A friend recently bemoaned to me, “Quitting time doesn’t seem to exist anymore.” She’s not alone. Most newly remote employees struggle with work/life balance.
People working from home log nearly an hour more each day than when they worked in an office, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research recently found.
But HR professionals and direct managers, who probably also face a work/life imbalance, can help – especially when working from home feels a lot like sleeping at work!
“Our work/life balance is already in jeopardy thanks to the impact of COVID-19,” says Jackie Gaines, author of Wearing the Yellow Suit: A Guide for Women in Leadership. “Extended workdays only intensify the situation. If you’re not careful, meeting your work demands in this chaotic environment can crowd out your other priorities.”
The perfect 50/50 balance remains elusive. Some days work demands more time and attention. Other days, life gets the bulk of our time and attention.
“When you work from home, the ‘workday’ becomes a slippery slope,” says Gaines. “But you can take back control by getting very intentional about protecting your work/life balance in these unusual times.”
Here are nine ways to help employees – and yourself, when necessary – create and maintain a positive work/life balance.
No. 1: Work at work/life balance
Bottom line: Work/life balance doesn’t just happen. You have to actually make an effort to make it work.
“Balance is a necessary part of life – especially right now,” Gaines says. “It’s up to you to manage it.”
She suggests encouraging employees to:
- Consciously and physically separate work and home
- Work the same hours, and devote the former commute time to leisure activities
- If possible, choose to work in shifts so one partner can care for other family members while the other works, and
- Cut yourself a break. Lower your expectations so everything gets done, but sometimes not perfectly.
No. 2: Recalculate work/life balance
When employees worked on-site, most incorporated some life into work. For instance, they might have participated in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) groups, joined the company sports leagues or book clubs, attended post-work happy hours or exercised with work friends.
Now they’re home and not able to do those things – and likely need to tilt the scales toward life. Recognize – and fulfill – the need for social, spiritual, physical and intellectual needs.
Pro tip: Offer employees access to online exercise classes. Let them continue D&I group meetings through Zoom. Invite and encourage them to virtually join up at lunch to chat socially or try virtual happy hours with trivia after hours. “Take time to play, laugh, love, work, cry together, and respect each other,” Gaines says.
No. 3: Establish clear boundaries
At Loomly, CEO Thibaud Clement and his leadership team encourage employees to set clear boundaries for when they’re working and when they’re not. And they expect everyone to respect each others’ work boundaries.
For instance, Clement keeps hours when he has childcare – and his employees and colleagues know he’s readily available then.
Beyond people’s clear working hours, “We assume communication is asynchronous,” Clement says. “Anyone can leave comments on our communication apps at any time, but you can’t expect responses immediately.”
Pro tip: You might set up a schedule in your communication app – Slack, Loomly, Workplace from Facebook, etc. – that shows employees’ working hours. That will make it easier for people to set up meetings, connect to collaborate – and recognize when they shouldn’t bother each other.
No. 4: Create physical boundaries
In many cases, people’s offices have spread all over their homes – from the dining room table to the living room couch. And it’s tempting to pick up work when employees shouldn’t because it’s always visible.
“Because it was available, I’d start tapping away on Sunday mornings,” says Kate Eary, Corporate Counsel at Gentex Corporation.
So she started tearing down her work station – the dining room table – on the weekends. She folded her laptop, put it on a bookshelf and placed the monitor and paperwork in a closet. She also rearranged her dining room for its intended purpose.
Pro tip: Encourage employees to adopt a “physical ritual” like Eary’s – moving work equipment out of sight or closing the office door when they shouldn’t be working.
No. 5: Set the example
Leaders will want to set an example on work boundaries to help employees avoid burnout, too.
“We don’t check on hours put in. We look at output,” says Clement. “So, as leaders, we have to be the ones who set the example. We set expectations on what needs to be done. If it’s done, good. Now if someone misses a deadline, then there’s a conversation.”
Pro tip: If you have employees working across time zones, you might want to establish a few exact work hours each day so employees can collaborate. Otherwise, encourage people to work the same number of hours they did on-site at times when they’re most productive, effective, creative and focused.
No. 6: Manage work time
When employees went home, most lost their regular work routine – commute, coffee, email, meetings, focused work, training – and never got back in a groove.
Pro tip: Encourage them to establish a routine for the new normal. Some things to include:
- Timed breaks. For mental and physical well-being, step away from your designated work area to walk around, stretch, get a healthy snack, etc.
- Deep work periods. Identify your most productive time of day and designate it as a “no disruption time.” Turn off alerts, put up signs for those in-house and remind colleagues you only respond to emergencies in that time when you’re involved in Deep Work.
- “After” work appointments. Schedule an exercise class, hobby group meeting, walk with a friend or spouse – anything so you’re accountable to leave work.
No. 7: Set limits on technology
The equipment employees brought home – PCs and their many apps – and those they were already attached to – cell phones and tablets – make it difficult to disconnect.
The always-on technology can “blur the distinction between work and personal time,” says Gaines. “Don’t fall victim to this temptation.”
Pro tip: Gaines suggests employees “spend time outside of work away from your devices. Have a conversation with someone in your household. Take a short walk for fresh air. Read a chapter in a book.” Point is, get physically away from the work.
No. 8: Get organized
People often feel overwhelmed and unbalanced working from home because two functions now exist in the space that used to host one function.
Gaines says getting more organized helps create a sense of balance.
Pro tip: Employers can help employees get more organized by encouraging them to set aside time every day to plan. Plan projects and the tasks they need to achieve. Plan meals for a few days in advance. Lay out kids’ school work and your anticipated work the night before. Schedule enough free time to handle work and personal issues that come up.
No. 9: Recognize a shifting balance
“The ‘right balance’ is a very personal thing and will change for each person at different times in their lives,” Gaines says.
So what worked for employees when they worked on-site, and went out to restaurants, gyms, stores, events, etc., probably doesn’t work now. You want to help feed their personal and professional needs.
Pro tip: Managers want to hold regular, virtual one-on-ones with their employees. Ask where they struggle and explore ways the company can provide resources to make work better or more manageable. Also, share lists and links to help bolster “life” – such as social, financial, spiritual and well-being resources.