"Allowing a buffer between work and home life tells your brain you have moved past one activity and onto another," says a behavior therapy coach.
Instead of commuting to the brick-and-mortar office, millions of remote workers are now logging in for the virtual workday. While this new dynamic has its perks, remote work also presents numerous challenges for telecommuters, especially when it comes to creating a healthy work-life balance. Needless to say, the oft-said adage about "leaving work at work," becomes slightly more complex when the home serves as both a private and professional space. To help telecommuters disengage after the workday and ease into their personal lives, we spoke with a psychology professional and dialectical behavior therapy coach about creating new routines in the remote work era.
SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)
The importance of buffer space
During a typical workday, individuals often have dedicated blocks of time dedicated to the standard work commute. This block of time enables workers to mentally and physically prepare for the workday and enjoy leisurely pursuits such as listening to a podcast or checking in with friends. This "buffer" time period also serves a key neurological importance for commuters, according to Alicia Paz, Udemy instructor, therapist, and dialectical behavior therapy coach.
"Allowing a buffer between work and home life tells your brain you have moved past one activity and onto another," Paz said via email.
Remote work removes the need for a physical commute as well as this transitional space between work and one's personal life. In lieu of this, Paz suggested incorporating physical activities to help separate these two realms. However, she warned against using this time period to dwell on work retrospectively.
"Many people find that physical activity allows them a mental space to work some tasks out. However, the purpose isn't to focus more on work; this walk can be a great space to focus on your breath, let go of that stressful meeting earlier, and mentally prepare for the next day," Paz said. "Think of this time and walk as a cleanse between work and home—even if you return from it back to the office or couch."
Signaling the end of the day
Without clear boundaries between one's professional and personal realms, it can be difficult to clearly or fully transition from one phase of our day to the next. That said, remote work will require telecommuters to adopt entirely new rituals in their day-to-day lives. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, explained the importance of using physical cues and rituals to signal the end of the workday.
"One tip is to find a routine to signal the workday is done. Maybe you close your laptop and get a cup of the same tea every day. Or maybe (like Mister Rogers back in the day) you switch into nonwork clothing. All of these small routines help to signal to our brain that our workday is done, and we can switch off a bit," Santos said.
Using rituals to physically clock out
The line between work and home also blurs with the home office perpetually mere steps away. As a result, it can be tempting to check on emails and project updates intermittently throughout the day. As a result, Paz said that individuals may need to minimize the risk of sliding back into the workday by setting digital parameters at home.
"It's very tempting to finish up one last call or email from the dinner table or at midnight since the lines are blurred between home and home office; work on boundaries. If possible, turn your work phone off, have notification settings changed so that you only see work tasks during work hours, and try your best to disconnect from a screen," Paz said via email.
Many individuals have certain rituals they perform after a day in the traditional workplace, and it's important to create routines for the remote work era. Paz suggested that individuals create a "clock out" ritual to assist with the transition.
"This could include taking a shower, a 5-minute mindfulness skill, some stretches, or simply moving from your office chair to your couch. Once clocked out, (try to) stay clocked out," Paz said.
Change the scenery
To enable virtual collaboration, remote workers have been tasked with creating functional home office spaces with varying degrees of success. This dedicated office space allows individuals to carve out an environment set aside specifically for the workday. Santos noted the importance of compartmentalizing the routines associated with the workday to help separate our personal space from our professional lives.
"Even if you're going to use your screen for nonwork stuff at the end of the day, can you switch up the specific spot where you're sitting? Just a change in environment — especially the same one every day — can help our brains realize we're in a new mode. And that can help us shut off from work and get ready for some leisure," Santos said.
SEE: Tips for creating a productive home office in the remote work era (TechRepublic)
Lessons learned as workers return to the office
While some organizations have announced long-term commitments to remote work, other companies have started to bring workers back to the traditional office and others will follow suit in the months ahead. That said, telecommuters who are called back to the office may need to consider taking the lessons learned as remote workers and instilling these basic principles in their new daily routines.
"I think the months we've spent away from the office have taught us what we really miss and what matters. This fresh start of returning back can be a real opportunity to build fresh new healthier habits at work," Santos said.
Santos explained that individuals could create new habits in the office such as packing a healthier lunch each day, drinking more water at the office, or avoiding "unpleasant coworkers."
"These natural breaks can be a good time to begin new behaviors as the return to work feels like a natural chapter break in our work-lives," Santos said.
Paz expressed a similar sentiment, emphasizing the need to use the lessons learned during remote work to create new habits moving forward.
"There is nothing wrong with going back to the 'old normal,' but this time away may have made your heart grow fonder for a shorter commute, more routine, going on 5 pm walks around your neighborhood, or being more available for your children," Paz said. "This may be a good time to re-evaluate your work/life balance and how to make the 'new normal' work best for you, your family, and your personal and career goals."
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