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Working From Home: 5 Steps to Set Boundaries

How to separate the professional and the personal when home becomes your office

spinner image A man is working from home with a child
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With most of the country now under stay-at-home orders to deter the spread of the new coronavirus, millions of Americans find themselves telecommuting for the first time and grappling with a new dilemma: how to keep work life and home life separate when both happen in the same place.

"With the sudden imposition of remote work, coupled with the potential for partners, housemates, children and parents to also be in isolation, you need to be able to set the same kind of boundaries that home workers have defined for decades,” Glenn Fleishman, a tech journalist and home-office veteran, writes in his new e-book Take Control of Working From Home Temporarily.

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Telecommuting experts offer these tips on creating spaces and routines to help you maintain professionalism and productivity in your new “office” and keep work from creeping into personal and family time.

Create a dedicated workspace

Establish a place that is just for work, for at least part of the day — a place where you can be in office mode, and where others in the house know not to disturb you unless necessary.

Ideally that's a room with a door, but it can also be “a defined area in space other people use, or a temporary space you set up and break down each working day,” according to Fleishman. Even a large walk-in closet can do in a pinch, he writes (just make sure it has proper ventilation).

Resources for sudden teleworkers

You can find practical, detailed advice on adjusting to telecommuting and setting boundaries between work and home life in these e-books, both of which are available as free downloads.

Emergency Telecommuting: A Quick-Start Guide to Working Well in a Crisis — From Wherever You Are, by Debra Dinnocenzo (Mancini-M'Clintock Press)

Take Control of Working From Home Temporarily, by Glenn Fleishman (Take Control Books)

If you have kids home from school, create easy-to-understand cues to mark off a work area and minimize interruptions, suggests Debra Dinnocenzo, president of VirtualWorks!, a consulting firm that advises companies on telework and virtual-workplace issues.

"If you've got crepe paper, if you've got masking tape, rope off or tape off an area. Put up a sign,” she says. “Get creative about visual cues: ‘When Daddy is wearing this hat, Daddy is working.'”

Keep regular hours

In times of rising unemployment and economic uncertainty, Dinnocenzo notes, “no one wants to be the one that's [seen as] not pulling their weight.” That can be compounded by employers that consider people working from home to, in effect, always be at work.

It's important to resist the pressure to work longer days, whether it comes from employers or yourself. “Every office and job will be different, but you should fight to retain a similar amount of work while home as you had the office,” Fleishman writes.

That could mean your old 9-to-5 (or 8-to-4, or 10-to-6), or revising your shift to meet the needs of homebound kids or elderly parents. Whatever your circumstances, arrange a schedule that makes sense for you and your employer and stick to it.

Take breaks

No one works eight hours uninterrupted at the office, nor should you at home. Do what you would do at your regular workplace: Regularly get up and stretch your legs, grab a tea or coffee, take a lunch break.

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If your typical day at the office included the occasional gab with coworkers, keep doing that too, Dinnocenzo says.

"You can schedule things like that, or just pick up the phone and call people, like you would walk by their office or bump into them when you're getting coffee, and say, ‘Hey, how's it going?’ It's as simple as that."

Don't fill up commute time with work

Like taking regular breaks, much of what Dinnocenzo advises new teleworkers comes under what she terms “replicate and simulate": re-creating at home the habits and situations that help you be satisfied and productive at work. But “you don't need to replicate and simulate your two-hour drive,” she says.

If you had to get up at 6 a.m. for your commute, “that doesn't mean [now] you have to get up at 6 a.m. and work from 6 a.m.,” she says. Consider using that time to do something “you never had time to do before,” like reading, exercising or meditating.

When you're done, stay done

"[You] really have to be able to shut it down. Turn Skype off, turn the computer off, let people know,” Dinnocenzo says. Set your status to “away” on office chat platforms, and make it clear to colleagues that, barring emergencies, you won't be responding to work emails until the next day.

In lieu of leaving your desk and commuting home, she adds, do something concrete to mark the shift out of work time, especially if it's something you typically did when you got home.

"We don't have that transition time anymore, and some people need that,” Dinnocenzo says. “A lot of people decompress with their [commute], and it is symbolic in ways that they were never conscious of.”

That might be a short walk, a cold beer or making dinner with the family: “Whatever you would normally do to just say, ‘I'm done.'"

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