How to set boundaries when you “live at work”

In the age of online meetings and working remotely, time stretches on forever and there are few changes between work and home.

In the age of online meetings and working remotely, time stretches on forever and there are few changes between work and home. Here’s how to take back some control.

We’ve got a lighthearted drinking game at Spitfire Inbound… any time someone says “pivot”, “unprecedented” or “new normal” you have to take a sip. As a writer in 2020  it’s almost impossible to start an article talking about this wild ride of a year and the changes it’s wrought without accidentally slipping in a cliché - and I’d add the phrases “Zoom” (as a catch-all for ‘online meetings’) and “working remotely” to that list! 

Despite the changing world, this article deals with an old problem - work-life balance - with an added complication - the ‘creep’ of digital work.

Quickly replying to an email at 11pm, answering a client’s WhatsApp when you’d normally be commuting home or at the gym, or lying in bed going through notifications are all ways that your already precarious hold on some sort of differentiator between work and home are slipping. When your house is your office, some of the lesser, more natural boundaries fall away - and little did you realise how much you needed that drive home from the office, for example, to clear your head! In addition to this, despite saving time by not commuting, Harvard Business Review explains, based on a study they did with 12 000 people on work-life balance when working remotely, “In a perfect illustration of Parkinson’s law, that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, the average 53 minutes per day people saved by not commuting was often immediately absorbed by additional, less productive work.”

(Caveat: I know not everyone does this! But anecdotally, and from the swathes of articles available dealing with the issue, and from the staff I mentor at work, this is definitely a growing concern for many people.) 

For myself, being both a worker bee and a mom, my whole world feels like an amorphous blob of responsibility and conflicting needs and deadlines. My toddler climbs on me while I work or screams when we pull her away, clients WhatsApp to ask if you got their email (sent minutes ago), and somehow I need to slip self-care into the mix and carve out some time to exercise (literally doctor prescribed!).

How to maintain work/life balance

Even my 18 month old daughter is mimicking mom and has a very busy to do list! 

So, how do you try to regain control of your diary and start to impose boundaries and reasonable expectations again? You haven’t dug yourself in too deep yet - you can change your new normal to something that suits you, your mental health, and your work.

With this in mind, I’ve collected some expert tips and advice you can use. Here they are:

  • Take proper breaks - it’ll make you more productive. If you’re finding it hard to justify taking time away from your always-on work demands, or think “Well, it only takes me a minute to reply right now…” you’re not giving yourself a much needed break. According to Forbes, taking proper breaks lead to increased productivity, improved mental well-being and a creativity boost. 

  • Is your boss constantly contacting you out of work hours? “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re interpreting your boss’s expectations correctly,” advises workplace expert Alison Green in her book Ask a Manager. She continues, “If you receive an email at night or on the weekend, there’s a very good chance that your boss doesn’t actually expect you to reply until the next business day. She might be working and sending you questions as they come up, but not expecting you to deal with them until you’re back at work, so the very first step here is to ask about that.” Take a moment to talk to your manager so you can understand her expectations.

  • Do clients expect you to be available at all hours? The tip is here to think about how you’re “training” your clients to expect you to be “always on” - by responding instantly, the message you’re sending is that you are, in fact, available. If an email doesn’t need an urgent reply, leave it to breathe until you’re back in the office. As with the boss example above, most often your client doesn't expect an immediate reply anyway! 

  • Do you actually know where your boundaries are? Do a boundary audit and assess where your personal boundaries are. This is based on your priorities and your life. Career Contessa advises that you pay attention to your feelings (feeling disgruntled or upset is a clear sign of a boundary violation). They say, “Any job worth having (in our humble opinion) recognizes that it is, first and foremost, a job. Aside from your work, you have your home life, your relationships, your passions, and your personal space to consider.”

  • Communicate your boundaries. This is very dependent on company culture. At Spitfire, we block out time in our diaries, put in out of office hours, and communicate via our WhatsApp group to say when we’re unavailable (say, if we’re popping to the shops during a work day.) 

  • Separate out your home and work by creating your own commute. This is an excellent tip from Harvard Business Review. They say, “Specifically, a recent study of ours revealed that the happiest commuters are those who use their commutes to plan their workdays. So try starting your remote workday by taking 15 minutes to plan your day, either at home or with a short morning walk.”

  • Set limits. “Once you have an idea of the areas where you need to focus, start setting limits,” says Forbes, “One example could be not checking work email in the evenings between 6-9 p.m. so you can focus on family time.”

  • Choose one “must win” task of the day (this is my personal favourite!): Work is never ending! And in a way that’s a relief, because it means work will never give you a breather - you need to make the time yourself. With that in mind, don’t get bogged down by all the dozens of tasks you have. Pick one “must win” of the day and “if you complete your must win, research shows the resulting sense of achievement is likely to have a significant impact on your happiness.”

None of this is easy, but by starting to implement at least elements of these tips, you’ll find yourself not only more productive, but happier too.

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