Managing the boundaries between work and home

Managing the boundaries between work and home

Well-Being in a telework context 

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, may workers have shifted their normal work routine towards remote work or telework. For some, this shift was complete (they are now working exclusively “from home”); for others it was partial (they rotate workdays with their co-workers). Despite being a relevant measure to contain the spread of the virus, and even if at first sight it looks like an improvement, working from home can be challenging from the well-being perspective. 

There are indeed many advantages in remote work: individuals do not need to loose time in commuting to and from work, there is the possibility of better managing individual time, and time at home for family or hobby related activities is enlarged. All of these aspects can, in theory, contribute to individual well-being. However, the experience of many of us has been slightly different: we suffer from Zoom fatigue (link: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting), we have a harder time making breaks and stop working (maybe having a break to go from the living room to the kitchen is not that appealing…), we increased our sedentariness (and our weight!), we feel distant from our co-workers, we have a hard time concentrating knowing that on the other side of the door there is a pile of laundry to be taken care of, and we can’t take any more interruptions or noise from family members or housemates. The promised land of working peacefully with a warm cup of tea and our comfy sleepers at home turned out to be stressfully overworking, and a difficult management of work and home responsibilities.   

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Segmenting and integrating work and home life

One aspect that is common to types of flexible work arrangements such as telework is that it can blur the boundaries between work and home life. Since I can work from home, or “anywhere”, there is not a clear division between a work context and a non-work context. What is more, one context invades many times the other in more or less subtle ways: from working in a living room full of toys to receiving an email at 8pm that you feel you need to attend to, since you went to the supermarket from 3 to 4pm…

All of us have a preference for either keeping the two domains as separated as possible (the segmenters) or to integrate them the more we can (the integrators). When we separate, we keep non work issues out of our 9 to 5 schedule – our offices are free from pictures of our pets, and we don’t pick up our spouse who’d like to discuss what’s for dinner. When we integrate, we happily engage in messaging our brother asking for his weekend plans, and we finish a report while waiting for our kids’ swimming practice. What research tells us, is that both can have its advantages and drawbacks when it comes to well-being. However, it also highlights the importance of an alignment or fit between individual preferences and what is required by the employer, for both job satisfaction and stress.

Remote work in COVID-19 times was imposed on individuals and was hardly a voluntarily choice. Even for the most integrator among us, the stress of the unknown about the pandemic, together with the inherent challenges of telework can slowly impact our well-being. We forgot to define norms from the very onset about how we’d work, our routines became ill-defined and too unpredictable, we felt guilty for both spending time with our family/hobbies and for working and ignoring house responsibilities… In this sense, some boundary management tactics have proven useful for teleworkers. Below, there is a short list of these, which we hope can be useful.

  • Find a dedicated work space at home, preferably with physical distance or barriers between that space and household activities (namely a door!); Complement with signals that convey to your housemates that you are working (having some sort of a “do not disturb” sign at the door);
  • Prevent keeping work materials in family/home spaces; and remove all artifacts that may remind you of household chores (laundry baskets, kids’ backpacks, gardening tools…);
  • Use a calendar to define work and non-work moments, and let your family and co-workers know of these hours; you can even share them via Google Calendar or similar apps to better coordinate house and work responsibilities with all;
  • Define (and comply with!) short break times every 90 minutes. Small apps can help you do this (check out the “Tomato Clock add on by Firefox, for example); during these breaks, restore your energy with a healthy snack or a walk around the block, or take care of home responsibilities instead of remaining in front of the computer screen browsing social networks or news websites;
  • Clarify expectations to both your family members and co-workers about availability, workload, and reply times;
  • Turn off your phone, computer or other devices that show you as “available” during non-work hours; turning off notifications from a vast number of apps is also important;
  • Avoid the temptation to reply promptly to either work of family requests, and do so when it better fits your schedule.

To know more: Kreiner, G. E., Hollensbe, E. C., & Sheep, M. L. (2009). Balancing borders and bridges: Negotiating the work-home interface via boundary work tactics. Academy of management journal, 52(4), 704-730.