For years now, I have had this predictable response when someone first learns that I work from home, “Oh, that must be nice to not have a commute and nobody bothering you when you need to concentrate, plus I bet you have more time to take care of things at home or spend time with your kids.” I generally smile and do my best to explain that working from home wasn’t always that nice but I learned that until someone has worked remotely for some time, it’s hard for them to understand the challenges associated with it.
But now, as workers across the country have been sent home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, many are experiencing first-hand how challenging it can be to take care of yourself when you have a ten-second commute. If you haven’t been getting your steps in, have been wearing the same pair of sweatpants for three days, or have regularly forgotten to eat lunch, you aren’t alone.
Drawing the line between work and home is harder if your home is where you work, and it’s just about impossible unless you have a plan. Instead of working less, as many managers fear, most remote workers end up putting more time in - which means losing time you need to take care of yourself.
If you find yourself struggling as you transition to working from home, here are a few tips to help you find and maintain some balance.
Create a Morning Routine
One of the best things about working from home is not fighting a morning commute, but that has a downside as well. The commute, as crummy as it might have been, also served as a routine that helped you shift into work mode. As a remote worker, you still need a morning routine - but you get to design this one. Think through all the things you have ever wanted to include in a morning routine, but haven’t had time. This could be lingering over your coffee, taking a walk, exercising, meditating, or since the kids are home right now, spending a few extra moments cuddling with them.
What you choose isn’t as important as sticking to it. As my fellow remote worker, Jacqueline du Plessis, points out, “if you open your work email before you have eaten breakfast, showered, or done any exercise or meditation, then trust me, none of those things are going to happen. You’ll suddenly realize it’s 3:18 PM and aside from your morning coffee you haven’t eaten and are still in pajamas.”
On that note, put some clothes on that don’t make you feel like a slob - whatever that means to you. When I first started working remotely, I had just left a corporate environment. Once I realized that pajamas and sweatpants, though comfortable, didn’t put my brain in work mode, I returned to my work clothes - or at least my casual Friday clothes. Dressing for work sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to focus on getting your job done. Staying in your pajamas and skipping showers leads to depression - no matter how productive you have been.
Work Scheduled Hours
It’s critical to give yourself a hard start and stop time. It’s both too easy to procrastinate, and too easy to work non-stop when your office is in the next room. When you worked in an office you got to leave it to go home. Even if you did some work later that night, you still had a natural stop.
At home, it’s easy to keep working, and working, and working. You might even give yourself a dinner break and then go back to work. It’s also easy to feel like all you have is time since you don’t have any place to be (especially during a shelter-in-place), which can lead to putting off work since there isn’t any pressure to complete it before you leave the office.
Without a set schedule, work-life balance will be harder to obtain -despite being at home! I encourage you to track your time whether you need to report hours or not. It can be enlightening to learn just how much, or how little, time you have spent completing your work.
Establish Expectations and Be Vigilant with Boundaries
Part of creating a schedule that works for you is communicating what that schedule is to your manager and your team. Setting these expectations helps you avoid anxiety around your work hours which could lead to you being afraid to step away in case something urgent arises. Jacqueline points out that, “making sure things are clear and agreed upon helps you relax and make the most of the time - whether you are working or not.”
Let people know when they can expect you in the morning, and at what point you will step away from the computer and switch gears. Establishing boundaries around your personal and work time upfront helps you maintain them. Once everyone knows that you will be unavailable after 5 or between the hours of 3 pm and 7 pm, make sure you are unavailable. If you don’t respect your own boundaries, you can’t expect anyone else to.
As a side note, many workers will need to balance being at home with kids, partners, and/ or parents. If this is you, have a chat with your manager about how you can balance everything out. Having a structured schedule will help your kids manage their days better as well.
Take Regular Breaks
Since you aren’t in the office, you miss out on the social cues that remind you to stop for lunch or breaks, it’s surprisingly easy to work right through them. Take a full lunch break outside of your office, along with some regular breaks throughout the day just as you would at the office. If you find yourself struggling with this, schedule time on your calendar with reminders or set a timer for yourself. Many remote workers use the Pomodoro Technique for this purpose.
Get Some Fresh Air
One of the best things you can do on those breaks? Get outside for a walk. Some remote workers suggest taking a walk in the morning, and one at the end of the day to get the same brain benefits as a commute, but with significantly less stress. Others take two fifteen-minute walks or one long one. But you don’t even need to take a walk. Just getting outside where there is fresh air and hopefully some sunlight will bring some much-needed balance to your day.
Making time for yourself as a remote worker is especially critical now. Take care of your work, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. Use these tips to help you get through this surreal moment where we come together as a nation by staying physically apart.