How do you leave your work at the office if the office is at home? It’s a question many virtual workers struggle with. Surveys show setting boundaries and not being able to unplug are two main challenges of remote workers.
Some classic research tells us the importance of transitions in setting boundaries. Boundary-crossing activities, as researchers call them, include activities like getting dressed for work and traveling to an office. During these natural transitions, workers shift gears, and move physically as well as mentally from home to work.
But if your workspace is in your bedroom, the living room, or somewhere else in the home, these transitions disappear, and it’s easy to get sucked into a routine of working in pajamas or commuting five steps to the desk. So, we compiled some tips for setting boundaries for remote work and explain why they’re crucial in maintaining well-being and avoiding WFH burnout.
Create Physical and Social Boundaries and Transitions
Let’s be real. Working in comfy clothes or pajamas is easy, fast, and really, really comfy. Taking those extra 30 minutes of former commute time to grab some extra z’s is tempting. But skipping a shower and avoiding getting dressed are not boundary-crossing activities.
Changing into work clothes before sitting down at your desk is one of the easiest—and most effective—ways remote workers can subconsciously signify the beginning of the workday. To help get your mind ready for that transition to work, instead of sleeping the extra 30 minutes, take a walk. Or meditate. Or do a quick workout. Any sort of movement will break up the bed-to-desk workstyle and establish a transition from home to office.
If Possible, Establish a Dedicated Workspace
In creating physical boundaries, it helps to have a dedicated workspace. After all, having a physical space to unplug from helps remote workers leave work at the pseudo-office. Some remote employees are fortunate enough to have a dedicated office room. Others have makeshift office spaces in garages, basements, kitchen corners, dining rooms, or bedrooms. No matter where your space is, having a desk, ergonomically-deft chair, and place to dock the computer helps create a state of separation between work activities and home.
Set Regular Work Hours
Time off from work has positive correlations with our well-being. Vacations and weekends not only are important for boosting our mental health and lowering stress levels but also can increase productivity while decreasing the chances of burnout. Working long hours has been proven to increase anxiety and depression while decreasing the amount and quality of sleep. Maintaining WFH hours that are as close as possible to your onsite office hours will help create what researchers call temporal boundaries.
Once you have created some new routines for social and physical boundaries and established a dedicated remote workspace, your next step is talking with your immediate supervisor or team. Set some realistic expectations. Something as simple and innocent as sending emails outside of normal working hours can break down needed work boundaries and make workers feel like they need to be available 24/7. Many online calendars—like Google Calendar and Calendly—allow you to designate working hours and allow others to schedule meetings with you. But anything outside of those hours is off-limits.
“Having a routine set of time that you’re at work—hours that could even be posted—makes it easier for everyone around you to know when you’re on or off the clock,” is how author Glenn Fleishmann puts it.
Shane Snow lists some great long-form tips in Forbes. Know the difference between a boundary and a barrier, Snow advises. The key difference between a boundary and a barrier, is that “a barrier cuts off communication,” Snow writes. “It cuts off negotiation. It makes it clear that you are not on the same team.”
After speaking with your immediate team or supervisor, build a calendar. And make that calendar known to the people on your team. Also build in some “you” time. My workday, for example, typically lasts from about 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. But built into the middle is a two-hour block to work out and meditate. It works for me. What’s more, my employer and team members know the best version of myself needs those two hours each day to step away from the desk and reset. Taking breaks, even if they’re just 10 minutes at a time, is essential.
Snow recommends using if/then statements when conversing about boundaries. Here are some examples.
- If you email outside of my designated work hours, then know I’ll get back to you, but it could be in a couple hours or the next day.
- If you submit work for me to review after my work cutoff at 5:30, then know I’ll return it with feedback tomorrow morning.
- If you receive an email from me at 6:30 a.m., then know I respect your work hours and boundaries and won’t be expecting an immediate response.
When You’re Done, You’re Done
Just like beginning the day, end it with a transition. Create a routine that works in lieu of a commute home. Change clothes. Go for a walk. Grab a beer. Start dinner with friends or family. There’s no right or wrong—do what works and is relaxing for you. And make sure you don’t go back to work later in the evening. Call the day good and look forward to the next.