Telecommuting has been in the industry for more than two decades. The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 propelled it forward in different industries that were hesitant to try it before.
The new norm is for work and education to occur at home, in areas where families would normally gather together to relax.
Recent trends have shown an increase in the sales of home office and homeschool products to make working from home easier, while the mental stress of job uncertainty and finding child care has increased the stress that accompanies telecommuting.
2020 has not been an easy work year. Moving forward, employers are expecting more remote work to become more common in the fields of finance, insurance, media, and education. Businesses also have seen considerable benefit per employee with remote working, as employees are ready to take 10% pay cuts to work remotely.
While statistics may show a bright picture, there are many considerations to keep in mind before getting gung-ho about the possibility of remote work replacing in-person work. New stressors associated with remote work substitute the usual work-related ones. Managing these factors, balancing work with personal life, and handling remote teams are some of the important factors for successful and productive remote working.
What Is Work-Life Balance?
As a kid, you might have climbed trees and walked out on the branches. The tightrope walk that you had to do on the branches is a parallel to work-life balance, where work is the branch and the rest of the space is life. Knowing where work starts and life begins are very important aspects of enjoying your walk on the branch without getting hurt.
Maintaining a work-life balance is imperative to handling stress. Stress can cause physical and mental symptoms and lead to work fatigue. Many employers are aware of this and have taken actions to reduce this fatigue.
Well known for this are companies like Cisco, Kaiser Permanente, and Coldwell Banker, who do not expect their employees to be connected 24/7, which gives employees more freedom for things like doctor appointments, physical activity, and personal development and growth opportunities.
But with COVID-19, maintain a work-life balance has become even more difficult. More and more employees are now telecommuting, and the crisis has also added stress to family life — there is a lack of the usual child care options, and many children are attending school virtually learning. Employees are feeling the stress more than ever and finding themselves with a lack of work-life balance.
As health experts and governments take steps to mitigate health threats, employers and employees are searching for ways to find a work-life balance while telecommuting.
Below are some suggestions for employees and employers to consider for work-life balance while telecommuting.
How To Improve Work-Life Balance When Telecommuting
Here are 7 things that you as an employee can do to make work-life balance achievable while working from home.
1. Maintain A Regular Schedule For Working Hours
Flexible hours are one of the essential factors of remote working. While it is an attractive feature, there always is a fine line between office and family time, where the latter generally gets sacrificed. Clocking in hours is a great way of keeping track of your day.
There are a variety of software options that allow employees to remotely “clock in” and track the hours that they are working in a day. This encourages the employee to take breaks and schedule work according to family priorities. A strict schedule for work hours motivates remote employees to work as they do in the office.
2. Reduce Distractions During Work Hours
There can be several distractions that come with remote work. The Pomodoro technique is a method of working that focuses on short bursts of work, improving focus. Figure out what distracts you the most and keep it as your motivation to work towards for the day.
This might include:
- Spending time with family
- Reading a book
- Watching a youtube video
- Learning to play a piece of music
Using these types of activities as rewards after work will lead to a better work-life balance.
Social media, when used wisely, will help you keep connected to family and friends, but it’s important to limit it to after working hours or during break times. Communication and keeping in touch with family and loved ones are very important for mental health and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
3. Take Ten-Minute Breaks
Working in an office usually consists of regular coffee breaks, water breaks, and other small breaks. Research shows that employees working from home feel guilty about taking such breaks.
As established, telecommuting has its own unique stressors, and taking periodic breaks can help relieve some of this stress.
Here are a few quick ways of reducing these stressors:
- Set an alarm to remind yourself to consciously get up to take a walk
- Take a five-minute break between calls to wash the coffee cup in the sink
- Make a quick snack for yourself and the kids or spend time with your dog
- Catch up with a co-worker or friend for 5 minutes on a phone call
These rechargers will help the body and the brain to energize.
Working from home does not require one to refrain from taking breaks that you would have at the office.
4. Set Aside Time For “Non-Video” Meetings
Not everyone is comfortable with being on camera 9 hours a day. While Zoom and Google Meet have become part of our daily life, due to personal differences, not everyone is comfortable with video interactions.
Avoid consecutive video meetings. Let your team know when you are available for video calls, and define time periods for voice calls only, rather than video calls.
5. Establish A Sacred Work Area
Telecommuting has blessed employees with the ability to choose where they want to work. But virtual work also needs to have specific boundaries so employees get the feeling of being at work. A clearly defined workplace will definitely help in creating an “office” feeling.
Comfortable office desks and chairs are available from Amazon and other office supply stores. Don’t forget to set yourself up for 8-10 hours of good lumbar support and wrist support. This will eliminate physical stress, which will contribute to reducing overall work stress.
6. Figure Out Your “Me Time” During Or After Work Hours
Reading, listening to music, or catching up with the news are all things we generally do while traveling to and from the office. With remote work, this “me time” is compromised, which can lead to stress, despite a productive workday.
So how do we achieve this “me time” during telecommuting? A few examples are:
- 30 minutes of exercise
- 15 minutes of reading a book with a cup of tea or coffee
- Taking up a hobby and spending 15-20 minutes on learning something about it
- 20 minutes of meditation
Anything that keeps you connected to yourself is a great way of handling virtual workdays. Don't hesitate to take vacation time. Even though the amount of time spent commuting during work from home is lesser than when you are in the office, you still need personal time to do non-work-related activities.
7. Know When To Ask For Help
There will be times when work hours might be long or work piles up, causing higher stress levels. You don't have to be a hero about it. Just ask for help. Respect yourself to know that you need help so you can reduce your risk of burnout. Personal life and professional life have to be balanced. Even if you need help with child care, or you are feeling overwhelmed with family needs, help is just an ask away.
How Can Managers Help Improve Work-Life Balance?
It is also the responsibility of the organization to support remote working. When work environments are congenial and team members are supported by managers, stress levels go down. Here are a few things that managers can consider doing for team members that are working remotely.
1. Macro-Manage The Team
Trust employees to work – working from home does not imply binge-watching the Disney channel with the kids. Employees are serious and responsible enough to know what tasks need to be carried out in the day, even when working from home. Micromanaging the team is going to lead to ineffective, cautious, and sometimes even rebellious behavior.
Assuming that employees are surfing the net, watching youtube videos, and applying to new jobs on LinkedIn is detrimental to the company culture. Trusting the employees to maintain a good work-life balance and providing the required support reduces stress levels for employees and teams.
At the end of the day, rather than calculating tasks, focusing on the work and getting the job done is what matters most. Not how long, or when it is done. As long as the overarching targets are achieved, macro-managing is a good way of building trust with employees, while micromanaging will cause you to lose it.
2. Encourage More Asynchronous Time
Expecting the employee to be online and available for every ping of yours is like expecting your employee to get you coffee every hour in the brick and mortar office. Employers are making use of software like Hubstaff to keep an eye on the employees' screen time and track their work hours. While this may help the manager in tracking employee tasks as in a pre-COVID-19 environment, employees will feel less trusted.
One way of reducing discomfort and accounting for interruptions that accompany working from home is scheduling asynchronous time in the calendar. The managers can complete their tasks before getting into meetings. In addition, employees have the freedom of working without being watched like hawks.
For example, Sophia Kianni (2020) mentions how she has to wait for her birds to stop chirping before she could continue her answer while filming a podcast. Such interruptions are considered the new normal during work hours.
However, if your kid does bother you during a meeting, apologizing and getting on with your task in a matter-of-fact way is the best thing to do!
3. Support Flexible Hours
The American Psychological Association promotes work flexibility and emphasizes its positive effect on work performance, stress levels, and work-life balance. Industrial psychologists believe in optimizing talent while maintaining organizational culture.
In these COVID-19 times, figuring out a way to attract the right talent, promote their success, and maintain current talent is a huge challenge for organizations.
Flexible hours are one of the “attractive” ways of holding on to current talent. While Chung (2015) speaks about how telecommuting and flexible hours are suited for families with kids, she also speaks about how flexible hours allow employees to develop their hobbies and other skills.
For example, if a dual working family adopts flexi-time, one of them could work in the morning, while the other could work from the afternoon. Sharing home and family chores becomes easier with different working times.
Keeping open calendars to share commonly available times and having candid open communication with employees about their time constraints creates a productive work environment and improved working hours for employees.
4. Empathize With And Tolerate Absenteeism
An employee who works from home also needs a break. How much the organization pays attention to the employees' mental wellness and physical wellbeing reflects upon the organizational work culture. Not allowing breaks or time off to deal with health issues, family issues, or take a vacation; encouraging longer hours; and confiscating lunch breaks are not positive initiatives.
Managers need to appreciate the value that downtime hours provide to employees who are working from home. The ability to recharge and rejuvenate reduces burnout in employees and encourages them to stick around more.
5. Change Work Performance Metrics For Telecommuting Employees
While it is easier to quantify KPIs and define targets for jobs in industries such as manufacturing or retail, defining targets for intellectual or informational workers can become difficult. Using outdated measurements for performance appraisal like coming to work on time and working for a stipulated 8 hours unnecessarily increases the stress levels of the employee.
During COVID-19, some managers have shown reluctance to move towards reduced micromanagement of their employees. As work from home becomes a large part of work culture, managers need to find different ways to motivate their employees.
Consequently, using independently set targets, making employees accountable in tracking time, planning and scheduling, and having weekly reviews are a stronger way of motivating employees and improving performance when working from home.
Assuming that the worker away from the office is a lazy worker is incorrect. Employees working from home show a higher performance matrix, with better engagement and innovation.
Change things up and ask your people these 5 Powerful Performance Review Questions.
In ongoing research, Microsoft has found that collaboration improved during work from home, and a recent Gartner CFO survey indicated that nearly 74% of employers intend to shift their employees to telecommute.
Balancing work and personal life when telecommuting is the responsibility of the employee and the employer. There is no one solution for the challenges that come with remote work.
Taking time to figure out a cadence for check-ins, communicating, expressing empathy, standing with the team, and keeping employee comfort zones in mind will help make working from home a successful norm in the coming years.
Need ideas to shake things up a bit? This PPM podcast by Tim Reitsma talks about How To Bring Creativity & Fun to Remote Teams and for even more fun things to do, try this list of The 7 Best Remote Team Building Activities!
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