Working Smarter

6 Ways Remote Workers Can Get on Top of Boundaries and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson


REMOTE WORKING is one of the most popular employee perks. Employers should be fans of it, too, since it does wonders for performance. One study (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta) found that productivity increased 10% to 30% for those working from home offices.

That’s a big payoff and a compelling reason to do more of it. More companies are doing just that. Some 37% of Americans (Gallup) are now working at least some of the workweek at home. Contrary to the image, though, of teleworkers slacking around the house, they actually work more than their colleagues at the corporate office. It’s adding up to a growing downside for virtual workers, whose work-life balance dreams are not always paying off the way they thought.

Remote staff have been shown to work 50-75 hours per week (Doherty et al, Pratt), averaging consistently longer days than their coworkers at headquarters.


And therein lies the irony of telecommuting. As much as remote workers like the increased freedom, lack of commute, and fewer interruptions, a practice chosen for better work-life balance can make it worse. A Center for Work and Family study found that only 24% of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as very good, compared to 38% of those who worked at the office but used daily flex time.

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It’s not the remote option itself that’s driving long hours and a trip down the burnout track. The culprits are the lack of boundaries and self-management skills and the proximity factor. You can’t drive away from the office at the end of the day when it’s in your house. The three priorities you didn’t get to today are feet away from handling. Why not go back to the desk and polish off one more task?

Remote workers have a problem knowing when to say when in an unstructured environment in which there is added pressure to make it known you are getting the job done even though no one can physically see you. An affliction known as guilt enters into the equation, a need to prove worth from afar by going the next several miles beyond to compensate for the lack of face time.

I recently led a work-life balance training for a remote team at a medical laboratory firm. The company was happy to retain top talent by giving them the option to work from their homes across the U. S. As much as they liked the autonomy that virtual work provided, the group was finding it difficult to shut off the workday, get the mental detachment necessary at the end of office hours, and were too accessible to technology that followed some of them straight into bed at night.

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We zeroed in on the importance of time management, boundaries, and setting the terms of engagement with technology. Companies that allow employees to work remotely are providing a vote of confidence in the ability of their virtual staff to self-manage their day. The responsibility is on the individual to structure the day in an effective way and utilize technology so that it enhances, not overwhelms, the chief productivity tool—attention.

Let’s take a look at six habits that can turn remote work into what it was designed for, an aid to a more flexible life and a better work-life fit:

1. Keep Office Hours. It's the same work, just in a different space. To rein in a default to excessivley long workdays, set office hours for yourself and stick to them. You have the advantage of being able to slot in a child's play or yoga session—just keep them within a set schedule. Don't go off on impulsive distractions—such as social media tangents—that destroy focus and make you fall behind. Simulate the schedule of headquarters at home as much as possible.

2. Set Stop Times. The work is not all going to get done by the end of the day, but you can finish yourself off by chronically going on too long. Long hours have been shown to dramatically increase strain and the stress that results from it. Choose a time at which you can remove fingers from keyboards, put down the phone, and stop for the day. What is a reasonable stop time for you? You are not always going to be able to stop on a dime, but aim for consistencly regular closing hours. Kick out the last person in the office, you, at the approinted time. Set an alarm as a reminder. Turn your coffee mug over to symbolize that the day is done. You're going home. Wait a second, you're already there.

3. Set Boundaries on Technology. The remote employee has to have greater reserves of self-regulation, i.e. discipline, to avoid the temptation of having all communcation with the outside world bombarding and notifying incessantly. That means having a strategy to deal with unbounded technology is essential. Check devices manually at set times. Three or four times daily are the most productive schedules, researchers at the University of California Irvine and Oklahoma State report. Try starting at hourly checks and wean down from there. Turn off visual notifcations on your screens. 

4. Organize Your Desk and Prioritize. It's a lot easier for clutter and distractions to pile up at home. Organize your workspace and remove all distractions from view. Get set up for maximum concentration. Turn off browsers. Prioritize and plan the day's events.  Take 10 minutes at the start of the day to prioritize. Qualify tasks by the urgency of doing them now, and create a next physical action for items on the to-do list.

5. Create Focus Zones. When are you the most alert? If you are a morning person, that's going to be anywhere from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and if you are a night own, it's going to be in the late afternoon, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, whatever you can spare, and block it off to do your high concentration work. Put a message on your auto-responder that you're on a deadline and will be back at a designated time.

6. Take Breaks and Get Exercise. This is an area that is tailor-made for remote workers—so it's important to utilize it. You have been left to make your own schedule. That means you can create one that allows your brain and body to get the daily recharging they need. It's easy to put the head down and barrel ahead for 10 straight hours, but the work and your health will suffer as a result. Researchers say we need to give the brain a break every 90 minutes to two hours. Set times you can step back for a 10- or 15-minute reboot. Use your breaks to build in exercise, to take a walk, do some stretching, or make your lunch break an exercise break. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at lunch time increases productivity.

Going from the corporate office to the remote office can be a tough adjustment, one that we aren’t really prepared for. Yet the autonomy can pay powerful dividends for those who get organized and prioritized—more opportunity to take care of personal and family issues, easier access to refueling breaks, more concentration, and best of all, gratification of one of our core psychological needs. We all have a need to feel autonomous and to chart our course.

Remote working offers a choice to take on more responsibility, and when we do, our brain neurons like it, and pay it off in the form of job and life satisfaction. As long as we can resist the digital, self-interruptive, and caloric temptations.

Tags: work life balance, telecommuting, time management skills, home office tips, remote working

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