The key to work/life balance is understanding your boundaries – time, location, spatial and inter-personal boundaries. Over the past six months, the boundaries between home and work have become a lot fuzzier. As we settle in for the long haul, it’s worth reviewing how well things are working for you. Whether you’re working from home indefinitely, back in the office or splitting your time between the two, here are some things to ponder.
Allocating your time
This is the most obvious work/life balance category. There are 24 hours in a day; you spend a chunk of them asleep. How much of the rest of the time do you want/need to spend working? Is the time you save by not commuting extra work time or extra family/leisure time? Is it OK to do domestic stuff during the working day? I sometimes find that a mindless task, like putting the washing on, lets ideas percolate. You might prefer a strict demarcation. Do you work in the evening or at weekends? If so, is that regularly or in special circumstances? What are those circumstances?
Setting a boundary
If your work bleeds too easily into your home life, what guidelines can you set yourself, e.g. finishing work at a set time. It helps to schedule something to mark that boundary. I generally take a mindfulness meditation break with my husband at 6pm to signal the start of the evening. It doesn’t mean I can’t work after that if I need to but it’s a conscious choice not a mindless drift. A walk, a child’s bath time or large G&T (perhaps not every night!) could work just as well.
Working around your partner
If you live with a partner, what agreement do you have about when each of you will and won’t be working and how you manage domestic responsibilities, particularly childcare, around that? With working arrangements in constant flux, have you checked that these still work for both of you?
All in one place
Doing everything from home is hard. I’ve worked from home for almost 25 years and even I’ve found it difficult as I haven’t been out and about meeting people. What can you build in to your working week to give you a bit of variety? I had one glorious walking coaching session in the summer which convinced me that I need to organise more walking meetings. Could you meet someone for a socially distanced lunch or go for a walk once a week or month?
Although commuting can be tedious, for many people it provides a useful buffer between work and home, a chance to decompress. It may be difficult for some to transition from work mode to home mode in the same location. My hunch is that this might be more difficult for introverts who may need quiet time to reflect, particularly after back-to-back Zoom calls. Do you need to build something into your day to help you make that switch? It could be a walk, a run, meditation, half an hour listening to music, whatever floats your boat. If your commute used to form part of your exercise regime (cycling or walking, for example) how can you replace that exercise?
If you’re spending some of your time back in the office, what are you going back for (aside from keeping sandwich shops afloat)? Which tasks can you do more effectively in the office and which are best done at home? How much control do you have over this? Is this something you could discuss with your manager and/or your team?
One of the problems of doing everything online is that you end up sitting in the same space, staring at the same screen for hours. There are obvious physical issues with this. It really is a good idea to get up and move regularly, advice I should heed more often myself. But there are also less acknowledged cognitive issues as well.
It can be harder to focus when you do everything in the same space. This applies in the office as well. The more you can associate a specific space with a specific activity (this chair is where I read, this desk is where I write, this table is where I take Zoom calls) the easier it is for your mind to settle into that task, almost on auto-pilot. If you have the luxury of space (and I’m very aware that many people don’t), use it.
Our memories are often quite rooted in space. When you’re in an office, you may have a strong memory of a conversation with a colleague in a corridor and a different memory of a chat with another colleague at the end of a meeting. When all your interactions take place online, many of those cues are missing.
A trick I picked up years ago, when interviewing multiple people on the same day, was to keep moving the chairs around so that I didn’t have the same view for each person. It reduces the likelihood of me scrabbling back through my notes, looking for the really interesting bit where someone told me about working for NASA or whatever only to find that that was someone else (don’t worry I take very good notes. It’s never a permanent mix up). If you can, move your laptop or phone around the place where you do your Zoom calls so you have more cues to help embed memories.
It can be harder to switch off from work if you’re rooted in the same space all the time. It’s one of the reasons why working in your bedroom should be a last resort. One client told me that he was working on his dining table all day, then eating dinner on it and watching TV in the same room all evening. It’s pretty hard to switch off in those circumstances. His domestic set up meant he had little option. If you’re in a similar situation, at the very least change chairs between working and eating so the physical and visual cues are different.
Within your circle
One of the unintended consequences of working from home is that it has broken down barriers between colleagues. We’ve got a glimpse behind the professional facade, seen each other’s decor, perhaps accidentally met children or pets. I know some teams have gone to great efforts to keep in touch and have built greater team spirit than they had in the office.
But not everybody likes it. We all draw the line differently around the separation we make between our work and personal lives. Those who prefer a very clear demarcation can feel intruded upon when suddenly their colleagues are in their living room, commenting on their artwork. It’s worth reflecting on where your boundary is. If you’ve always kept your colleagues at a distance, can you tolerate bringing them a little closer? What’s OK and what isn’t? If you have almost no boundary, how can you tell if you’re overstepping someone else’s, particularly if you’re the team leader?
Outside your circle
You may have got closer to the people you interact with regularly, but it’s harder to keep in touch with those on the periphery. There are no chance meetings in the corridor, no grabbing a coffee as you both have a bit of time free. On the other hand, there isn’t a good enough reason to schedule a meeting. Over time, these are the conditions that cause silos to build up in organisations. The same could easily happen in places where Team A and Team B work in the office on different days and never meet.
As an organisation, how can you build in time for unstructured, just-for-the-sake-of-it calls? What if no one booked meetings on, say, Wednesday afternoons and everyone was available for calls? Could you tolerate the discomfort of calling a busy person for no reason but to keep in touch? Can you be open to receiving that call when you’re up to your eyes in work?
Navigating work/life balance issues in our brave new world is about more than just taking your laptop off the kitchen table by 6pm. If you’d like some support to think about how you or your team are handling it, do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org