A few months ago, I was interviewing someone for a story when I heard a knock at my door. It was my apartment's maintenance crew, a day late to install something. Before I could pause the interview, the knocking turned into loud banging, and it didn't take long before my interview subject asked "are you OK over there?"
Image: Nick Criscuolo
Such are the perils of working from home. It's a tough thing to complain about, but remote working isn't without its drawbacks. And one of them is the fuzzy boundary between your home and work life. Especially when I first started working remotely, no one seemed to understand that working from home meant I was, you know, working. So I decided it was time to really set some boundaries.
Make Sure Everyone Knows Your "Office Hours"
Friends sometimes don't understand why I don't pick up the phone and chat during the day, why I take so long to reply to a text, or why I can't come over and hang out. When you work in an office, it's easy to understand why you don't do those things. When you work from home, people often assume you have the flexibility to do whatever you want whenever you want.
To remedy this, I set office hours, then I let people know what they were. My hours resemble normal business hours, but yours don't have to. You just want to establish a time-based boundary on when you're working and when you're free. Then, tell people about those boundaries. For example, when a friend who would call to chat during the day expressed some annoyance over my picking up the phone, I simply told her I'm on the clock until 5pm. It seems obvious, but sometimes people just need to know it's not that you're ignoring them — you really do have obligations. And when you have non-working hours and breaks, friends know you're available for chatting, texting or visiting during that time.
And if you have a family or live with roommates, consider this suggestion and add a "do not interrupt" sign to your door:
Pat Schuler, the creator of KickButt SalesTraining, had one suggestion for a client involving red, yellow, and green cardstock. "The colour posted on the door of her office carried a clear message," Schuler explained, "Red — no interruptions unless there was fire or bleeding involved. Yellow — knock first and don't enter until you have permission. Don't keep knocking, and don't yell through the door. Green — ok to open the door and walk in."
There are a few other ways to let people know your hours, too:
- Use a clock sign to show family or roommates when exactly you'll be done for the day or when you'll have a break.
- Share your online calendar so people can see when you're working and when you're available.
- When I really can't handle distractions, I add a "please do not disturb" sign to my front door, which lets apartment maintenance or friendly neighbours know I won't be answering.
Aside from friends and family, there may be other folks in your life that should know your hours. If you volunteer, work part-time somewhere else, or freelance on the side, you may need to tell whomever you're working for that you also have a full-time job, then fill them in on what those hours are.
I also notified my apartment manager. I emailed her my schedule, letting her know I work from home and what my hours typically look like. It might be overkill, but if your job involves lots of meetings or interviews, it might help to let your manager know your situation. Of course, she and everyone else who works on our building have other things to worry about. But since letting her know, she's been accommodating to my work hours and more willing to schedule stuff around it, which is helpful.
Another thing to keep in mind: make sure you actually stick to these hours. Avoid working during your off hours, not just because it's counterproductive, but also because it makes people think you work all the time, making your set boundaries pointless.
Create A "Work Zone" With Actual, Physical Boundaries
A sign on the door is great...if your office has a door. Mine doesn't. In fact, it's hard to tell where my office ends and the rest of my apartment beings. It's a small space, and that can make working from home even more challenging. When I first started working remotely, my partner would have conversations with me or ask me important questions when I was at my desk. It was frustrating for both of us. He distracted me, and I didn't pay much attention to what he was saying (sometimes I didn't even remember having the conversation!)
To fix this, I created an actual boundary. It's a small one, because my office area is small, but it's simply a line that goes from my desk to the couch. If I'm on the other side of the line, I'm not working and I'm free to chat and answer questions. If I'm inside that line, I'm at work and I need to limit my distractions.
It seems ridiculously obvious, but it works. Making a tangible border between work and home makes a big difference. He knows to give me space when I'm at work; and I feel comfortable knowing I won't be distracted.
Start Your Day Earlier (Or Later)
Another option to ensure people respect your boundaries? Work earlier. Start your day when the world is still asleep. Whether it's people who live with you, email you, or call you, it's hard for them to distract you when they're asleep.
This is a simple concept, and one that we've talked about quite a bit. But since I've adopted it myself, I can attest that it makes a huge difference. Aside from the biological factor, it's just nice to have a couple of distraction-free, focused hours in the morning. If you're not a morning person, but you want to give it a try, we have some tips on how to get started.
But maybe you're a devout night owl and prefer working late. The same rules could apply. If you're able, carve out a couple of hours of work time after your spouse, family, or roommates have turned in for the night. You could make up for the extra work time by taking a longer break in the middle of the day.
Get Out Of The House
Especially if you live in an apartment like I do, it can be hard to block out distractions completely. Your work schedule isn't anyone else's priority, so if your landlord or apartment's maintenance crew needs to come over during the day, they will, and you can't blame them.
It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes the only thing you can do is move your office. Head to a coffee shop, library or work space until your home office is free of distractions. Since those places are often full of other telecommuters, there's a bit more of an understanding when it comes to leaving people alone. Of course, it also helps to be flexible and avoid scheduling stuff when you know people will be in your apartment. Give your colleagues a heads up, too.
Don't Overwork Yourself: Make Time For Your Friends And Family
When you work from home, it's so easy to work all the time. It's important to create boundaries so you can be more focused on your tasks, but it's also important for the sake of your personal life. Schedule time for friends and loved ones, too. This way, they won't feel neglected, and your boundaries will be clearer.
Working from home certainly has its perks. You don't have a commute. Your schedule can be a bit more flexible. You can take care of business in your pajamas, and no one has to know (though that might not be a great idea). But there are pitfalls, too, and one of them is that people often don't take your work time seriously. Boundaries can fix that, and for me, these steps have made a big difference in creating them.