In the months since the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., corporations and individuals alike are continuing to adapt to the new reality of virtual work. For many companies, there are no immediate plans to return to physical offices, while others have announced they are offering their employees the option to work from home indefinitely. It now appears what was intended to be a temporary shift is becoming a prolonged way of working and, in some cases, could become the norm. While having the flexibility to work from anywhere can be great, the question remains — how do we set boundaries to ensure it does not negatively impact or disrupt our lives outside of work? As both a parent and a partner at Deloitte, I have taken a special interest in helping our employees feel empowered to make those decisions for their mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
Working from home can be a double-edged sword. People are not commuting and may be spending more time with family, enhancing quality of life. However, for some, our newly blended work and home environments have created an “always on” mindset that has led many individuals to work longer hours. While challenges surrounding work-life integration have always existed, the need for personal boundaries has never been more apparent. Personally, for me and my husband who also has a challenging schedule, managing work, homeschooling our two elementary-age kids, and integrating other aspects of our personal life has been all about setting boundaries and being transparent in our communications, both with each other and with our teams at work.
I am sharing a few personal and professional strategies and resources that have helped my colleagues and me set effective and meaningful boundaries and safeguard our well-being in this new virtual work environment.
My recent conversations with team members revealed that many individuals struggle with setting boundaries. In a work-from-home setting, it’s hard to know what hours colleagues are working, so many find they are less empowered to log off work at a normal time and end up overcompensating with more screen time. In addition, individuals who do not have kids or any roommates may find it increasingly difficult to step away from work. Junior professionals, as they start out in their careers, may experience the added pressure of demonstrating their value without being physically visible in the office.
This is where senior leadership can step in and communicate the value of downtime and protecting mental health and well-being to their employees. Creating boundaries to make time for a hobby such as reading, exercise, or even spending quality time with loved ones and pets can go a long way in achieving a healthy work-life integration. My calendar has been critical in managing that.
When it comes to communicating with management and colleagues, I find that it’s helpful to be honest and transparent about your home situation. Here, the burden is really on team leaders to lead by example so that junior employees feel empowered to create personal boundaries. To help, it’s important for managers to prioritize outcomes rather than hours worked and communicate to employees that if the agreed upon work outcomes are completed, there is no need to work longer hours just for the sake of being visible online. We must also learn to delineate better between what is urgent and what can wait so we can minimize overburdening team members unnecessarily. Having human touch points and in-depth, transparent conversations about deadlines can help us better assess the urgency of certain tasks and prioritize accordingly.
Time off is more important than ever in today’s corporate life. Companies need to encourage employees to take time off to prioritize their own well-being and adjust to working virtually. Since the pandemic began, many of us have had to cancel travel plans without any certainty about when we can resume them — but, it can be easy to forget that a fun destination isn’t necessary in helping us mentally reset. This can also be done by unplugging from work and relaxing at or near our home base. Self-care is paramount now, so go ahead and block time off for self-reflection, rest, and rejuvenation, and be transparent when communicating with team members so that they will respect your time off and you can truly unplug.
Managers can also encourage flexible work schedules that team members can model. Many of us are homeschooling children, taking care of an elderly parent, or have other personal life needs that require our attention. Being flexible with your work schedule, prioritizing what needs to be done, and being transparent and communicating well with team members goes a long way in implementing a flexible work schedule. Equally important is planning ahead, both at work and in your personal life. My husband and I discuss our work schedules and coordinate “important” meetings or times when we need to be fully focused on work to eliminate distractions, and similarly so we can block off dedicated times for our personal lives. This takes some proactive planning and looking ahead at calendars, but it has helped us immensely in setting important boundaries from a work and personal life perspective.
As we navigate these unpredictable times and adjust to the new reality of virtual work, consider your purpose. Whether it is a nonprofit you are passionate about or family or something else, try to carve out time for your passions. If there are boundaries from a purpose perspective that are important to you, fit those in with your work obligations as well. After all, it’s not just about surviving during disruptive times — it’s about finding ways to thrive.
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