in, it’s key to remember that you aren’t alone. Chances are, some of your co-workers feel the same way and will welcome ideas to combat the feeling.
Here are some of our favourite ideas to beat the solo struggle and foster a sense of connection:
Connect with your colleagues one-on-one
When you’re new to a remote team, there’s no better way (besides face-to-face) of getting to know your co-workers than to jump on a call with them. Introduce yourself and take the opportunity to ask questions about them and their role. Hearing someone’s voice and seeing their face creates a more personal connection right off the bat. And if you’re already established in your team, why not arrange a ‘just because’ catch-up with someone you haven’t connected with in a while?
Schedule regular team time
Even if it’s only half an hour a week, building team time into your schedule can add variety to your week and provide welcome relief from feelings of isolation. Asking icebreaker questions at the start of a team meeting can be a great way to create more personal connections and prompt a fun and open conversation. There’s a great list of icebreakers here.
Find your community
Your community doesn’t have to be just the individuals you work with – it might also be made up of those doing equivalent roles in other organisations or working in a similar way to you. Why not try out a co-working space (when it’s safe to do so again), or attend a meet-up, or join some role-relevant Slack channels?