Stop living at work.. and start working from home

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Stop living at work.. and start working from home

I recall it was the first few weeks of global lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses were yanked into standstill, people disoriented and worried, communities struggling to wrap their head around this new dynamic. The response from business leaders and organisations was to focus on creating clarity, boosting peoples’ productivity and ensuring strong oversight and direction. In an attempt to ‘support’ their employees, many leaders flicked their ‘micro-management’ style into over-drive. Organisations running training after training, setting up meeting after meeting, check in after check in, all in one furious attempt to ensure people knew what they’re doing. Months in this has now become an exhaustively relentless experience leaving many feeling overwhelmed and nearing burnout.

It’s clear to see that our new normal has created challenges for individuals to protect their boundaries, and in some cases dramatically eradicated any that they might have once had in place, blurring the lines of our work and personal lives. You only have to scan the many articles on burnout, on the impacts of work spilling into personal life and the endless array of resources to help individuals boost their productivity and manage their time more effectively to know how prevalent this is.

In a world that has frankly been tinkering on the edge of mass burnout for some time since the advent of round-the-clock technologies, this is not new. The concept of burnout and the effects of it have been well-documented and commonly felt agnostic of industry. The notion that we’re constantly busy, perpetually ‘on’, always stressed or swamped, has been rampant in our modern day corporate world. Arianna Huffington recently wrote an article on our modern day relationship with time. She talks about the disruption the current pandemic has had on our routines, the distortion of our work and life, and also the opportunity this current pandemic has to redesign how we want our lives to look. She writes of “perpetual time famine and hurry sickness” and conversely of “time affluence”.

For those of us in the privileged position of leading teams and businesses through these times, you’ll know the importance of building a culture that feels both energizing, empowering and also supportive. But just as it is incumbent on our leaders to recognise this dynamic and design strategies to support and nurture employees, it is also increasingly essential that we as individuals start to take ownership for and build structures that support us reaching that time affluence.

Here are five quick tips to design your work from home experience and set boundaries for yourself:

  1. Create rituals and rhythms that empower you – ask any parent of young children and they’ll tell you children crave routines – they like to know what is happening and when so they can consistently predict it. In truth, adults aren’t that different. We seek out routines and rhythms to help us feel in control, to reduce the stress in our day and create clarity even if chaos is all around us. And yet, so many of us are guilty of relying on the daily rhythm set by the 9-5, office-commuting workplaces in our PC (Pre-Covid) world. Without this structure, because we are working from home, we are left feeling adrift and craving (even sometimes feeling nostalgic for) the rituals we used to take for granted. Simple things like getting dressed for work, commuting in, grabbing coffee from the coffee machine, going out of the office to grab lunch, the water-cooler tea breaks and then signing off as you head home. Each of these seemingly minor things created rhythm and routine in our day. So, now you are the one who has to set these for yourself. What are the habits or rituals that you had in the office that you feel supported you? Did you find exercising before work helpful or did you notice your energy really lifted after grabbing tea in the tearoom mid-morning? Once you’ve reflected on which of these were beneficial and energizing, next think about how can you recreate these at home? If you crave the rhythm of a coffee break, how can you build this into your day? You could fake a commute, you could take time to dress for the office each morning, etc… Whatever it is – get clear about it and try to create consistency across your week so that there is habit and a strong sense of rhythm.

  2. Have a dedicated work spot – I think sometimes we can underestimate the power of having a space dedicated to nurturing our creativity. There are whole teams and entire businesses focused on helping make organisational workplaces support employees productivity and effectiveness. They consider lighting, furniture, furnishings, meeting rooms amongst other things – all in pursuit of making work a place that gets the best out of you. Since most white-collar workers are now spending a large part of time working from home, very few have really taken time to think about how to create an environment from which they can flourish. Working from your bed or stacking up books on top of your dresser as a desk might seem like good solution initially but as remote work becomes more permanent, perhaps it’s worth considering where in your residence you can set up a more permanent, dedicated work spot. If possible find somewhere with natural light, with a good ergonomic chair and that is, ideally, quiet (tricky if you, like me, are working from home with kids). Focus on a space that allows you to be the most creative, effective and efficient.

  3. Own the hours that work best for you – we all have times in our day where we are most productive and times when we really need to just rest. For example, I know that I am super efficient in the early mornings and late nights but that post-lunch I struggle to do deep thinking, strategic work. What I have done is to carve out that time either to meet with people (as I am an extrovert I am always energised by people so this counteracts my natural lull in productivity) or else take this time to actually have a meaningful break or play with my children. As businesses shift to a more output-driven environment, the actual hours we work should matter less than our ability to deliver what is expected. As we shift away from a 9-5 schedule, take a chance to think about when you are at your most productive and structure your work hours around that. Once you’ve looked at that also consider what are the non-negotiable routines outside of work in your day that you want to prioritise, and make sure those are calendarised into your day.

  4. Tune out to tune in – I recently read a quote that said “almost anything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” My hunch is that since Coronavirus hit, individuals are taking less annual leave and working longer hours. Just like a computer needs to be rebooted occasionally to function well, so too should we take the opportunity to recharge ourselves. Whether that is meditating, taking a bath, doing exercise, going for a walk, doing yoga, playing games – whatever it is, find your escape. Give yourself permission to really tune out – turn off your phones, disconnect your emails, actually set an out of office (and don’t check your emails during that time or else it defeats the purpose). Really take time to tune out so that you can tune back in fully present, reinvigorated and energised.

  5. Life is messy – be kind to yourself – Finally but importantly, these are extraordinary times and so our weeks will not always go exactly to plan. As Neil Webb said “you are not working from home, you are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.” Given this fact, it’s not always going to be possible to work as fluently as you perhaps have in the past. If ever you needed reminding of the importance of practicing self-compassion, of asking for help and for managing your own expectations, now is the time. Write a gratitude journal, treat yourself, celebrate the small wins and practice talking to yourself as you would a best friend.

As we all flex our working from home muscles remember that it will take time to figure out our rhythms, As Alex Turnbull said “successfully working from home is a skill, just like programming, designing or writing. It takes time and commitment to develop that skill.” So as individuals let’s take time to build this muscle and crucially take some time to truly design your work week to make it as effective as possible for yourself.

And for those of us leading teams or businesses, instead of being concerned with productivity levels in your employees, it is now clear that as leaders we need to shift our focus on the longer-term impact of employee burnout. The best thing you can do as a leader is find ways to support your employees building strong and healthy boundaries so that they can thrive during these exceptional times. But, as with most things, it starts first with you doing the same and setting the tone.

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