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Communicate clear expectations to keep work-life boundaries in place during COVID-19

When working from home your professional and personal lives are easily blurred 

Woman working late at homeIf you find yourself responding to emails or answering calls outside of work hours while working remotely, it may be time to establish professional boundaries with your team (Getty Images/damircudic)

Several weeks into working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re still finding yourself responding to emails or answering calls at all hours of the day. 

Remote work at any time can spark boundary issues between your professional and personal life. According to a 2017 study from Cardiff University, 73 per cent of employees working from home felt they put in more hours and effort, while 44 per cent said they found it challenging switching off and unwinding at the end of the day. 

Throw a crisis like a pandemic into the mix and the distance between your desk and couch gets smaller, dependent on professional demands.   

Here are some tips on how to draw a line between work and play while at home. 

1) SET EXPECTATIONS

In any remote work setting, clear expectations based around set outcomes keep teams on track, says David Dial, founder of Calgary-based Dial Solutions Group, which helps organizations successfully develop and manage their people. 

“It’s really being clear about what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “You’re looking at being more outcome-based as opposed to time-based. And that’s a shift for some people.”

Direction should come from leadership, he adds, but also be a collaborative effort so team members feel included. They need to understand what is expected of them while also having their needs met.

For example, Dial notes, some employees may be homeschooling children or juggling work schedules with partners. Consider individual situations when setting goals and outcomes. This includes establishing hours when employees need to be available and when it’s appropriate to use communication tools—be it email, Skype calls or Zoom meetings.

“Everyone needs to agree to expectations because we all need to have time away from work,” he says. “There are people who feel that they can do whatever they want to do. They can call you whenever they want to call you. If we don’t have those expectations in place, or a way to negotiate those expectations, then we have no boundaries.”

Above everything, Dial advocates for the “simpler the better” approach. Productivity may have lulled, client contact diminished and revenue may be declining, but it’s about accepting what can’t be changed right now and refocusing efforts on what is realistic and achievable. 

“There are things that we can put off now that six months or even six weeks ago we didn’t think we could put off,” he says. “Until we come out of some of these restrictions ... let’s just keep it very simple.”

2) BE STRUCTURED

Achieving goals around boundaries comes down to self-structure. It can be as simple as starting each day the same way, says Rhonda Scharf, trainer, speaker, author and president of Ottawa-based On the Right Track

“Most people who work virtually have a tough time setting the day,” she says. “My recommendation is that you still follow your daily routine. Get up, work out, have a shower, get dressed and then go into the office.”

Once you have a routine, you can establish, and communicate, boundaries based around your professional expectations and personal obligations, such as assisting an elderly parent or tending to children.   

If your work situation requires you to be available outside of regular work hours, be clear about how this will work for you. For example, perhaps you can respond to emails after regular work hours, but only attend meetings or take calls before 5 p.m. 

“People do have to be flexible about what blurred boundaries look like because we have to do [other] things,” says Scharf. “I recommend people say, ‘Here’s what I can do, and is that OK?’” 

3) RE-ITERATE BOUNDARIES

If a boss or colleague is not respecting your limitations, even after they’ve been communicated, it’s time for a tough conversation. 

Scharf recommends preparing in advance, rather than reacting in the moment. “Timing is really important and you don’t address it during an issue,” she says, adding that it will only fuel defensiveness and exacerbate the issue, while delaying a solution. 

Instead, hold off, sending an email requesting to have a talk about expectations, she says. “You don’t want to blindside them, saying, ‘I need to talk to you about calling me last night at nine o’clock’,” she says.

In the conversation, communicate your issue clearly and allow them to respond. From there, a workable solution will more than likely be found, Scharf says. “Don’t feel you need to justify what you’re saying. Just say, ‘Here’s what I want to talk about,’ and the other person will start talking,” she says. 

For the those in roles and industries that require us to work outside of our normal conditions—responding to a client’s urgent financial inquiries or your business’ emergency pandemic response plan, for example—remember this is temporary, reminds Scharf, and should not set a precedent for the future. 

“You’re not giving permission to abuse those boundaries later. But [you realize] right now, it’s the right thing to do, not only for your boss, but for your company and all the people [there],” she says. “Look at the bigger picture.” 

MORE REMOTE WORK ADVICE AND COVID-19 UPDATES

Be more productive when working remotely, even with kids by your side. Uncover the benefits working from home has on the environment, your body and business.   

Also, stay on top of the latest news and industry updates with CPA Canada’s compilation of external resources and online news articles.

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