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Are You Always On? The Dangers of Working From Home and How to Overcome Them

April 3, 2020
Human Performance and Productivity

Liberation.

The global remote working experiment was supposed to liberate us from the stresses and time-wasting of our commutes, from the numerous physical interruptions that plague our productivity, and above all, from the proverbial chains of our desks that prevent us from designing work days that best suit us.

But despite all of its shortcomings, the central office does offer myriad benefits — one of which is becoming more obvious by the day.

Boundaries and Mental Associations

The ritual of commuting to work — while giving us larger waistlines and greater susceptibility to depression — serves as a proverbial ‘on’ switch. Similarly, when we leave our central high-rise offices — it serves as a an ‘off’ switch.

We mentally associate the environment of the office with work, and so when we’re there, our brains click into work-mode. When we’re not, they click into rest-mode.

This is why Harvard researchers find that keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the bedroom will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep, and help you get a better night’s rest.

When we’re working from home every day, the association between home and rest becomes compromised as we begin to strengthen our association of home with work.

We’re always at the office.

As such, we may find ourselves strengthening some bad habits we may have already had previously:

  • Checking email at all hours of the day
  • Taking calls at all hours of the day
  • And of course, doing actual work at all hours of the day

These things come with additional costs.

The ‘always on’ mindset and the after-hours checking of email and working can make us sick, resulting in stress, burnout and depression.

Not only that, but if we’re working all day and sporadically checking email and taking calls all day, then we’re not really present with our family or with ourselves. It means we’re not cultivating time for reflection, for conversation, for self-care, at a time when perhaps we need to be doing so more than ever before — if not for ourselves, then at least for the people we care about.

To counter this, it’s critical that we set new boundaries.

Setting New Boundaries

What not setting physical boundaries looks like.

Physical Boundaries

To break unhelpful mental associations, create a separate space for work as best you can.

If you have the room, don’t work from the kitchen table, the living room or the bedroom. If you have a study, use it. If you have a spare bedroom, use it. If you an unused nook in a corner somewhere, use it.

And if you don’t have the luxury of surplus space?

Introducing rituals to your day can also serve as an ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch for people that don’t have the space, as well as for those that do.

These rituals might include:

  • Putting some pants: A study published by Wiley found that participants who worked from home reported feeling more authoritative, trustworthy, and competent when wearing business attire
  • Going for a 15 to 30 minute morning walk and getting some sunlight before sitting down at your desk. This can mimic the feeling of commuting to work.
  • Getting in a morning workout followed by say, a cold shower, to change your physiological state
  • Setting your workstation up (this requires you to clean up your new desk the day before instead of just leaving your laptop and countless documents all over the kitchen table)


Team Boundaries

Hopefully we’re diligent and intentional leaders, or are working for one, and our boundaries are respected. If not, it’s imperative that we clearly communicate to our colleagues, as best we can, what our time boundaries are.

  • When are we available for calls?
  • When should we expected to be online?
  • When have we hit the off switch and are now in rest mode or family mode?

If we don’t set boundaries, others will set them for us.

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Living Boundaries

This extends to the people we share our home with — romantic partners, family, housemates and so on.

While we might have shed many of the 50–60 interruptions a day that plague the physical office, we’re now facing a whole new set of interruptions from our fellow house dwellers.

As with our colleagues, we need to be proactive and communicate that our work is important to us, and that each time we’re interrupted it compromises our focus and ability to get work done. The more often we’re interrupted, the longer it will take us to get our work done, and therefore, the easier it is to find ourselves working into the late hours.

Perhaps you can introduce some signals to tell others you’re not to be disturbed right now except for the most urgent of matters. That could be a closed door, a set of headphones in or on your ears, a small flag perched on top of your laptop or monitor — whatever it is.

If you have a family and young children, you might even like to create a schedule of your day (this could even be in Google Calendar), set times for playing mom or dad, and share it with them — just make sure they have enough to keep them busy during your work intervals!

Boundaries with Yourself

We are often our own worst enemies.

We’re suckers for the dopamine hit that comes with small accomplishments, or the anticipation of reward, so we keep checking and responding to notifications and emails.

This is particularly true if our laptop or smartphone stays within arms reach while we’re supposed to be conversing with our fellow house dwellers, reading a book or just watching an episode of Tiger King (I hear it’s good?).

Once we knock off for the day, we need to hit that off switch.

Sure, we can try to use willpower, but it is finite, and by 8pm in the evening, we probably only have so much left (this is also a reason why it’s easier to find yourself binging on unhealthy foods in the evening).

To counter both devouring that bag of Dorito’s, and not checking email sporadically until finally hit the sack, environment design becomes key — design an environment that will support the behaviours you desire.

For example:

  • Ensure your laptop is in another room (not on the coffee table).
  • Put your smartphone into Airplane mode, and place it beyond arm’s reach.

And before you go off to that other room to ‘quickly check your email’, ask yourself:

  • Is this worth it?
  • What is this costing me?

Your work will still be there in the morning.

At a time like this, being present for not only our colleagues, but our family, friends and loves ones — whether they live with us, or whether it’s via Facetime and Zoom calls — is more important than ever.

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