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Creating effective work-home boundaries while in isolation

Woman working on a laptop with a dog

Many of us have settled into a new routine of working from our homes to respect the “Stay at Home” Coronavirus guidance and report that the two worlds often merge.

Dr Hannah Evans, an Associate Psychology Lecturer at the OU, shares her top three tips from her PhD research on how to manage the boundaries between work and non-work.

1. Managing physical boundaries

As the boundaries between work and non-work are naturally merged when we work from home, it can be useful for some people to create physical boundaries:

  • Consider where is best to work, if possible having a separate space purely for work can help to create segmentation. A separate room is great, but if not, create a space in a corner, at a desk for example where only work takes place.  Use of screens or other physical ways to separate out space can create demarcation lines.
  • Decide what to do with work paraphernalia such as laptops, books, papers, folders and such. Put them out of sight when you are not working so that the sight of them will not psychologically pull you back into the work realm when you are trying to relax.
  • Wear different clothes to denote when working or not. This can be useful for some people, for example, to get dressed into work clothes and change into casual clothes when the workday is over.
  • Doing something at the beginning of the workday to get into work mode. Home workers often mention going for a walk around the block so it feels as though they have physically left for work as they would if they worked in an office. Of course, that is something that may not be possible under the current circumstances! Something distinctive to start and end the workday could help you to maintain the boundaries.

2. Managing time boundaries

When working from home it can seem as though time for work and non-work merges into one and it can be easier to work more hours than from an office, so consider the following when managing time boundaries:

  • Set limits on when to engage with work. For example, have a time when to start and end work and stick to it.
  • Take plenty of breaks throughout the day, perhaps even set times when you will have breaks and make sure you get them.
  • Take time off from work as you would if you were working in the office and if you do take annual leave do not engage with work during your leave time even though it would be easy to do so under the current circumstances.

3. Managing behavioural boundaries

When working from home our working arrangements are not set up for us as they are in the office, so we need to make choices about working practices at home.

  • Choose when you will and will not engage with electronic communications and set some limits. It is not necessary to be available for communications 24 hours a day just because you are working from home. Decide when emails will go on and off and when to engage with work related communications including telephone calls and texts.
  • One strategy is to check emails three times a day, once in the morning, once around the middle of the day and once later in the afternoon. This can reduce distractions while getting on with other work during working times.
  • Choose whether to switch off devices outside of working hours and whether to have work emails on smartphones. Decide on whether to have pop up reminders and alert notifications of emails.
  • Set out of office messages on email when away and to inform people of our working hours and likely response times. This sets out boundaries to other people and helps them to know what to expect.

“All of our situations are unique and learning to work at home is something that takes trial and error and time to figure out what is right for you. If you aren’t comfortable with what you are doing, try something different, our working practices are a work in progress, not set in stone,” said Dr Evans.

Read more about OU research in Psychology

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