Millions of workers around the world are now working remotely in response to COVID-19. This has required organisations and individuals to find a new way of working from their remote location. Research indicates that people working remotely are having a tendency to work ‘more’. This tendency of being ‘always on’ and working ‘more’ can lead to negative impacts such as burnout and loss of motivation.

The often-cited benefits of remote working are: flexible schedule and work location; not having to commute; and being more productive and satisfied. However, greater productivity and job satisfaction are not always achieved.

In 2019, cloud infrastructure company Digital Ocean conducted a survey which found that 82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burnt out.

  • 52% reported that they work longer hours than those in the office.

  •  40% felt as though they needed to contribute more than their in-office colleagues.

Another study of 3521 remote workers (State of Remote Report 2020) similarly found not being able to ‘unplug’ was a major challenge, along with loneliness, distractions and poorer communications and collaboration.

So why is it so difficult to unplug? Why aren’t we benefiting from the greater flexibility remote working allows? Because the working boundaries have changed.

The move from being office-based to home-based is profound. It is more than a simple shift in working location. It changes the way an individual works and, by extension, how an organisation must manage its people.

Previously, working professionals experienced a consistent pattern of waking up, going to work, taking breaks, switching off, and going home to unwind and relax. Now their environment has changed. Gone are the ‘rituals’ and patterns of work. The physical and psychological boundaries that intuitively told people when to stop and start work have changed. What were once consistent, well-defined boundaries, routines and norms are now ill-defined and lack clarity.

The traditional workday boundaries have gone

The ‘old boundaries’ were clear, habitual and normal; they defined a finite workday. Now the boundaries have moved, allowing work to fill a larger expanse of available time. Many workers are now struggling to establish new boundaries and routines in their remote settings. They find themselves entrapped in a cycle of being ‘always on’ and at risk of burning out.

What are some indicators that suggest workers are ‘always on’? 

Working longer 

Remote working blurs the boundaries between the work and home allowing the workday to expand beyond the traditional start and end points. Look out for:

  • Team members or yourself working earlier, later, on weekends, and not taking breaks.
  • Those working collaboratively across time zones feeling obliged to extending their day to attend meetings. And, replying to emails early or late in the day or night.

Extended hours over a long period of time is not sustainable both physically and mentally, and managing overall well-being is critical for successful remote working.

Failing to minimise distractions and procrastination

Home-based workers can face many distractions. The presence of family members, or the compulsion to do household duties, constant snacking or watching TV. These distractions and forms of procrastination stop you and your team from getting the allocated work done and will result in a longer workday.

It is important to devise ways to limit distractions – see our blog post on managing distractions here.

Doing ‘one more’

For many there is a compulsion to do ‘more’ because the access to work is greater; one more email, one more activity, one more meeting. Without the traditional prompts that tell us when to ‘down tools’ and go home, knowing when to stop can be hard. Removing the boundaries of time and place from the home environment means managers and individuals alike need to re-define new boundaries and set clear expectations for the workday.

Constantly checking work messages

Constantly checking work communication platforms all day and night, and on weekends, is a symptom of being ‘always on’. Unless you are ‘on-call’, this is a clear example of the workday expanding to fill available time. This can psychologically put people in constant ‘work mode’ creating higher chances of burnout. Separating non-worktime and worktime is critical to preventing the feeling of being always in ‘work mode’.

So how do you get back in control of your workday?

The benefits of remote working can only be realised through the creation of the right boundaries and remote working conditions.

Find your ‘best way of working’

To best manage your hours, recreate what your best ways of working are. Are you more productive in the morning or afternoon? Do you work better in 30-60 minute bursts taking multiple short breaks or longer two to three hour chunks? Understanding your best way of working takes some introspection, but once you have you can use it to design your workday. Managers need to learn their people’s best ways of working and support them to achieve it.

Set your time boundaries

Prior to moving from home, your day had a clearly defined start and finish, as well as, break times. It is important to have time boundaries that define your day when working remotely. When working from home these are more flexible, however, they must still reflect your customers’ and business needs. Once you have determined your ‘best way of working’ you can design your workday and set your time boundaries to match. These become your ‘available hours’, enabling you to be at your most productive and avoid that ‘always working’ feeling.

Follow a routine

With your time boundaries set you can now develop a robust routine. Your routine will reflect your best way of working, your customers’ needs and business requirements (work priorities and times for meetings, breaks, etc). Managers must ensure that their people develop a routine that’s in line with their best way of working and meets the needs of the team and customers overall – for example, routines can’t be out of sync if the work is highly dependent on collaboration.

Establish a work ‘place’

Creating a dedicated place in your remote environment for work is important. It creates separation from home and work that is free from distractions.  Your ‘place’ may be a home office, a seat at the dinner table, it may be wearing headphones or telling your family you are now at work. Having such a place provides a physical prompt of when to ‘switch on’. Without it, work and home life become blurred. Having a work ‘place’ also enables you to ‘go home’; physically leaving this space or packing up acts as a prompt to ‘switch off’.

Get into the right mindset

Setting physical boundaries isn’t enough, establishing psychological boundaries is equally important. Mentally ‘warming up’ and ‘cooling down’, at the start and end of work respectively, is something that normally takes place when we travel to and from work. It is therefore important to establish a ‘work persona’ in a similar way. Transitioning from your ‘Home Me’ to your ‘Work Me’, switching off during breaks, then back to your ‘Home Me’ at day’s end.

Set expectations

Your plan for the day reflects what you expect to do and when. It also matches your best way of working. For each part in your day, be specific about what you expect to achieve within the period. Your plan must also be aligned to customer, business and team needs and priorities.

Creating a plan matched to your ‘workday’ and to what can be achieved in your available hours is empowering and helps avoid the feeling being overwhelmed. Setting expectation-based boundaries ensures your workday is finite. Otherwise, it’s easy fall into the trap of ‘doing one more’.

Advice for Managers – How you can they help your people?

Managers must help their employees to establish the new boundaries. With such a rapid transition to remote working, many will be struggling to establish effective remote working conditions for themselves. What you can do as a manager:

  • Help them find their best way of working.
  • Help your team set and define new boundaries; time, place, routine and mindset.
  • Provide clarity on the organisation’s ‘flexibility’ aligned to the customer needs.
  • Set a culture where the team respects each other’s boundaries.
  • Set and refine your remote working operating rhythm to support your team’s best ways of working.
  • Help to them to plan, schedule and complete work according to their available hours.
  • Ask the team how they are handling their distractions.
  • Be a coach and a role model. Set up your boundaries, respect other’s boundaries and provide best practice solutions.

For more information on how to best set up your remote team for success, please refer to our article here.

Remote working is becoming the ‘next normal’ for many. Blurred lines between work and home creates a high potential for employees to work longer, be less productive and burnout. Managers who are present and provide guidance on how their people design their workdays will help put them back in control, resulting in a happier and more productive team.

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