That Work From Home Life: Setting Boundaries

I’ve been working remotely for the last six years. There’s a honeymoon period that first year, for some it can last longer. There’s no commute, I just make my coffee and get to work. There’s a lot to like about that aspect alone. As with most things in life, however, there’s a downside to being so close to work in that it tends to be inescapable. Inevitably the work from home employee will come to the following conclusion: boundaries are essential.

It’s no secret that many in the comics industry work from home. It takes more than sheer willpower to work from home. We’ll try to save you some of the pain of having to learn this (sometimes painful) lesson on our own and help get you on the right footing.

Three Ways to Set Clear Boundaries

Office spaces are all about boundaries. When we get into an office we are in a clearly defined space of work. As part of our cultural understanding of office spaces, others implicitly know that when we’re at work, social calls or interruptions aren’t acceptable. Offices help communicate norms about how and when we work. Here are some best practices for how you can set boundaries for yourself at home.

1. Communicate Your Work Hours

Communicating boundaries by establishing and expressing normal working hours can take some mental stress out of the work from home equation. That’s not to say we can or even want to avoid all interruptions to our work day. If we do work from home, it’s likely we do so because our lives demand or we benefit from a certain amount of interruption and that’s great.

A 2017 study in the Journal of Management which looked at work-family boundary violations, found family interruptions to our work time can have a negative effect when they take us away from work goals. The same is true, however, when work goals overwhelm our ability to attend to our family life. The answer? Set aside specific times to talk to family or attend to the needs of our home. This can help rid us of the creeping anxiety that we aren’t meeting our responsibilities as caretakers, caregivers, friends, spouses, and so on.

You may also find family members and friends breaking boundaries more than they would if you worked from an office. These small incursions into our work day may seem inconsequential but they can eat up vital resources like attention and concentration. By finding the time you most productive and safeguarding that time, you’ll help protect your productivity. I find blocking time in my calendar or turning my phone on do-no-disturb to indicate my availability to be useful tricks. At the end of the day however, it all comes down to communicating clearly when you are working.

Often, communicating boundaries involves consistent and firm reminders to friends and family. When my sister calls me I don’t pick up, I call her later and remind her that she called during my work hours. It can seem awkward at first but it gets easier with practice. Enforcing boundaries with others is some of the most important work we can do while navigating the work from home space.

2.Have a Dedicated Workspace

Our brains benefit from some amount of physical segmentation between our work and home life. An article in the Harvard Business Review about Google’s study on employee work habits found that while some employees were natural segmentors, folks who can draw clear distinctions between work and home life, the majority of workers (69%) were integrators. Integrators have difficulty turning the work part of our brain off, even when we’re not on the clock.

The act of commuting, as horrible as it can be, primes the brain for work. It gives us time to think about what we need to accomplish during the day and helps our mind understand the work part of our day is beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for commutes here. What I am advocating for is a dedicated work environment for yourself. Creating and maintaining a dedicated workspace helps me remove distractions.

There is a dedicated group of folks who study workspace design and its impact on vocational behavior but here’s what you need to know, our workspace impacts factors like our engagement and relationship to work. Part of what feels so horrid about working in an office building is that we have limited control over that space. Thankfully, working from home provides us with a lot of control. We get to decide what amount of privacy works for us, what furnishings make us feel comfortable, and what desk set-up benefits our workstyle. Each of these physical elements of our workspace influence our ability to focus and be productive.

It’s also good advice to consider the impact of color on workspace, this is especially true for folks in creative industries. The color white, for example, can make you feel like you are working in a clinical environment. Essentially, stark colors can make you feel like you are working in a hospital and that isn’t always conducive to getting the creative juices flowing. Neutral and softer colors tend to work best for most people and don’t forget to add in some natural light! Studies continue to show that natural light improves our health, helps us sleep at night and inspires us to be more active throughout the day.

For those of us who live in a studio space or may not have the ability to take an entire room up for a home office, there are numerous ways to carve out a space for yourself with a minimal footprint. The website Apartment Therapy has a bunch of ideas for how you can turn any corner or closet into a dedicated office space. Ultimately, setting up your home office space should be a reflection of you and how you work best. From paint colors to seating, from pictures to lighting, choosing objects that aid your productivity and comfort is really a matter of personal taste.

Having a dedicated workspace signals to your brain when it is time to work but it also prevents the rest of your living space from feeling like your workplace. That’s especially important when it comes to ending your workday.

3. End your workday

When work is done, it’s done. Or is it? In the United States, we have a culture of overwork. Access to mobile devices increases the feeling that our workday never ends. Push notifications and an always-on approach to work can result in overload or burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is a specific state of stress that can occur when employees reach peak emotional, mental or physical exhaustion. For home workers the problem generally isn’t our ability to start work our workday but rather our ability to end it.

By the end of the day our mental energies and attentional resources are just about nil. To wind down your workday consider making a to-do list for big decisions and tasks you’d like to tackle the next day. This is a great way to signal to your brain that you are beginning the next phase of your day. It also gives you time to reflect on your accomplishments for the day. Acknowledging the work we have done is just as important as noting the work that may still be on our plate for the next day.

Before I leave my office I try to clean up, at the very least I take my coffee stained mug into the kitchen. This is another way we can signal to ourselves that the work day is complete. There’s also the added bonus of setting yourself up for success the next day as research suggests cluttered workspaces can inhibit our productivity. Think: cluttered office-cluttered mind. Of course how you define clutter and messiness is relative. My ‘passibly clean’ tends to be my husband’s idea of cluttered.

The trick is to find little rituals to help focus your attention on something aside from work. To ensure that we do actually end our workday, some folks find it beneficial to schedule a non-work related activity after normal work hours end. This could be a class, a walk, or dinner with friends or family. In order to end my day, I’ve personally found it helpful to leave the house and go for a walk. This gives me time to reflect and most importantly puts me in an environment not oriented around work. In turn this aids in my mental transition into recuperation mode. Of course the real reason why most of us can’t end our work day can usually be found in our pockets: our cell phones.

That all encompassing feeling that we are missing out on something keeps us glued to our phones, responding to emails and Tweets. Most of us know that working all the time isn’t good for us but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop doing it. I am a habitual email checker and the more anxious I am, the more I do it. In turn, this makes me more anxious. It’s a vicious cycle.

Do your best to not respond to workplace emails and requests after you have completed work, not only does this help reinforce your work/life boundaries but it also stops you from spending mental entergy on work when you are supposed to be relaxing. I often fail at this but I try to accept that it’s part of the process of breaking a habit. Snoozing notifications and straight up leaving my phone in another room have been important tools in my arsonal for not working all darn day and night. Battling through that feeling that we are missing out on something is how we can break our always-on working habits. Though it may be anxiety-inducing at first, recognizing that the world will not fall apart if we don’t respond to a work-related request helps teach our brain (over time) that it is okay to actually turn off.

Ending your workday doesn’t simply mean leaving your office space, it means not working while you are resting. Set up expectations early on that you won’t respond to work emails in non-office hours and hold yourself accountable when possible. Deadlines and the often chaotic nature of creative work can sometimes make this difficult but I promise you, the emails will still be there in the morning.

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Working from home can be a boon to our professional and personal lives. The flexibility to establish what work practices and environments work best for you is the kind of autonomy that most employees dream about. Establishing boundaries with how, when, and where you work can aid in your success as a work from home employee. It’s less about getting it right and more about adjusting to your needs as they change. When it comes to working from home, you are your own best advocate.  

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