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Setting work-life boundaries when working from home 

Young Asian mother working from home with children playing on the sofa.

The shift to remote work is one of the most significant workplace trends we’ve seen in recent years. Already on the rise before 2020, it became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four years later, many organizations (including Candid) continue to offer work-location flexibility. It has also increasingly become a highly desired perk. One study found that U.S. employees are willing to give up 8% in annual pay for a remote job. Meanwhile, Gallup found that only 9% of workers prefer to work from the office full time, the rest preferring some combination of remote or hybrid work. 

One reason many people prefer to work from home is the potential for better work-life balance. It enables you to tailor work schedules to better fit lifestyles (e.g., picking the kids up from school), optimize time management (e.g., getting a load of laundry in between calls), and have someone at home if needed (e.g., to let the dog out). Moreover, the absence of a daily commute can give you hours back each week.   

But despite these substantial benefits, working from home is not a universal cure for stress. In fact, another trend in the nonprofit sector (and elsewhere) is burnout. This may be partly because working at home blurs the lines between work and non-work, making it much harder to set healthy boundaries.  

Why working from home can make it harder to ‘go home’ 

At the office, there are significant social cues—to end your workday at a certain time, whether that’s to head home, join colleagues for happy hour, or beat rush-hour traffic. But when you’re working from home, it’s too easy to simply keep working.  

Technology facilitates our ability to work from home. It also exacerbates this issue. Being always reachable, often via multiple applications (Slack, Zoom, email, text) and on different devices, makes it difficult to establish when you’re really not at work. The constant ping of notifications also takes a psychological toll. It takes mental effort to ignore these sirens, and doing so can cause anxiety and distress. Additionally, the weight of unfinished work (those requests in our inboxes) continues to nag at us well after 5 p.m., tempting us to just keep going. 

Working from home also means that we have twice as many demands on our attention at the same time. While work reaches us through our devices, we’re also surrounded by home-life requests, whether it’s taking care of a crying child or paying bills. These expectations to be always “on” and everywhere at once can shred our time and attention into pieces so small they’re rendered useless—a phenomenon scholars cheekily refer to as time confetti.   

Tips for setting work-life vs. home-life boundaries

Clearly, being able to set healthy work-life boundaries is critical to thriving in a virtual workplace. Here are a few ways to get started: 

  1. Create a transition routine. Rolling out of bed and getting straight to work saves time. But it can add to the feeling that your whole day, your whole life, is work. To distinguish your work life from your home life, create a transition ritual or routine. For example, you might establish a dedicated physical space to work in and prohibit yourself from working outside it (even on your phone). Or you might change into professional clothes to signify when you’re at work. Taking a few minutes to meditate or journal at the beginning or end of the workday can also help shift your attention from one area of life to the next. 
  1. Plan out flexible work hours. Having control over when you work can be just as important as where you work. However, “flex” hours can easily morph into “always on” hours, where you work any time you get a chance and every time you get pinged. To prevent this when working from home, plan out your workweek and share your schedule with colleagues. Consider blocking your calendar and/or adding your work hours in your email signature as a gentle reminder of when you’re not at work. Setting time boundaries is especially important if you work across time zones. 
  1. Mentally put your work down.Psychological detachment” is the technical term for being able to put work out of your mind when you’re not working. Research has shown that detaching at the end of each workday mood, sleep, stress levels, and workplace attitudes. Try to detach by exercising, socializing, meditating, or spending time on a hobby that requires focused attention (e.g., reading, cooking, playing sudoku). It may take some practice to see what strategy works best for you. 
  1. Use technology to your advantage. Technology can help you reclaim some of your time and work-life balance. Block off time in your calendar for focused work, close other apps during this time, and let others know you’re not available. Use the “schedule send” option to write emails when it works best for you and send them when it works best for the recipient. Use apps designed to block distractions and help you focus to avoid time shredding. Try setting an alarm if you need a reminder of when to stop working. And be sure to set your phone to “Do not disturb” after a certain hour and/or silence work-related notifications so you can detach from work. 

Achieving work-life balance as a remote worker requires setting clear boundaries and staying within them—which is easier said than done. But defining when and where you work at home, clearly marking transitions between your work and your home life and taking control through technology—instead of letting it control you—goes a long way toward maximizing the benefits of remote work while minimizing burnout. 

Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto via pexels


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