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Ask a WFH expert: how do I set boundaries?

Ask a WFH expert: how do I set boundaries?

22 January 2021

Do you have a work dilemma and no one to turn to for advice? That’s what our panel of WFH gurus are here for. This month, we meet a homeworker who wants to switch off, and a manager who wants to help her employees with their work-life balance. HR expert Gemma Dale shares her advice.

The problem:
“During the initial Covid-19 lockdown, I got into bad habits while working from home – checking my emails all the time, being available ‘on call’ to colleagues and clients out of hours and never fully switching off. Now that our company will be working remotely until at least spring 2021, I’ve realized I can’t keep this up. I’m exhausted! How can I establish boundaries and reclaim my personal time?”
– Always On and Burning Out

The solution: 
A lack of commute, the physical collision of work and home and the tendency to work beyond office hours to fit around other commitments all make burnout a very real risk for homeworkers. This is more than simply being tired. It’s the result of being under prolonged stress. Exhaustion is a symptom, along with lack of motivation, feelings of reduced confidence or self-efficacy and cynicism – especially towards work.

Establishing boundaries can be difficult – but is critical. Some people are more comfortable with integration between their work and home, whereas others are not, and need greater separation.

One option is to create whatever separation is possible. If your work takes place in a separate room, such as a home office, this is easy – you can shut the door and leave all the items relating to work in a different physical space. If your work takes place in living spaces, such as the kitchen or bedroom, try to pack away your work items at the end of the day – even if this means putting laptops, files and equipment in a drawer or a box.

Another option is to recreate the transition provided by the commute by finding a personal ritual that signals work is done for the day. This could be the act of listening to a podcast or going for a short walk.

Finally, you may want to try creating what are sometimes known as ‘microboundaries’. These can also be thought of as promises to the self. For example, a promise not to check emails at the weekend, not to look at your phone during dinner, or to take a lunch break at a set time where no work will be allowed to intrude.

The problem:
“I can see some of my employees struggling with their work-life balance. I want to offer them support, but don’t know where to start.”
– Somehow I Manage

The solution:
With work-life balance, there’s no single solution that will fit each individual. What works for one person will not work for another. And your employees are probably still working out exactly what works best for them.

For this reason, leaders need to take an individual approach, too. One of the most powerful things any manager can do is to empower their people by supporting them as individuals.

The key thing is to aim for is open dialogue with your team, including regular conversations about wellbeing, priorities, challenges and support. Not only does this help employees in the short term, but it also creates a culture of openness and support – something that can only benefit your organization.

At a team level, managers should think about effective and supportive ways of homeworking – and discuss this openly as a group. Keep it open-ended. Ask: “How do you think we can work more effectively together while we’re remote?” Then really listen to the answers.

I’ve worked with teams who’ve created their own remote working team rules, including committing to not emailing on Sundays and not scheduling meetings during the morning school run or over lunch. Giving your team a chance to design these new working practices creates ownership and leads to high compliance. When you give people autonomy, you’ll find they rise to the challenge and deliver.

Gemma Dale is a senior HR professional, conference speaker, writer and coach, with more than 20 years’ experience. She is currently a lecturer in employment law, organizational behavior and wellbeing at Liverpool John Moores University Business School, UK.

Do you have a WFH dilemma for our gurus? Get in touch at Email us!


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