Setting Boundaries When Working from Home
- Hosted July 20, 2020
- By Jackie Lam
When I transitioned to freelancing full-time back in 2015, one of the first things I did was set up a makeshift home office in my dining room. Emphasis on “makeshift.” My workspace was a tiny corner of my kitchen. It was made up of a clunky laptop on top of a small dining table. That and a metal rack where junk mail had a tendency to pile up.
While it was by no means rivaled enviable work-from-home spaces of lifestyle Instagram influencers, my home office did look out to a bright courtyard brimming with daylilies and pink angel trumpets.
The downside? My window also faced my neighbors’ place. The bungalows in my compound in West L.A. were arranged so our doors directly faced one another. And my neighbors always seemed to be home, talking loudly on the phone — with their door open.
Thankfully, there were a handful of coffee shops in my neighborhood. When the constant din got to be too much of a distraction, I would pack up my computer and head over to the nearest java joint.
Ah, those were the days. If you’re working from home, during his surreal time, the coronavirus situation has shuttered dining areas and coworking spaces. In turn, escaping to a quieter space that might be more conducive to productivity simply isn’t an option.
And if being in quarantine now means working from home alongside significant others, roommates, and children, how to set boundaries when working from home so we can maintain our sanity and get our work done? Here are a few pointers:
Claim your space
During quarantine, I have the luxury of working out of two places: my home and at my partner’s art studio. At both locales, there are designated areas where I use solely to get my work done. It helps me get settled and “in the zone” quicker.
No matter what your living space, carve out an area in your home that serves as a designated workspace. It can be a desk next to your bed, a small closet converted into a home office, or your dining area. Wherever it is, it should ideally be used solely for your work. Make it yours. Put up a partition to create some privacy. Hang artwork. Place a potted plant. Post your to-do list on the wall. Rearrange some furniture so that your desk points to a window.
Whatever it takes to help you get settled in and in working mode. If you’re in cozy living quarters with others and aren’t able to dedicate a space just for work, make it clear to others that you’ll be parked there during peak productivity hours.
Communicate working hours
Along those same lines, you’ll want to let others know what your working hours are. Are you a freelancer who is now cohabitating with someone with a day job? While they might have set hours, if you’re like me, your work schedule might change each day.
When I went on workcations with fellow freelancers, it was necessary to let my traveling buddies know my working hours. “I’m going to need four hours today before we can head out and do X,” I would tell them. Similarly, they let me know what they were working on and how much time they needed. We tried to be clear with one another when we would be working. That way, it wouldn’t turn into a social hour.
Communication is essential in all relationships, and that goes for your work from home cohorts. It can be as quick and straightforward as picking an emoji that can equate to, “hey, I’m working now” and shooting that over to cohabitants.
Setting boundaries is one thing, but the vital thing is to enforce limits. This means a gentle reminder when someone is encroaching on your space or constantly interrupting while you’re trying to send off a file to a client. Chances are they’ve forgotten. Just kindly let them know that you’re in the middle of a task for work, and you’ll be able to chat during lunch.
Sanction off workspaces from living spaces
Aim to have separate areas solely for working and for personal life. Just like how sleep experts say you shouldn’t do anything in your bed except to sleep, your workspace ideally shouldn’t double up as the place where you have dinner with your family or do a bit of Netflix binge-watching.
Of course, it really depends on your living situation. If you cohabitate with significant other and kids or are bunkered up with roommates, you might need to make do, and some areas will need to double up for both work and play.
I live in a tiny, 325-foot cabin, and my desk takes up most of my living room. But some boundaries I set for myself is not to eat meals at my desk or to work from my couch.
And when I work at my partner’s art studio, whenever he sees me parked in his living room table, feverishly typing away, he knows that I’m working. As he has a separate area to work on his art, if he’s on the phone during the day, I can’t assume he’s dawdling on social media. That’s because he doesn’t own a computer, and does a lot of his email correspondence on his phone.
Find ways to break up your day
Sitting for long periods isn’t healthy even when you were working out of a coworking space or office. And when you’re at home, the days might easily blend into each other.
Think of ways you can break up your day to give you a brief change of scenery. For instance, if the weather permits, take an afternoon walk, or find a comfortable place outside where you can socially distance yourself and enjoy a meal on the porch.
I aim to do a bit of exercise during my lunch hour, and once a week, I meet virtually for tea with some meditation friends. It definitely helps me break up my day and allows me to turn my attention away from work.
Set visual markers
A visual marker lets those around you know that you’re working, and not to disturb. It can be as simple as shutting the door on putting on your headphones. If you want to spin a little creativity, you can agree upon a code or physical, visual cue. For instance, wrapping a ribbon around your coveted pen holder, or setting a paperweight at a specific place on the dining table clues will help others know when you’re in work mode.
Turn off work notifications
When you WFH, it’s far too easy to let your working day bleed into your off-hours. Turn off Slack notifications, sign out of any chat threads with coworkers. I installed f.luxe, a free Chrome browser extension that dims the screen on both my computer and phone after a particular hour. It’s a sign that I should get off my devices and shut my work brain off for the day.
One of my friends confided that he was annoyed at his partner, who was his new work from home office mate. Why? She had a tendency to barge into her home office to rant about her coworkers. While my friend was irritated, he also acknowledged that his partner was an extrovert and probably had been feeling undersocialized. If your significant other or roommate is doing something that bothers you, chances are they aren’t intentionally trying to push your buttons. Try to see where they’re coming from.
During quarantine, there’s been a significant shift for many folks in terms of their routines. People might be missing their lunch buddies, morning workouts at the gym, or the daily chat with their favorite barista. If your roomie is missing their daily scoop of gossip from coworkers, they might unintentionally disrupt you because their social needs might not be met. These drastic changes require everyone to have a little more understanding, patience, and empathy.
And as co-working spaces and coffee shops aren’t available options, we’ll need to do our best to carve our areas in our homes to work out of. We’ll need to set boundaries with both ourselves and those we share a roof with. And beyond that, we want to be mindful of how these changes affect our moods, routines, and productivity, for both ourselves and those around us.
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