There are plenty of companies across the U.S. and around the world that have begun the transition of having more or all of their employees return to the office, either a few days a week or full-time, but some are in for a much longer wait.
Those who have worked from home for years didn’t feel any differently when every one of their co-workers joined them in the couch worker brigade this spring but those (like me) who worked from home only when necessary—or not at all—have had moments of work from home burnout in the last nine months.
CI associate editor Zachary Comeau rolled out four ideas to avoid WFH burnout on our sister site, TechDecisions, in May.
Harvard Business Review added a few thoughts on the topic as well. We’ll let you decide whose list to follow, although you will probably notice a bit of crossover between them.
Maintain physical and social boundaries
In a classic paper, Blake Ashforth, of Arizona State University, described the ways in which people demarcate the transition from work to non-work roles via “boundary-crossing activities.” Putting on your work clothes, commuting from home to work—these are physical and social indicators that something has changed. You’ve transitioned from “home you” to “work you.”
Try to maintain these boundaries when working remotely. In the short-term, it may be a welcome change not to have to catch an early train to work, or to be able to spend all day in your pajamas—but both of those things are boundary-crossing activities that can do you good, so don’t abandon them altogether.
Put on your work clothes every morning—casual Friday is fine, of course, but get yourself ready nonetheless. And consider replacing your morning commute with a walk to a nearby park, or even just around your apartment, before sitting down to work. Some workers have already come up with creative and lighthearted ways to maintain their usual work routines.
Maintain temporal boundaries as much as possible
Maintaining temporal boundaries is critical for well-being and work engagement.
This is particularly true when so many employees—and/or their colleagues—are now facing the challenge of integrating childcare or elder-care responsibilities during regular work hours. It’s challenging even for employees without children or other family responsibilities, thanks to the mobile devices that keep our work with us at all times.
Sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule may prove unrealistic. Employees need to find work-time budgets that function best for them. They also need be conscious and respectful that others might work at different times than they do. For some it might be a child’s nap, for others it might be when their partner is cooking dinner.
Employees with or without children can create intentional work-time budgets by adding an “out of office” reply during certain hours of the day to focus on work. A less-extreme reply might be to just let others know that you might be slower than usual in responding, decreasing response expectations for others and yourself.
Creating clear temporal boundaries often depends on the ability to coordinate ones’ time with others. This calls for leaders to aid employees in structuring, coordinating, and managing the pace of work.
This might mean regularly holding virtual check-in virtual meetings with employees, or providing them with tools to create virtual coffee or workspaces. Through this disruption, keeping a sense of normality is key.
Focus on your most important work
This is not the time for busy work. Workers should be devoting their energy to top-priority issues.
While working from home, employees often feel compelled to project the appearance of productivity, but this can lead them to work on tasks that are more immediate instead of more important—a tendency that research suggests is counterproductive in the long run, even if it benefits productivity in the short run.
Employees, particularly those facing increased workloads as they juggle family and work tasks, should pay attention to prioritizing important work.
Working all the time, even on your most important tasks, isn’t the answer. According to some estimates, the average knowledge worker is only productive on average three hours every day, and these hours should be free of interruptions or multitasking.
Even before Covid-19, employees found it difficult to carve out three continuous hours to focus on their core work tasks. With work and family boundaries being removed, employees’ time has never been more fragmented.
Employees who feel “on” all the time are at a higher risk of burnout when working from home than if they were going to the office as usual. In the long-term, trying to squeeze in work and email responses whenever we have a few minutes to do so —during nap time, on the weekend, or by pausing a movie in the evening—is not only counterproductive but also detrimental to our well-being. We all need to find new ways—and help others do the same—to carve out non-work time and mental space.
Those of us who are newbies to the work-from-home routine are slowly and steadily finding our rhythm, but I know I miss the camaraderie of the office and will be excited to get back at some point. Then again, I haven’t missed that commute and filling up my gas tank all the time.
And if you have a day or two when you feel a little WFH burnout, just know you’re not the only one.