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How to leave work at work when you work from home

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen thousands of us setting up offices at home. Now, weeks on, you may feel you have mastered the art of working from home. Perhaps you have a rigid nine to five approach, a designated desk setup, and have cracked the Zoom meeting! But are you doing as well at this as you think?

Whilst you may have formed some great habits, we’re not disputing that, you may also have picked up some bad ones along the way. Namely, work creeping into your home life.

Whilst many may return to the (actual) office, for some of us home-working is here to stay. So now is the time to stamp out those detrimental ways, and leave work at work, even when your workplace is your home.

Establish the boundaries

Balancing your work and home life is all about setting boundaries. Not only will an improved work/life balance be a positive step for your mental wellbeing but it can also improve your productivity and output during your working day. Here we look at what boundaries you can set in order to achieve this balance and stop work from crossing over into your home life.

Have a designated space

If you don’t already have a designated work space, now is the time to create one. For many of us it is not possible to dedicate an entire room to be an office, but a simple desk in a corner will work wonders. Search ‘small space offices’ on Pinterest for some great ideas and inspiration. The key benefit of having an assigned space is that it enables you to physically step away from the workplace at the end of your work day, which allows your mind to switch off.

Likewise, beautify your space with plants, and keep it clutter-free and the aesthetics should work as an ON switch to inspire your productivity. Lastly, as lovely as your new space is, avoid the temptation to use it for any other purpose. You wouldn’t go to the company office to tackle your life admin, nor take your kids there to do their homework. Your home office space is your zone for work only.

Top and tail your day

We never thought we’d miss the commute. We don’t. Not really. What we miss is those minutes spent listening to a podcast on the walk, mindlessly scrolling Instagram on the bus or listening to a particular radio show in the car. But all is not lost. Fake a commute by going out for a ten-minute walk. Not enough to work up a sweat, but just enough to activate your circulation and get the blood flowing. Take some headphones and pop that radio show on! Not only does faking a commute give you some ‘me-time’, it also works as a transitional time to separate your work life and personal life.

Similarly, try and get in the habit of getting dressed for work. Whilst there is no need to suit up - arguably the best part of working from home is the comfy clothing - making the effort to change clothes works as a way of top and tailing your work day. Taking the time to do your hair and put some clean clothes on will mentally prepare you for anything the day throws at you - even that impromptu video call. Plus, you get to look forward to changing back into your PJs when work is done!

Do not disturb mode

Utilising ‘do not disturb’ mode is more important than ever when working from home. It no longer solely applies to your colleagues, but now to your spouse, housemates or children too. Avoiding interruptions is paramount in order to get things done. So, let those you live with know when it is essential that you are not disrupted.

Nothing harms productivity like procrastinating, so mute any temptations too. When it’s time to knuckle down, turn off distractions by silencing your personal phone or leaving it in another room, and closing personal emails on your laptop. This all helps to create the divide between your work and home life.

Control your calendar

‘Do not disturb’ works twofold with your colleagues. Just as it can let them know when you are focusing on a task, it can also be used to let your colleagues know when you are switched off from work. For example, if you are out for some lunchtime exercise, home-schooling your child, or just having some family time. These important home-life events are better enjoyed when they are not interrupted by work messages and you are not on edge waiting for the next ‘ping’ from your phone. You should not feel you have to be constantly available. A simple solution is leaving your laptop in your office space at all times, and turning off your work phone. You can always be contacted on your personal device if there is a true emergency.

Another way to achieve this is by harnessing your calendar. Make it available for all colleagues to view, and be sure to highlight when you are available. Colour coding your day’s tasks with a traffic light system is perfect for this – green for available, red for do-not-disturb, and amber for busy but contactable. This simple system works great when used and understood by all staff.

Time tracking your working day

In this article, Inc.com reported that in an 8 hour day the average worker is productive for just 2 hours 53 minutes! So why is it that we end up working longer hours when working from home? Is it that we feel obligated to show that we can be productive away from the office environment? Believe us when we say there is no need to prove yourself at the expense of your downtime and mental wellbeing.

Think back to pre-lockdown life and how long tasks would take when working on them in the office. If you know a certain report takes five hours to write, then getting it done in a day is enough – or if you listen to the Inc article, you have already over-achieved! A simple way of monitoring your productive time is with a time tracking app such as Toggl.

Remember that interruptions from co-workers, tea rounds and ad-hoc tasks still exist even though you are not working in the company office. The tea rounds may be smaller, but they are more frequent with no one but you to take a turn!

Still struggling?

Challenge yourself to implement the above changes and you should begin to find work stays at work rather than encroaching on your personal life. If you are still struggling, whether due pressures from your peers or seniors, or simply because you are a self-confessed workaholic, then be wary of burnout.

Recognise when you are struggling and exhausted, burning the midnight oil and/or getting up early to work is not sustainable or beneficial. Using some annual leave may be the last thing you’d have thought of right now, but taking a break from the continuous demands of work could be just what you need in order to prevent burnout.

Even if you don’t want to use your holiday days right now, be sure to take a break at the weekend or your usual days off. It can be all too easy to ‘just do an hour’ to catch up on a Saturday morning or check in on emails, and before you know it you’ve been working for a large part of the weekend. You must be disciplined on your days off; this downtime is what will recharge for the week ahead.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of empathy. Whilst it has its perks, working from home can be a real struggle, pandemic or no pandemic. Talk to your seniors or HR department if you are feeling challenged. They are sure to offer support and solutions.