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Business Professor's Advice on How to Create Boundaries When Working at Home

By Jessica Reyes, Assistant Director of Communications
Mom and child work from home

In a matter of days, millions of Americans stopped their commutes and began working at home. They adjusted to Zoom meetings and makeshift home offices, while also balancing family and other home responsibilities.

Donna McCloskey, a professor in the School of Business Administration, has researched telecommuting and the work-life boundary for decades. Now, her expertise is timelier than ever as many workers look to set boundaries when work and home life collide.

Just as we have introverts and extroverts, there are people who thrive integrating their work and personal life, and those of us who prefer to keep firm boundaries so worlds do not collide. For those of us who prefer to keep work and personal time segmented, there are four ways that we create boundaries. – Donna McCloskey

McCloskey shares advice for each boundary:

Physical

The first boundary is physical – our work time is defined by being in the workplace.  Obviously, this boundary has been demolished, but there are still ways of creating physical distance when working from home.

If you can, designate a workspace that is separate from your living space. Being able to shut the door on that workspace is ideal but if you can’t do that, consider packing the office up at the end of the day or covering the workspace with a blanket to physically show the work day is over.

Psychological

Donna W. McCloskey

We also create boundaries psychologically. Even if we’re living and working in the same space, we can define work and personal time with our mindset. Telecommuters often report missing commuting time since it allows for transition from one role to another.

Consider taking a walk around the block before starting your workday. Use this time to think about the day ahead and the things you want to accomplish. At the end of the day, take another walk and use that time to think about personal responsibilities and goals. Some of us have found cocktail hour is a fine way to psychologically signal the end of the workday.

Behaviors

Our behaviors create boundaries as well. It is easier to separate work from personal time if we behave as if we’re at work. While we can get away with Zooming professional on the top and pajamas on the bottom, getting fully dressed for the workday does delineate work time.

I’m still using my 18 ounce travel coffee mug, just like I did when I commuted to campus. The kids, the dogs, laundry, snacks, etc. were all more likely to pull my time and attention when I was making multiple trips to the kitchen to refill my coffee.

Of course, working in close proximity to family members is going to mean many distractions. What can we do to minimize them? In a common area, post answers to the most common questions, such as the day’s schedule or what’s for dinner.

Deterrence works too. A brilliant friend asks family members to do a little chore (walk the dog, take out the trash, sweep the kitchen, etc.) every time they interrupt work time for a non-critical need. Since employing the strategy my kids and husband have, amazingly, become much less needy.

Communication

Work-family conflict, when the demands of one role interfere with the other role, has been linked to stress, depression, diminished organizational commitment and reduced job/life satisfaction. While physical, psychological and behavioral techniques can help, communication is probably the most important boundary technique during quarantine. We need to be honest and frank with our loved ones and colleagues about what we need.

My husband and I negotiated splitting the workdays concerning who is the “Parent in Charge” (#PIC). All questions, technical problems, squabbles, and homework assistance are directed to the Parent in Charge – and the other spouse gets some guilt-free, uninterrupted work time.

Person in Charge might work for some work groups as well.

Technology, from laptops to smart phones, have enabled flexibility and given us the ability to work, teach and learn from home during a global pandemic.  But technology has also blurred the line between our work and personal roles. I hope we can use this time at home to consider our work-life boundary and be thoughtful in the way we balance our work and personal lives moving forward.

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