By Kim Turnbull James, Professor of Leadership and Executive Learning

As we enter these unprecedented times, we are all looking for leadership. The difficulty is figuring out what kind of leadership we now need.

For many of us, the Covid-19 outbreak in March sparked an almost overnight shift to working predominantly from home. The clear divide between work hours and non-work hours has been taken away, and with the recent government advice shifting back to ‘work from home where possible’ it seems we’ll be continuing to work, eat, sleep and play all under one roof. Between balancing work hours around other commitments such as childcare, a lack of dedicated work space and the instantaneous, demanding nature of our digitalised working practices – it can be all too easy to find ourselves feeling like we’re never truly away from work, which in turn impacts our health, wellbeing and our productivity.

In a paper on personal resilience and working from home, Professor Kim Turnbull James discusses the difficulties we face in keeping a distinction between our work and non-work time, and outlines the importance of setting boundaries that are tailored to your own individual priorities to avoid the danger of being ‘at work’ 24/7.

It’s not just where you work – but when: work, non-work and the problematic grey area

The ‘where’ – finding space at home away from other family members, and the ‘how’ – the pressure to always be contactable, immediately answering emails and jumping from one virtual meeting to the next, are clearly important factors when it comes to some of the potential boundary issues that can arise when working from home. But as the months continue, it’s clear the challenge isn’t just where or how we work – but when. The growth in all day and all night communications, suggests a ‘need to be seen’ is fuelling a 24/7 approach to work.

Many people are concerned over potential redundancies, and remaining indispensable as their organisation is forced to change and adapt. Furthermore, employees might worry about being seen to be working hard and not ‘holidaying at home’. The digital, instant nature of how we work means it’s always been difficult to resist the temptation to check our emails or respond to work messages when we’re using our devices during our down time. But now that we’re working, eating and sleeping in the same space, the physical boundary has disappeared alongside the digital one – which makes switching off even more difficult.

A grey area exists between the work and non-work aspects of our lives. Working from home has offered the chance to rebalance our lives – but it also offers the opportunity to be on call, all the time. Blurred boundaries can leave us feeling like we are never truly ‘at work’ or ‘not at work’ but caught somewhere in between.

While most of us set out core hours where our non-work lives are not permitted to intrude in to work, we are less clear about when the contrary is true and when work isn’t allowed to intrude on our down time. This is the problematic grey area – when have we ‘done enough’ work? Are there circumstances where we need to let work intrude – and if so, how do we decide on that and how can we get that balance back? With our normal, tangible boundaries (such as commuting) removed, it’s important to set new boundaries that work both ways. Importantly, in order to manage work and non-work well, we need to create our own version of these boundaries that are tailored and can be flexible to our individual circumstances.

The four boundaries to apply to your new working from home set up

Professor Turnbull James sets out the following boundary categories, and offers methods that might help us to implement them:

Physical space

Having a dedicated place to ‘go to work’ at home can help to mimic the physical boundary that would usually be created by travelling to an office. However, it might not be possible to have a specific work space at home which does not have to serve any other purpose, and so there are other ways of making work and non-work feel different. For example, if you have to work and eat at your kitchen table, changing place or only having a cloth on the table at meal times can help to create a feeling of separation. Likewise, if you’re having to work in your bedroom, being able to pack your work station away into a cupboard so the room looks different when it’s time to go to bed can help create a distinction between work and non-work.

Time of day

Sticking to the typical eight-hour block of the 9-5 working day might no longer be possible while you’re balancing work with other commitments and interruptions at home. Assess your own situation to set out your core working hours. For example, completing a block of work early in the morning while children/teenagers might be sleeping in to free up time for home-schooling in the afternoon, or opting to move some of your working hours to the early evening. It’s important to set out a schedule of what your core working day looks like, in a way that works for you, to avoid simply working at all hours in between your non-work commitments.

Schedule social and personal time, as well as meetings

Don’t be afraid to schedule in social and personal time – it’s not selfish, and maintaining this social connection is important. Remember that you don’t have to respond to every email, as soon as it arrives. If you were in a face-to-face meeting, you wouldn’t expect people to barge in and demand that you answer their questions immediately – so you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so in the virtual world.

Create a set of signals that help you to feel like the working day is done

It’s important to give your brain signals that it’s time to switch off from work. In a closed physical space, where you don’t have the experience of physically leaving the office, these signals are even more important. It could be something as simple as switching on the radio, changing your clothes or going out for a short walk before you transition into non-work time – find a small ritual that helps you to feel like the working day is done.

How to make these boundaries work for you, in the problematic grey area

It’s fairly easy to stick to our boundaries when the distinction between work and non-work is clear, but how can we implement them in the grey area where we could be working, but we also don’t have to be working? Professor Turnbull James suggests it’s all about establishing a distinction between core demands and choices:

1) Define what aspects of your work are non-negotiable, ‘must-do’ and fundamental to effectively carrying out your job role. Are there circumstances where these ‘core demands’ must be allowed to intrude on your non-work time, for example in order to meet a deadline? If so, could you choose to give yourself this time back at a later date?

2) Identify elements of your work that are more of a choice – the ‘nice to dos’, rather than the ‘need to dos’ that we can find ourselves dipping into during non-work time, but might not actually be urgent enough to necessitate this crossing of the boundary. It might be that there are circumstances where we want to allow these work-related tasks to intrude into our non-work time and give them a higher priority, for example for personal career development or to read industry-related articles that we enjoy. But it’s important to identify this element of choice, and decide whether some of these tasks can wait until we can complete them during our working hours if the work/non-work balance is becoming too skewed.

Separating our workload into core demands and choices allows us to manage and tailor our boundaries to best suit our priorities and circumstances, rather than feeling that absolutely everything is a top demand and must be completed immediately – so we end up always being ‘at work’.

When boundaries can be easily blurred, be deliberate in establishing a divide

The already fading line between our working and non-working lives is now even less visible as we spend more of our time working at home. The organic boundaries and transitions that we didn’t have to think about before, such as listening to the radio on your commute home – have been removed. Setting new boundaries which are adapted to the new normal – and sticking to them – will help to set a precedent for making space for ourselves and managing the expectations of others going forward. Feeling like you’re always at work is a recipe for burn out, so it’s important to give yourself that moment of stopping, refocusing and “leaving the office”.

Download the full paper by Professor Kim Turnbull James, Personal resilience and working from home: are you in danger of being ‘at work’ 24/7?

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