Lego man looking stressed out.

On work-life balance in a time of self-isolation

Work

I’m noticing a concerning trend lately amongst many of my peers and colleagues. With remote working increasingly standard across many sectors and industries, the normal rhythm of a professional life spent in an office has flown out the window, and many people are starting to grapple with finding a new equilibrium. In my observation (and experience) this can very easily include not knowing when to stop working for the day.

Particularly for sectors where demands for skills and services have ramped up in the wake of COVID-19, when working from home the events or triggers that mark the slow down and end of the day frequently don’t happen; or they do happen and are ignored because there is too much to do. In either case, the result is similar.

Case in point: This morning I awoke to a flurry of emails from a wonderful colleague of mine that extended virtually continuously from the point where I clocked off (after working late myself) and didn’t stop until midnight. Her tireless efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone, but I worry for her physical and mental health if she continues this pace up for long.

Still recuperating from a week-long cold, I’m more conscious than normal of the need to look after myself, but even I am working faster, harder, and longer hours than I normally do. There are times when this is absolutely necessary, and helping the university sector make a sudden shift from blended learning to fully online in order to enable students to continue their studies is arguably one of those times. But we must be very mindful of the line in the sand that distinguishes an extenuating circumstance from the new normal.

In certain industries, such as academia, that line in the sand is faint indeed, and working longer and longer hours can become a badge of honour rather than an occasionally necessary unpleasantry. As colleagues and friends, it’s crucial that we look out for each other and raise concerns with others when we feel they are pushing themselves too much. We live in challenging times at the moment. Peer support is essential now, more than ever.

laptop set on a couch

On Remote Working

Work

With uncertainty around the coronavirus being what it is these days, many employers are starting to look at establishing remote-working opportunities for their staff. Having worked from home for many years now (both part time and full time), I thought I’d share some some tips and observations that I’ve found particularly useful.

To provide some context, I’m a learning designer and educational technologist and have worked in higher education (e.g. universities) for nearly 20 years. My primary “clients” (though I don’t call them this) are academic staff interested in developing their courses online.

Establish rituals and habits (and follow them)

Establishing habits and cues that only take place at the start or end of the day help can help emphasise the shift from being at home and “off the clock” to being in work mode. 

For example, I try to always dress for work in the same way regardless of whether I’m working remotely or on campus.  This helps mentally reinforce that I’m representing the University even at home.

At the end of the day it’s also important to have cues that help switch off our minds and return us to an at-home headspace.  Frequently I’ll go running as soon as I’ve mentally “clocked out.”  It gets me out of the house and focussing on a non-work activity, and when I return home, mentally fresh, I know that the evening has begun.  Walking the dog or going for a walk are other ideas.

Set Goals for the Day

Particularly when surrounded by the relaxing and familiar environment of home, it’s easy to get distracted.  By setting goals and tasks for the day first thing in the morning, I find I’m better able to stay on track and have a tool – e.g. ‘the list’ – to return to if my mind starts to wander.

Practice active communication

This is a big one.  When you’re not physically surrounded by colleagues it’s easy to start feeling isolated and out of the loop.  Taking the time to actively reach out, connect, give updates and ask for updates helps maintain a sense of camaraderie even when in disparate locations.

This is especially important when the bulk of your colleagues work together, and you are one of the few (or the only) people working remotely.  It’s easy for others to share information amongst the local team that never makes it to you because they’re in close proximity and you’re not.  So, it’s important to ask questions and actively seek out news that you might be missing by being in a remote office.

Create a dedicated workspace

On a similar theme to rituals and habits is where you work when at home.  When one space is used for multiple purposes (work and non-work) it’s easy to lose track of your reason for being there.  Again, setting goals can certainly help here, but equally if the only time you sit in a particular place is when you work, it can be yet another way of reinforcing the distinction between worktime and non-worktime.

Stand-up and take breaks periodically

Especially if you are alone when working from home, it is incredibly easy to forget to move, eat, stretch, or take a breather.  Breaks helps you relax both mentally and physically and can contribute to increased productivity when you set down a task for a moment and move a bit.

Sometimes I will start laundry or dishes running as a means of getting me to stand up.  When the buzzer goes off, it will remind me to pause, make a cuppa, put things away, and go outside for a few minutes before coming back to work again.

Understand whether flexible working conditions mean “location,” “working hours,” or both

Another big one.  Some businesses are happy for staff to work remotely but expect them to keep to a standard 8-4 or 9-5 working day.  Others are happy for remote staff to work any bizarre times of day or night they like so long as they get the work done and meet their professional obligations.  Particularly with employers who allow flexible work but are reluctant to do so, it’s important to establish trust.  Understanding their assumptions and expectations for when we work and how often we provide status reports can go a long way to demonstrating we’re professional and reliable even when remote and unseen.

Have tips of your own? Leave a comment and share some approaches that you find useful.