Finding a computer to work from at home, setting up a faster internet connection, and getting remote work software in place are steps most of us have long done since COVID-19-induced work from home (WFH) kicked in. Advice around getting dressed in work clothes and techniques to set up an ergonomic desk on the kitchen table have also stopped being novel anymore.
It’s now time we look at some of the less tangible yet very important challenges of WFH—setting up boundaries and avoiding burnout.
In a recent survey we conducted, 82% remote workers report feeling pressure to work more hours, whether it was from their company, managers, peers, and/or even themselves.* These people identify the top four challenges of remote working as:
Couple this with the added anxiety of a pandemic, the unpredictability of caregiving requirements for children and elders at home, and the feeling of isolation from being stuck in small quarters, and it's no wonder 69% of the remote workforce is already experiencing signs of burnout, according to a survey from Monster.
In this article, we’ll walk you through two prominent working styles and offer some WFH best practices that will help you set better time and communication boundaries.
Integrators are the people who can integrate work and personal responsibilities without stress. They tend to be comfortable performing work tasks during family or personal time, such as taking work calls around dinner time or finding time between consecutive remote meetings to help their kids with homework.
Segmenters, on the other hand, like to create time and space differentiation between work and personal life. Taking work calls during family or personal time or assisting a partner prepare lunch during work hours can be stressful for them.
Here’s a quick checklist to find out which working style defines you:
It’s important to note that neither of the two working styles is superior to the other and both have their advantages. For instance, getting work done within specified hours and freeing up the evening for family time is easier for a segmenter, while juggling between work and childcare in the middle of the day is easier for an integrator.
The goal is to identify your working style and use that insight to set boundaries that work for you.
If you’re an integrator, calls and emails after standard work hours or on the weekends might not be a source of huge stress. But the inability to find time blocks for focused work without multiple distractions in the background could become a stressor.
While a lot of people might be tempted to write distractions off or tell a remote worker to get better at multitasking, the fact is that multitasking stretches the time taken to complete a task.
To prove this theory, a study asked three groups of people to read the same passage. One group received no distractions, the second group received an instant message before they started reading, and the third group received multiple instant messages while they read.
While each group fared equally well on the quality of their reading, the third group finished it the last. This trend repeats in our survey, with 33% of respondents reporting working more hours than the standard.*
For an integrator like you, it’s a good idea to set up focus blocks. Earmark time on the calendar for focused work, either on a daily basis or multiple times a week. Make sure this time is free of any calls, messages, or family requests. And inform all concerned parties about this.
You can also use subtle indicators such as setting a “be right back” or “appear away” status on your instant messenger (Microsoft Teams and Slack being some common examples) or automated “will respond in a bit” replies to emails for certain hours of the day.
Lastly, it’s important to be mindful of the boundaries of your coworkers. While sneaking away after dinner to respond to a few work emails can be a very normal thing for you, it can cause stress for the coworker receiving those emails at 10 in the night. It can also lead to a negative environment where the remote team member feels pushed to appear productive by promptly responding to emails and messages at odd hours.
It might be a good idea to add a standard disclaimer to your emails, which ensures your coworkers receiving late-night emails don’t feel pressured to respond to them immediately.
If you’re a segmenter, the need for clear and well-defined boundaries between work and personal life is high, especially when WFH prevents you from physically distancing the two. Not being able to turn off can be a huge stressor.
It’s important for you to have a clear conversation with team members and managers about the hours you plan to work, the schedule you plan to follow, and when you want to turn off for the day. You can also set office hours on Teams or Slack, and turn off notifications after those hours to avoid non-urgent messages.
Other WFH best practices include setting spatial boundaries between work and personal lives. Set up a separate desk for work, possibly in a home office of sorts that you can close the door to. Try to dress up in work clothes for work hours and change into casual loungewear when done.
On a digital level, create spatial distance between work and personal lives by using different gadgets for both. Keeping all work apps out of the phone, or separating email and messenger apps for work and personal use are also good ideas.
If keeping work apps off of the phone is not possible, removing them from the home screen and hiding them in the app tray so you’re not tempted to open them is an option.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizing burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019, it’s clear that the responsibility of burnout and work-related stress goes way beyond an individual employee.
Burnout comes from workplace problems that are systematic, prolonged, and seemingly unsolvable from an individual’s standpoint. Hence, WFH best practices directed toward an individual (such as learning to say no, or taking time to do yoga or meditation) might not be the stable fix that is required. Instead, it might be the organization’s work culture that might need some looking into.
The beauty of remote working is the opportunity to improve the way you work, to cut way back on meetings, to cut back on the number of people that need to be involved in any decision, to cut back on the need to FaceTime constantly.**
—Jason Fried, Author of "Remote: Office Not Required" and Co-founder of Basecamp
[Even now, employees are still feeling the need to perform their productivity while working remotely.] People just do it on email and Slack. It becomes a thing of like, ‘Look, I’m the first person to respond. Rather than reward this behavior, executives will have to create a new work culture that empowers employees to work the way that’s best for them — even if that involves a little therapeutic goofing off. **
—Cal Newport, Author of "Digital Minimalism"
If you’re the boss or the manager, ask your remote team members:
Are there any video calls that can be an email instead?
Are you frequently working after office hours and on weekends? If yes, then why?
Do you have the flexibility you need to get work done in this changed WFH setting?
Take the insights from these questions and use them to drive a WFH plan that works for your remote team. Also, make sure you understand the working style of each remote worker to be able to best support their productivity and WFH needs.
The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication. *This survey was conducted in July 2020 among 384 individual contributors in small U.S. businesses (2 - 500 employees) who are now working at least part-time because of the pandemic.