It’s fairly safe to say that if you are working from home now, you will likely be doing so for the foreseeable future, or quite possibly the remainder of your career.
However, despite the fact that most individuals have more time and flexibility while working from home, mental stress and burnout are higher than ever.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something wrong with this picture…
According to an article published by Forbes, the majority of workers who participated in a survey indicated that they found it difficult to get away from work at the end of the day, allowing work to eat up their personal time.
This is a very real issue. However, in an effort to help the masses of remote workers combat the stress of working from home, this article will provide a guide to not only help you approach your work-from-home life differently but also allow you to set healthy boundaries and be more productive.
You may have read this article that I published (and updated and re-published) in September 2021 on ensuring your work from home habits are actually productive. (In fact, this article on Medium generated over 1,000 views!)
This article will provide you with some additional tools and tips to help you be more productive during your work from home day, but also provide you with some guidance on setting healthy boundaries between your home and work life.
Finding the Right Balance
It’s important to find a balance between being productive and doing good, quality work while you are working at home, and then also make sure you aren’t always working.
At my company, we are a “family first”—and “pet first”—company. We have a very flexible hybrid work schedule. We are primarily a remote team, but we do have dedicated office space where we gather as a team at least once per month.
Each employee has the flexibility and responsibility for setting his or her own hybrid work schedule and noting it on our team calendar to ensure we all have visibility into who is working where and when. This allows them the flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But it’s up to them to manage it effectively. If they are finding it difficult to be productive at home, then they should adjust their schedules accordingly to fit in more office time.
Your Work Environment Matters
In my experience, many workers who struggle with working from home also struggle with setting up the right work environment. For example, they “work” while sitting on the couch or in bed, or they check email periodically while preparing a meal, cleaning the kitchen, or drinking a glass of wine.
Although you might feel like you are being productive, you are only fooling yourself. You are simply robbing yourself of true productivity.
Of course, we all have slow or quiet days at work where we might be able to check email or chat notifications periodically, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.
The point I’m driving at is work. environment. matters. If you persistently make it a habit to try to work from bed or in front of the TV, or skip team meetings to take your dog for a walk, then you are only kidding yourself. Treat working from home like working in an office.
Here are some things you can do to help:
1. Establish a dedicated work place.
A spare bedroom. The garage. The attic. A room in the basement. If you can find a room or space in your home, preferably with a door, then this is ideal. This allows you to shut the door and physically “leave work” at the end of the day or week. If you mix your personal space with work (again, your couch, your bed, your kitchen table), then this confuses the brain, and it hurts your productivity.
If you live in a small apartment, studio, or home, and space is hard to come by, then you might have to get a bit more creative on where to set up your workspace. It might require rearranging furniture or reorganizing, but it will be worth it.
2. Decorate your work space.
… And I mean right down to the color of your walls. Even the simplest improvements to your workspace can help boost productivity. Here are a few examples:
- Spiritual passages or motivational quotes
- Bright colors
All of these things create energy and therefore create a stimulating and productive work environment.
3. Prepare for the day.
If you have a “hybrid” work schedule, then on the evening before a “work from home day”, you might think of it like any night before a day off. We don’t have to get up as early or leave the house. We don’t have to get dressed. We don’t have to put on makeup.
However, preparing for the day can help boost your productivity while working from home. Following the same routine just as you would if you had to commute to the office not only allows you to stick to the same habits but also allows you to mentally prepare for the day and get into the right mindset.
4. Create similar work habits at home.
Working from home gives us a sense of comfort. However, avoid getting too comfortable. Sit at a desk in an office chair (rather than in front of the TV or in bed), schedule breaks throughout the day, and have a dedicated lunchtime.
5. Think about your food choices.
Depending on your work-from-home space, you might have all-day access to the kitchen, which is home to the snack cabinet or the freezer full of ice cream, it is easy to eat pretty much all day long.
While working in an office, you would prepare your lunch and snacks, right? So why not do that while working from home? The best way to overcome the bad habit of snacking all day long while working from home is to meal prep and think about the right food choices.
Lunches and snacks high in sugar, salt, and fat will inevitably lead to that afternoon “crash”—not to mention a larger pants size. Put in the effort of preparing lunches and snacks with the right foods for higher and more powerful productivity levels.
6. Prioritize a work schedule.
Learn to prioritize and “time block” your schedule. Block off certain times of the day to work on certain projects and tasks, and also times of the day for meetings. If possible, try to line this schedule up with when your peak “flow periods” or “deep work” sessions occur. Protect this time and avoid distractions as much as possible.
7. Set boundaries.
Just because you work at home doesn’t give others in your household the right to interrupt you. You wouldn’t let these distractions take away from your scheduled work time in an office, so it shouldn’t be allowed at home either.
Avoid personal distractions as much as possible, such as chatting with a roommate or family member about the Netflix show they are watching, answering the door for neighbors or visitors, or even taking calls from friends or family (unless there’s an emergency, of course).
Friends, family, and significant others who know you work from home might treat it as an opportunity to stop by, ask for help, or ask you to run an errand. In the decade that I’ve been working from home, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to “help someone real quick”, make meals, or even pick people up at the airport. I started to say NO, and communicated to others that between the hours of 7 am and 7 pm, Monday through Friday, I was unavailable. It took some time, but they eventually learned to respect my schedule.
To this day, my phone is “off limits” during the workday. I only respond to phone calls or text messages from immediate family members, IF there is an emergency or to address something important. I mute all other notifications, including text messages from friends, social media, and so on. Then, at the end of the workday, I take the time to respond to the messages and notifications I missed.
Stop “Zooming” Around
Many working from home use it as an excuse to treat meetings like they aren’t real meetings. For example, I can recall a time when I joined a Zoom meeting with a client and her client while she was simultaneously cooking chili in her kitchen. It can also be easy to blow off scheduled Zoom meetings or be late for one reason or another.
I could write an entire article all on Zoom etiquette (spoiler alert—I probably will). But for now, here are some quick tips for using Zoom:
Tips for Using Zoom
- Get dressed and make yourself look presentable. (Ladies, if you’re having a “no makeup” day, you can set the Zoom filters to polish up your skin.)
- Pay attention to your background. (Is it appealing to look at or is there a pile of clutter?) Many video communications tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Teams now offer features that allow you to choose virtual backgrounds or blur your background. This is especially useful for parents who are working from home and have children in the background.
- Avoid multi-tasking. (It’s more obvious than you think…trust me.)
- Pay attention to your facial expressions. (Are you smiling? Do you look present? Or are you frowning or scowling? Be sure to glance at yourself in the Zoom meeting gallery to see how you appear to others.)
- Record the call. One of the great features of Zoom is the ability to record calls. This becomes a great resource for others who may not have been available to join the call live, if you need a record of the conversation, or if you need to refer back to specific notes later. However, out of respect for your meeting attendees, be sure to ask for their permission to record a call beforehand and explain why.
- Look at the speaker while you are speaking, not at yourself. (Again, it’s more obvious than you think…)
- The mute button is your friend. Working remotely sometimes means taking phone calls while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, checking out at the grocery store, or driving. Although this isn’t ideal, as it’s important to be as present and as focused as possible during meetings, sometimes it’s unavoidable.
However, if you are the one that’s participating in a Zoom meeting while on the go, then do everyone on the call a favor and mute yourself. There’s nothing more distracting to a speaker than having a conversation or presenting a topic while trying to talk over a bunch of background noise.
- Keep your camera on. Again, if possible. There’s nothing that screams “disengaged” more than joining a Zoom call and choosing to keep your camera off. This tells the meeting facilitator and the rest of the team, “I’m here, but not really.”
Of course, if you are feeling ill and aren’t looking your best, that’s certainly understandable. Just be sure to communicate that to the meeting group. You don’t have to go into details, but there’s nothing wrong with simply stating, “I’m feeling a bit under the weather today, so I’m going to keep my camera off.” Everyone will certainly understand and appreciate the explanation.
How to Avoid Zoom Fatigue
Now that we rely on Google Chat, Slack, WhatsApp, Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, and so on to communicate virtually during the workday, many of us have also gotten super lax about having meetings, leading to what has recently become known as “Zoom Fatigue”. Today, many team members, leaders, and clients send a text or chat with, “hey, can you jump on Zoom for a quick minute?”
First of all, in the world of Zoom, it’s NEVER just a “quick minute”. Secondly, if someone asks you to join a virtual meeting or call, the first thing you should ask is WHY? What is the purpose of this meeting or conversation? And, no, you aren’t a jerk for doing so. You can ask this question tactfully, such as “I’m in the middle of another high-priority project or task. What is the purpose of this meeting?”
Rather than simply throwing out Zoom links without thinking about the purpose and goal of the meeting other than “it’s just easier”, take a process-centric approach to scheduling meetings. You can also develop a meeting framework for your team to follow to ensure meetings only happen when they actually need to happen and to ensure that when meetings do need to happen, they are as productive as possible.
For example, your meeting framework should include the following criteria and parameters:
- Is there a problem or conflict to solve?
- Does the topic require multiple team members or stakeholders?
- Is there a clear agenda?
If you answered “yes”, to at least two of these points, then this likely warrants a meeting.
If “no”, then try to resolve, discuss, or answer the issue via Slack, Google Chat, or email. You can also use Loom (this is one of my favorite tools…) You can record a two-minute video that answers someone’s question or provides someone instructions on how to do something rather than waste 45 minutes in yet another Zoom call.
Tools You Can Use Right Now to Help Your Productivity While Working from Home
Whether it’s a time tracker tool to help you track how much time you spend on a particular task or a calendar that helps you time block and schedule priority tasks and projects, there are a TON of digital tools out there that can help you be productive while working from home—and many of them you can use for free.
Here are just a few to explore:
- Google Calendar – to manage meetings, work, life, and everything in between
- Asana – to schedule and assign projects and tasks
- Airtable – to track pretty much anything (from managing tasks and projects to your grocery list)
- Trello – for project and task management and prioritization
- Toggl – for time tracking
- Todoist – a digital todo list
- RescueTime – to block web and app notifications and distractions
- Loom – to record videos and screencasts
- Evernote – a digital notebook
All in all, treating your work-from-home life similar to an in-office work environment can be difficult, especially at first. However, by adopting the right mindset—and breaking those bad work-from-home habits—you will begin to see a boost in your productivity levels, a decrease in burnout, and a healthier work-life balance overall.