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Telecommuting? Why you need to keep work and home separate – and how

Creating boundaries between different aspects of life is key, says TRSM professor Michael Halinski
By: Lindsey Craig
March 24, 2020
A woman sits on the floor, leaning against the wall working on her laptop while a dog sleeps nearby

When working remotely, separating work life from home life can be a challenge. Photo credit: Bruno Cervera on Unsplash.

As the city, country and world battle COVID-19, in an effort to practice social distancing, many people, including members of the Ryerson community, have begun working from home.

“It can be really hard at first. There’s phones going off, news updates, kids screaming, dogs barking. There are real life challenges preventing some people from working,” said Ryerson professor Michael Halinski of the Ted Roger’s School of Management (TRSM).

To help ease the transition, Halinski says there’s another type of distancing that we also need to practice.

“It’s really important to keep boundaries between different aspects of your life,” he said.

This distancing is important because when you commit to a particular role you’re most efficient in those particular tasks, he explained. So, when roles are blurred, or there aren’t any boundaries, inefficiencies can mount. It can also lead to an unhealthy work-life balance.

If you’re new to working from home, below, Halinski offers essential tips to help guide you through this transition:

Starting out

When beginning to work from home, it’s crucial not to try to tackle half your household chores at the same time.

“Some people might start out thinking, ‘Oh, if I’m working from home, I can do my laundry and make this fancy meal.’ But the answer is no, you still need to create those boundaries, especially in the beginning,” he said.

But what if it’s a lighter workday – is it okay to meal prep between conference calls or take care of another chore, for example?

You’re not in luck there either.

“If it’s a less demanding workday, I would use it to build stronger bonds with your colleagues. That might make work more meaningful,” Halinski suggested, noting that people who work from home often have weaker relationships with colleagues, since most of their communication is through email and phone.

9-5 at the office? 9-5 at home

Another important boundary to firmly establish is “temporal” – that is, the time you begin and end your workday.

In this case, Halinski says don’t try to change your temporal boundaries too much. If you worked 9-5 in the office before, continue with that routine.

Should you hop into your work email while you eat breakfast, or at night while watching Netflix?

Ask yourself – if you were working at the office, would you go in early? Would you usually work late?

“Of course, if your boss is pressuring you to do X or Y that’s different, but I wouldn’t change your routine just because you’re working from home,” Halinski said.

Mark your transitions

Another challenge of shifting to working from home is losing that physical distance or boundary that you usually cross going to work.

Normally, that commute helps signify the transition from one sphere into another.

“Not having a commute means losing the time we often use to shift our minds into preparing for the workday,” he said, noting that we also lose that time to decompress at the end of the day as well.

When working from home we need to maintain certain markers that signal those transitions.

For some, that might be having a shower, putting on work attire, making coffee, and then sitting down at a desk to begin.

“That shower will transition you to your work time,” he said.

Other transitional markers could be taking the dog for a walk and then opening your email, or pouring coffee into your usual mug and sitting down to tackle the day.

And about that “work attire” – do you really need to put on your best boardroom blazer to sit in your living room?

Halinski says it’s less about what you wear and more about continuing your typical routine for the start of your workday.

Communicate your boundaries

For some, one of the biggest adjustments to working from home is suddenly sharing your work space with a spouse, kids, roommates, or even elderly parents.

“When people start working from home, many might think, ‘Well, I’m disciplined, I can do it’, but many of us live in an environment with other people or pets, and those people may not know your boundaries regarding when and how you work,” Halinski said.

“Your discipline isn’t worth much if others don’t know your boundaries,” he added.

So, those temporal boundaries you’ve just set? Communicate them. And if you’d rather not be disturbed when completing a particular task, you need to communicate that too.

For couples sharing a home work space, Halinski says it’s common for conflicts to occur – so this communication is especially key.

“They both need to establish boundaries and communicate what they are, and let them know if they need to adapt and adjust as they move along,” he said.

As for those who have kids or caregiving demands – or both – Halinski says that communication is even more important.

“Figure out who will care for the kids and when, who will work and when, establish routines and boundaries, and be flexible as needed.”

Commitment counts

The key to all of this, he says, is being consistent.

“Really committing to those boundaries over time is key to making it all work,” Halinski said.


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