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Coworkers, managers and vendors are getting an inside peek into the understandably less-than-perfect personal lives of their colleagues. What they see and hear is often far from crisp, clean and cultured. Pets interrupt Zoom calls. Lawn mowers buzz in the background of important work calls. Amazon vendors ring the doorbell five minutes into the weekly sales update with the boss. Children barge into the “home office” demanding lunch at 11:21 am. Like life, it is untidy. For the masses telecommuting for the first time in their lives, home life keeps spilling into work time… and invariably at the most inopportune moments. What is a pro to do? It can seem practically impossible to keep the lines of separation between work and home. But the employer who laid off 50 workers and is keeping a specific employee on the payroll, expects competence and class.
There is an often unspoken understanding that employees who are working from home are expected to not just get the work done, but get it done on time and with some modicum of professionalism when interaction with internal and external customers. And by the same token, employees need to be able to turn work off and focus on their personal lives “after hours.” For many, it is tougher than it seems.
Last week, we began with a few strategies for honoring the sanctity of work time and place. That included:
1. Adhere to a Schedule
To keep work from seeping into the early and late hours of the day, weekends, and holidays, employees must resist the temptation of working off and on “around the clock.” There should be clarity and structure around what is “work time” and what is “personal time”. This prevents work from eroding family life and creating employee burnout. By setting a schedule for what is “work time” and ensuring it aligns with the schedule of those at work and home, this redraws bright boundary lines for what is and isn’t work time.
2. Stop when it is Time to Stop
Losing track of time is easy, regardless of the task. Within the comfort of home, it gets even easier to lose track of time when telecommuting. But remote employees must be even more keenly cognizant of Father Time, the ultimate taskmaster. There needs to be a daily awareness of and focus on what needs to be accomplished before the work day ends and how much has actually been accomplished. Work time must be for work, and the work must get done on time and on point. Flexibility must be replaced with ruthless time management. Work must be done in the most efficient and effective way possible. There should be no stretching the day by working longer hours. That only results in resentment and burnout.
3. Create End-of-Day Triggers
To make it easier to stop work, establish some type of cue that says “Time to shut down.” Triggers are mindless tasks that help form habits and make it easier to stick to a plan. A trigger can be anything. Getting up, stretching and popping a mint in one’s mouth as a “day is over” That minty taste can signal to the brain to clean the desk, put away files and prepare the desk for the next workday. This type of routine makes it much easier to transition from work to personal time.
In addition to these ideas, here are a few more useful strategies.
4. Create a Dedicated Workspace
The IRS insists that for a person to claim the deduction of a home office as business expenses, that space must be used exclusively for work. This is a useful guide to help telecommuters create more boundaries between work space and home space. For many remote employees, working from home was something thrust upon them in 2020 because of Covid. They didn’t have a dedicated workspace. But for those who can expect to work remotely for at least another 6-12 months, it is important to try to establish that type of sacrosanct, separate space. Perhaps it is a loft area, closet, patio or basement. If it is a space that can be used for work, and only work, then that is best. Furnish the space and make it both physically and mentally appealing. Google announced that it would be providing its remote employees with a stipend of $1000 so they could furnish their home office in a way that was comfortable and engaging. Even if an employer is unable or unwilling to fund a remodeling of an office space, it is worth putting a little effort to make the space bright, uncluttered, clean and stocked with supplies to be effective.
5. Close the Door
For those who can establish a dedicated space for work, closing the door during work hours communicates to everyone in the home that it is work time…. and it is not okay to just barge in. That helps to reduce the casual interruptions when family members “forget” that mom or dad is working. Of course, for those with very small children, that may not be practical or possible yet.
Another benefit of having a dedicated space with a door is that, at the end of the day, the door can also be closed to communicate that work time is over and family time has begun. It reestablishes the physical boundary between personal and professional life.
6. Program Auto-Responder Messages For After Hours
Once the work day ends, program auto-responder messages to communicate with customers and colleagues about the work schedule. For example, a message could say that emails received after a certain hour will be answered the next business day. For businesses that deal with emergencies, provide instructions of what to do after business hours, in case of emergency. The goal is not to be available 24-7, but to make sure that there is information about hours and other options.
7. Create “Screen-Free Time”
Competing for someone’s attention against a phone or computer screen is the ultimate blurring of the line between work and home life. Answering emails and text messages after hours or early in the morning communicates to family that work is more important. That is why it is important to set up a block of time after the work day is over to put all devices away for a few hours. Fully disengage from work… and digital life… and fully engage with the people within the inner circle. Communicate the hours that are “screen-free” to colleagues so that they understand that this time is set aside as a work-free zone.
8. Avoid Hot-Button Distractions
Every person has things they find particularly distracting. Online shopping. Social media surfing. Entertainment programs. Texting friends. Playing game apps. For anyone who is new to telecommuting, the key is to figure out what those distractions are and eliminate them.
Limit time spent online. Avoid surfing the Internet during work hours, including both shopping and social media sites. Save private conversations for lunchtime or after work. Guard time jealously and protect it from distractions.
By establishing a host of boundaries that separate time to work from time for play, rest and restoration, those who work from home can re-establish the lines of demarcation between time for personal life and time for work life. While there is nothing wrong with allowing some flexibility, it can be a slippery slope. Until there is a healthy balance and respect for work time and home time, it is best for newbie telecommuters to err on the side of caution and put clear boundaries in place.
Quote of the Week
“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they [are] at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.”
Sir Richard Branson
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.