Monday Mornings with Madison

When Personal and Professional Collide: How to Set Solid Boundaries between Home and Work Life

Word Count: 1,701
Estimated Read Time: 7 min.

Part 1

While remote work had already been on the rise — growing 159% from 2005 to 2017 – it still made up only a small percentage of the workforce’s employment location.  Far less than 10% of the U.S. workforce was telecommuting at least half of their work time a year ago.  However, Covid changed all that in an instant, pushing over 100 million workers into full-time remote work situations practically overnight.  And, for many businesses, there really was no choice.  It was either work remotely or shut down.  Most business leaders wisely chose to pivot to remote work.  Security was beefed up.  Technology hardware and software was purchased.  Internet connections were enhanced for everyone.  And processes were chiseled together for how to get work done that had previously been done live and face-to-face.  Some tasks changed and some projects were put on hold or halted altogether.

At first, everyone was busy adjusting and proving it could work.  Fast forward three months.  Now that people have adjusted to the new landscape, reality is setting in.  People are WORKING at HOME.   HOME.  They now work in the same place where they have fun and relax.  They now work where they dine and have family time.  Home.  They now work where they snore, cook, and are allowed to be messy.   They are at home – and therefore also at work — all the time.  Home life and work life collided and merged into a one-stop shop.  Work became like a new roommate that took up residence in the employee’s house or apartment…. awkwardly coexisting in a space with invisible, fragile boundaries separating one from the other.

At first, it was fine.  Everyone was pitching in to make it work and survive the situation.  And no one wanted to lose their job.  Because remote work was new to most employees, they had little to no experience telecommuting, and definitely not for an extended period of time.  It was also new to most managers, who had little to no experience managing a remote team effectively.  That’s where it got complicated.  Having a small team working remotely — by choice and with permission — for a short period of time was manageable.  Even if it didn’t go well, it was tolerated as a short-term scenario for a small team.  But having most employees forced into a remote work situation long-term and large scale was an employment scenario few companies or staff had ever had to handle.

Work:  The Bully Roommate

The problem with having work and personal coexisting in the same space is that work can be a bully roommate sometimes.   See, employers want to make sure employees are productive while working from home.   It is easy for remote positions to devolve into paid vacations with small pockets of productivity.   And the longer an employee works from home, the less vigilant employers become about ensuring all staff are productive.  Tasks start to take longer and longer.  Workers start reporting more issues, setbacks and delays on every task or project.  Suddenly, a task that would ordinarily take 2-3 hours starts to take 3-4 hours.   A project that normally is done in a 10 business days starts to drag on for 15 days.  A two-month project is suddenly taking over three months.  Instead of scope creep, it is slow creep.  Managers start to feel frustrated and start leaning on those workers.  Calls and text messages won’t wait until business hours.  Emails will be expected to be answered at night and on weekends.  To combat slow creep, managers start setting impossibly short deadlines for projects in order to compensate for the anticipated slow creep.  Time management suddenly becomes a bigger issue.  And some companies resort to Team Monitoring Software, which employees resent as technology-driven micromanagement.

Home:  The Tempting, Bad Influence Roommate

On the other hand, if work is a bully, then home life can become a bad influence and the source of all temptation.  Employees who are honest with themselves admit that their productivity declined working remotely.   Indeed, in a recent survey, over 75% of employees reported that their productivity plummeted due to distractions related to working from home and the pandemic.  The end of the school year and the warmer weather also contributed to the summer productivity slump.  Children want attention.  And even those with no kids find themselves tempted to do more home improvement projects, gardening and other activities simply because they are spending so much time at home.

A push-pull between work and home life begins…. Increasing slowly over time.   It turns the employee into a rope in a tug of war between personal and professional demands.  So how is a worker supposed to find a good balance between those demands, and give work and personal life its due time and respect?  It requires more than just an acknowledgment that the struggle is real.  It takes a plan and a commitment to build and adhere to boundaries for each.

Boundaries for Work

First, there is the struggle for employees to keep work from taking over and constantly interfering with and disrupting home life.  There are things an employee can do to keep work from messing with family and personal time.  Implementing these strategies is a must for employees to be able to successfully work remotely long-term.

1. Adhere to a Schedule

When working from home, it is easy for work to start seeping into the early and late hours of the day, weekends, and during holidays.  For aAny employee — from entry level associates to top level execs — will find themselves working off and on “around the clock.”   Those with team members in other time zones – a phenomena that is already increasing now that employers can hire anyone anywhere – will feel compelled to accommodate communication with colleagues on their time table.   It won’t take long for remote employees to see family members only as they pass in the hall.  This has the potential to erode family life and create work burnout.  The solution is to create a schedule for what is “work time” and ensure that that schedule aligns with the schedule of those at work and home.

The schedule should align everyone’s “work” hours.  For instance, for people with children, it helps to schedule work hours while kids are taking online classes, practicing an instrument (in another part of the home) or doing an outdoor or artistic activity.  It helps keep everyone engaged in some type of work or learning at the same time.  The same goes for aligning work hours with those of a spouse.  This ensures everyone is “getting things done” at the same time and will later have time later in the day for family.

For larger families with multiple schedules, it is important for “family time” to be sacrosanct.  No interruptions.  No texting.  No calls.  No social media.  During family time, screens should be put away and time should be spent sharing and talking to one another… not just engaging in personal activities such as grooming, chores and errands.  Those with a spouse and children need to spend dedicated time with them rather than always splitting attention between family and work.  That kind of alignment demonstrates – with action — that they matter.  However, the only way to align personal time with the rest of the family is to ensure that work gets done during work time.  And that means no procrastinating and lollygagging.  Work during work time and then shut down when work time is over.

2.  Respect when it is Time to Stop

Working from home can make it easy to lose track of time.  But losing track of time is a no-no… no matter where a person works.  It is important to take regular breaks so that there is a keen awareness of what time it is, how much work has been accomplished and what needs to be accomplished before the work day ends.  The trap is to keep thinking “I’ll wrap up in a minute” and then another hour has passed.  Just as time management matters to an employer, it is needs to matter equally to the employee.  Productivity is not just about getting the work done, but about getting it done in the most efficient and effective way possible.  Pouring more hours into every workday might make the bully boss happy but it will also lead to burnout and health issues.  After all, it is not healthy to sit behind a desk for so many hours in a row.

Most people thrive when there is a set schedule, with a starting and stopping point.  Children especially do well when they have a routine.  Time to wake.  Time to study.  Time to read.  Time for physical activity.  Etc.  The same is true for adults.  By following a schedule with a set time to stop, it is easier to build rhythms and habits.  This feeds the need for consistency and reduces the amount of decision-making fatigue.  Otherwise, it consumes too much time to figure out over and over what needs to be done next.  Setting a firm stopping point every day—and sticking to it—helps keep work from impinging on personal life.

To make it easier to stop work, establish a trigger or cue that says “Time to shut down.”  Triggers are known to be effective for forming habits.  Once something is a habit, then doing it becomes much easier.  A trigger might be to train the family pet to ask to be walked every day at about the same time.  When the dog starts insisting that it is time to be walked, then that can trigger the routine to wrap up work.  This could include putting away all non-public work information, locking up cabinets with work files, making a short list of tasks for the next day, and logging off the company’s network properly.  Establishing that type of routine with triggers helps the brain and body prepare to turn off work and shift over to personal time.

Next week, we will go over a few more strategies to keep work from taking over personal time, and then we will explore strategies for how to make sure that personal life and home life temptations don’t detract from work responsibilities.  Stay tuned.

Quote of the Week

“Remember that work and life coexist.  Wellness at work follows you home and vice-versa. The same goes for when you’re not well, fueled, or fulfilled. Work and life aren’t opposing forces to balance; they go hand-in-hand and are intertwined as different elements of the same person: you.” Melissa Steginus


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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