Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
When COVID-19 sent much of the country into lockdown last March, most workers whose jobs became remote overnight figured they were in for a few months of working from the kitchen table; few of them expected they’d still be doing it a year later. Yet here we are, with kitchen tables across the nation still crammed with laptops and work files.
It turns out that having their jobs invade their homes has significant ramifications for people’s ability to disconnect from work and have real downtime. Work-life balance has been elusive for many of us since long before COVID arrived on the scene, but pandemic-driven changes in how we work have made it exponentially harder for people to draw a clear line between work life and home life.
Most obviously, having work so visibly in your physical space can make it hard to turn off that part of your brain when work hours are over. This person who wrote to me describes it well:
I live in a tiny apartment, and I’ve had to install a desk about three feet from my bed. It’s hard to unplug from work at the end of the day when my computer and all my work stuff is just sitting there in my line of sight. I feel less like I’m working from home and more like I’m living at work.
A surprising number of people have told me they feel pressure to be constantly available to their jobs, since their colleagues figure that the virus restrictions mean they have nothing better to do with their time now:
What I’m finding difficult are the expectations that because we’re at home all the time anyway, we should be online and available at almost all times. It’s gotten to the point where I’m eating every meal (breakfast, lunch, and some dinners) in front of my laptop, and I’m checking Slack on my phone while I make a coffee from my kitchen. I’m also being asked to do extra work during the evenings some nights—not exactly because of the crisis, but because everyone knows we’re all here anyway. Without the normal excuse of having plans, I’m finding it hard to say no.
There’s also something about being at home day in and day out that has blurred the passage of time:
I have NO work-life separation anymore. I don’t start work until about 10 am (most of the PMs I work with are on the West Coast while I’m on the East) and some days I’m working on and off until midnight. Mostly I don’t even realize it—my sense of time has been completely obliterated by the lack of external cues. Every day seems pretty much like every other day. Sometimes I have to check my phone to see what day of the week it is.
And when you’re juggling kids in the mix as well, an already difficult situation becomes even harder:
I have a kindergartner and a second grader who are 100% online and it’s no fun. For anyone involved. They don’t understand “important” and will pester me while on the phone. Meltdowns, loud noises, all normal kid stuff but it makes it really hard for me to work. I’m tech support and tutor, while managing a small remote team and responding to clients. I’m working odd hours to catch up, taking calls and meetings through Teams on my phone. I’m frustrated and short with my kids. I feel like I don’t get a break. I’m “on” from the moment the kids wake up until they go to bed, then I have to play catch up.
Basically, it feels like I’m failing everyone. I’m dropping balls at work and I’m not the patient, helpful mom I want to be. When all this is over, I will need a serious vacation to decompress.
Of course, not everyone is suffering. For some people, working from home has been a boon. They have flexibility in their schedules, can take time off midday to take a walk or run errands, and can arrange all the elements of their day in a way that suits the rhythms of their lives:
I LOVE the flexibility of my schedule right now. I can take it easy first thing in the morning, have breakfast and coffee, read the news, not feel rushed. If I’m having an early-afternoon slump, I can take a short nap. I can schedule appointments or work around the house if my ADHD won’t let me sit at my computer for long stretches. I can take breaks and lay in bed to stretch my back out so I’m not in my chair all day. It’s great! But I often work later in the night to get low-stakes things done while I’m winding down or to make up for time I spent not-working during 9am-5pm.
My boss does the same thing—she has a small child and gets a LOT of work done after he’s asleep, often sending emails at 10 or 11pm. We’ve talked about work-life balance and each doing our own rhythm, and as long as things are done and we’re showing up to meetings and everything we’re both totally fine with it, and I know a late-night email from her isn’t a summons.
But what do you do if you’d rather keep work contained within reasonable business hours and not let it spill into every corner of your home life? To some extent, it’s about making a mental commitment to boundaries: turn off your computer at the end of the day, take your work email off your phone if possible, and resolve not to get drawn back in during your evenings and weekends. If it’s practical, put up a physical barrier between your work area and the rest of your living space (even a curtain could help) or stow your work things somewhere you can’t see them at the end of the day. If your colleagues tend to message you at all hours, don’t interpret that as an expectation that you’ll respond immediately. (In most fields, it won’t be.) If your office uses chat apps or Slack, change your status to “off work” or “do not disturb” when you’re done with working hours. And be willing to say, “I have a commitment this evening but can look at that tomorrow.” You don’t have to have actual plans to want some time to yourself outside of work.
It’s not ideal—nothing about the current situation is—but committing to keeping work in work hours should get you back some time that’s fully your own.