In this post, Dr Hannah Evans, an Associate Lecturer in the School, offers timely advice on how to manage boundaries when you’re using home as a workplace. Her suggestions are based on her PhD research on wellbeing and working from home.
Working and living in the same space can merge the boundary between work and non-work in a much more significant way than working from a separate office. Our spaces and working practices are not automatically set up for us when we work from home, so managing the work/non-work boundary while working from home can bring with it some challenges.
It’s useful to think about your own boundary management preferences in this situation to help you set up something that will work for you. According to boundary theory (Nippert Eng, 1996) if you prefer to keep your work and personal life separate you may be what we would call a ‘segmentor’. If you prefer a more flexible boundary between work and non-work you might be an ‘integrator’, switching between work and non-work seamlessly. There is no right or wrong way to manage your boundaries and these preferences may change over time and according to life’s circumstances: the idea is to create something that works for you.
One way to actively manage our boundaries between work and non-work is through managing the three types of boundaries while we are working from home: 1) physical, 2) time and 3) behavioural (Kreiner et al. 2009). The following are some strategies that home workers use in relation to these boundaries. (When considering these it would be good to have a think about whether you have a preference for segmentation or integration to help put something in place that might work for you.)
- Managing physical boundaries
As the boundaries between work and non-work are naturally merged when we work from home it can be useful for some people to create physical boundaries:
- Consider where is best to work: If possible, having a separate space purely for work can help to create segmentation. If you have a separate room, great, but if not, you can still physically create a space, in a corner at a desk, for example, where only work takes place. Using screens or other physical ways to separate out space can create demarcation lines.
- Decide what to do with work paraphernalia such as laptops, books, papers, folders and such: If you put them out of sight when you are not working, the sight of them will not psychologically pull you back into the work realm when you are trying to relax.
- Wear different clothes to denote when working or not: This can be useful for some people. For example, you could get dressed into work clothes and change into casual clothes when your workday is over.
- Do something at the beginning of the workday to get into work mode: Home workers often mention going for a walk around the block so it feels as though they have physically left for work as they would if they worked in an office. Of course, that is something you may not be able to do under the current circumstances! But something distinctive to start and end your work day could help you to maintain the boundaries.
2) Managing time boundaries
When working from home, it can seem as though time for work and non-work merges into one and it can be easier to work more hours than you would from an office. Here are some things to consider when managing your time boundaries.
- Set limits on when you will and won’t engage with work: For example, have a time when you will start and end work, and stick to it.
- Take plenty of breaks throughout the day: Perhaps you can even set times when you will have breaks, and make sure you get them.
- Take time off from work: If you do take annual leave, don’t engage with work during your leave time, even though it would be easy to do so under the current circumstances.
3) Managing behavioural boundaries
When we’re working from home, our working arrangements are not set up for us as they are in the office, so we need to make choices about working practices at home.
- Choose when you will and won’t engage with electronic communications and set some limits: You don’t have to be available for communications 24 hours a day because you are working from home. Decide when emails will go on and off and when you will and will not engage with work-related communications, including telephone calls and texts.
- Limit emailing:One strategy is to check emails three times a day, once in the morning, once around the middle of the day and once later in the afternoon. This can reduce distractions while you’re getting on with other work during your working times.
- Switch off: We can choose whether or not we switch off the means of communication outside of working hours, such as laptops and smartphones, and whether or not we have work emails on our smartphones. We can have pop up reminders and alerts telling us that we have emails, or we can switch these off too.
- Use Out of Office messages:We can set Out of Office messages on email when we are away, and we can also use these to inform people what our working hours are or when we might be likely to respond (e.g. not immediately), even when we are in work. This sets out boundaries to other people and helps them to know what to expect.
All of our situations are unique and learning to work at home is something that takes trial and error and time to figure out what is right for you. If you aren’t comfortable with what you are doing, try something different – our working practices are a work in progress, not set in stone.
Dr Hannah Evans has been an Open University Associate Lecturer for five years. She currently tutors on DE100 and DE300. She completed a PhD on wellbeing and working from home.