Working from home shouldn’t mean working all the time

Posted — Wednesday 22.10.2020

Working from home certainly has its perks, but it can also bring about new problems and exacerbate old ones.

One of the biggest challenges every home worker will have encountered since lockdown is that, without a clear boundary between ‘work’ and ‘home’, it’s a slippery slope to working round the clock.

Working from home has definitely blurred the line between the two worlds, and in some ways, that’s a good thing; we can now work more flexibly, avoid long commutes each day, work in more comfortable surroundings and, in many cases, work more efficiently and productively without the office distractions.

The problem is, it can also make it harder to switch off.

Feierabend

In Germany, there is a concept called feierabend. Literally, this means ‘end of the working day’ but that doesn’t capture its real meaning.

For Germans, feierabend is more of a ritual; it’s a moment to be relished, when you leave the working, professional version of you behind and you start being the real you… and you don’t switch back until the next working day.

The closest we have to this is ‘that 5 o’clock feeling’ or perhaps it’s more like ‘Friday beers’ in the office. It’s a mini-celebration of letting your hair down and running out of the office. For me, feierabend is when I down tools, grab my coat and bang on some tunes for my drive home.

There are many advantages of maintaining and marking this clear distinction. From a mental and physical wellbeing perspective, it means you can get a good, solid break from work each day in which you can focus on your home-life without being drawn back into work. For an employer, this means a healthier workforce who take fewer sick days and it also means people come into work feeling more refreshed, energised and productive.

Unfortunately, we’ve never been very good at this in the UK: How many of us are guilty of working into the evening or checking our emails even while on holiday?

And now we’re working from home, without a physical separation from you and your work and without any colleagues to share a drink with in person, the line between work and home is becoming ever fainter.

So how can we make sure we separate work from home and bring feierabend into our routine?

Shut down time

When I started working from home, I found it tough to keep things separate. My homelife would interrupt my work time, and my work would interrupt my ‘home time’. I’d regularly be checking my emails at night and I was finding it hard to switch off.

This became easier when I relocated my ‘office’ from the kitchen table to the spare room, which I can shut the door on, but I found I still needed a clear moment of drawing a line at the end of my working day

Whereas before, I was driving home, I’ve replaced my commute with a nice evening walk. I get outside and blow away the cobwebs and leave my working alter-ego behind.

I know people have tried some other tactics which work very well for them: Some try wearing different clothes which they can change into when they get into ‘work mode’, slipping into comfy clothes when they switch back again. Others have a purpose built garden office or a converted shed at the end of their garden which they can lock and walk away from, which sounds great.

It might all sound a bit silly, but I swear these simple steps actually make a big difference to people’s attitudes and wellbeing.

Help each other out

There are also lots of ways we can help each other to have a feierabend, particularly employers.

When teams are working from home, it’s important to make the mental transition to recognise that productivity isn’t associated with presenteeism or the number of hours worked. Instead the mindset needs to shift to focus on the desired output being achieved. If you’ve achieved your goals, there’s no problem in finishing a little early. After all, does it matter if an employee doesn’t work their contractual hours if the job is done?

Fundamentally, to make this shift we need to remove traditional management tools such as time and attendance management. Instead, we should adopt a set of common goals/objectives and be clear on the desired behaviours and outputs. 

Flexible working is fine, but you should encourage people to work within the hours they set for themselves and not to let their hours creep beyond what they wanted. Another problem with flexibility is it increases the tendency for emails to be sent late at night or very early in the morning. This can make people feel pressured to keep checking their emails, or feel guilty that they aren’t working as late or as early as others.

A good tactic to avoid this is to schedule your emails if you’re working late; so instead of hitting send during your late-night session, schedule your email for 9am – afterall, it can wait.

Equally, you should be disciplined to do more of your quality work within the normal working day while talking to, and encouraging your team to share ideas during these times and switch off when they’re done.

Of course, being flexible means resisting any instinctive reaction you may have to learning that a team member has taken an extended lunch break as they felt they needed this time to switch off or complete a family task. Instead, you should be encouraging that kind of behaviour so we can all enjoy a clear distinction between work and home.

This new way of working is a little odd, but with a little effort it is possible to build and maintain a clear distinction between work and home for you and your colleagues.

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