Ready or not, COVID-19 has dropped a workplace transformation on our doorsteps and most workers see a blurring of work and personal time. We all have a natural starting point to the day: Signing on. However, for many, the problem is signing off with a hard stop to the workday.
Just like in an office environment, chronic overwork as a daily routine creates health issues, burnout, errors, lack of focus, and poorer work quality. When work-life balance is out of whack and exhaustion enters the picture, a high-quality performance is not likely.
Why is a hard stop so hard to put in place?
Reasons could include:
1. Workers and job-seekers are still adjusting their routines and aren’t experienced in self-scheduling.
2. Working longer is one small choice that we can make to control the day during coronavirus.
3. Doubt about productivity brings guilt that translates into longer hours to compensate.
4. Some may fear being laid off if a work ethic isn’t “proven.”
5. Managers may not set clear expectations of work hours.
6. There’s no visual cue like at the office, with co-workers getting up from their desks, signing off, getting their coats, and walking out the door saying “Bye, have a good evening.”
7. Working from a living room may not feel like “real work” and two more hours makes it feel “real.”
8. Work isn’t simply just work for many of us. It’s also our personal identity, comfort zone, or passion. We might not want to stop our deep flow at an arbitrary minute of the day.
Probably, it’s a combination of the above.
To be clear, taking one extra call, sending one extra email or working one marathon shift isn’t a problem. These all happen and don’t constitute a pattern. Also, to be clear, sticking to a hard stop doesn’t mean working less than a full day.
LOOKING FOR A BALANCE
The goal is a sustainable work-life balance, delivering quality work and personal wellness. Build new habits, including a hard stop, even during this time of ambiguity. It’s self-accountability.
Some suggestions to set and keep a hard stop as often as possible:
Setting core work hours and putting them on a shared calendar is helpful. These can be labeled “office hours” for each person. For job-seekers, a family calendar might be posted to coordinate the household.
If some team members need to work a split shift or alternate hours to attend to responsibilities at home, it will be on the schedule, minimizing wasted outreach to them. When some co-workers sign on for late-night work, they might want to collaborate with teammates. One chat leads to another and soon several households are interrupted. Instead, support the hard stops of others and find a common “office hour” to collaborate. Some teams are being told to not sign on for the 12 hours after 6 p.m., or given other guidelines. If a manager has not discussed expectations yet about number of hours, constructively raise the topic.
Wind down for the last 30 minutes of the day by updating a task list. Cross off what’s accomplished and add tomorrow’s goals in detail. Send yourself a meeting invite for this half-hour of transition time. A team could hold a 15-minute video-call to end the day and mark progress, while wishing each other a good evening. Job-seekers can use this time to update their call sheet and targets. If it’s still difficult to sign off, try setting electronic device alarms as cues for the same hard stop each day. Start with 30 minutes before stopping, and hit the snooze to hear it again at 20 minutes, then 10.
Looking forward to a fun activity at the end of the work shift adds incentive to stick to a hard stop. Change the day by changing the dynamic at the set time. Turn on the TV to hear theme music to a favorite show. Place broken-in running shoes prominently near the door. Invite your child to show up with your dog to take a walk. Order food delivery for the end of the workday so it’s ready when you are. These external signs are your new visual cues and rewards for putting in a full day of work or job-hunting.
Note: As a communicator writing on deadline, I’ve had opportunities to work from home that ranged from one to four days a week. At other jobs, I’ve been in the office full time. For other examples of my writing, see my online portfolio.