It was January 1, 2020— the start of a new and promising year. Families gathered under the sparkling lights and booming sounds of a fireworks display. It was the beginning of something new for myself and my family especially after a string of bad luck struck us hard in 2019. The Year of the Rat, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac, was forecasted to be a good year, one of reset and fresh starts. USA Today anticipated 2020 as, “a good year for startups, launching projects or products, changing directions or moving on to a new chapter in your business or your life.”
Then the unpredictable happened: COVID-19. My office was temporarily shut and the government ordered its citizens to stay indoors while on lockdown. The first few months spent at home were enjoyable. I got to have a lot of quality time with my family. We were together 24/7— something that was once impossible because of working mom duties. I bet my son had the grandest time being with dear momma from sunrise to sunset.
One month into the lockdown, I received an invitation to join Google Meet for training. It was an amazing opportunity to be in one “room” with colleagues from all over the world. I isolated myself in the bedroom, all ears to the host, and armed with a pen and paper for notes. I was excited about the new training method! Days passed and I slowly felt the sense of urgency of big bosses and top management to rise to the pandemic challenge. After all, businesses can’t just sleep for several months.
Two months into the lockdown and the company I worked for began to launch remote and omnichannel projects in order to revive business operations. That set a series of virtual meetings into motion. Suddenly there was no more asking about one’s availability to meet or to receive a call. It was easily presumed that workers were 100% available while staying home. This remote work setup blurred the line between personal and professional boundaries. Before long, I began to feel the symptoms of burnout— I disliked lengthy virtual meetings, avoided phone calls, and felt exhaustion even if all I did was to sit and listen to the host.
Having individual freedom as a remote worker has its limitations. While you get to decide where to work, you don’t always have a free hand on the schedule and there is always plenty of tasks to do. In fact, studies show that now, more than ever, remote employees are working longer, spending time in more meetings and having to keep up with more communication channels. No more official days off, weekends, or nighttime. Grinding is the in thing. The upside to this is the evident increase in productivity of remote employees much to the delight of their superiors. Try Googling “remote work increases productivity” and it will show various statistical figures, all of which posted a significant rise. However, with this lifestyle, stress and burnout become imminent posing health hazards. In a LinkedIn article in July 2020, Josephine Otimi wrote, “it takes time and a certain level of self-control to create healthy work/life balance when working from home.”
Work-Life Balance Defined and Backtracked
But what exactly is work-life balance? Kumanu, an emotional wellbeing solution provider, defines work-life balance as the way “working people manage time spent at and outside of work.” While many workers of our generation protest about work-life imbalance, previous generations had it worse. According to Wikipedia, workers who lived during the Industrial Revolution had to work for twelve to sixteen hours per day, six to seven days per week.
Over the years, many countries and economies recognized the need to adjust working hours in favor of more time for personal obligations. On a business trip to Paris in 2018, I had to literally run, with my luggage in tow, to a luxury boutique for some last-minute shopping before it closed for the day. I found their closing time too early compared to how it was in my country. It seemed to me that after-work diners valued rest and relaxation as they flocked to streetside cafes. After decreasing its work hours per week to 35 back in the year 2000, France is now exploring the possibility of pushing it further down to 32 hours per week or a four-day workweek. Meanwhile, the Netherlands holds the record for having the shortest workweek at an average of 29 hours.
While we cannot take the reins from lawmakers and decide on the best number of working hours, there are ways to achieve work-life balance in a remote work setup. The secret? Boundaries. Here are some ways to take full control of our lives while respecting boundaries:
Have a designated workspace
Although not everyone has the space or resources to create a home office, still designate an area in your house exclusively for work purposes. This will define what is meant for work and what is solely used for personal space. Becca of HalfHalfTravel.com suggests removing personal objects such as family photos from the workspace to maintain the separation
Reversely, stay away from the designated workspace when work is over. Lingering in the area will tempt you to quickly check one email, which might trigger a series of replies. Respect personal spaces by using them for non-work activities.
Make a strict schedule
Set a healthy amount of time for work on a daily or weekly basis. This should include rest days when work is fully put to a halt. The standard full-time work is 40 hours per week so it is best to peg the schedule on that. Demonstrate efficiency by avoiding overtime and its detrimental effects.
Work never ceases. There is always so much to do that we tend to go on overdrive thereby neglecting the personal aspect of our lives. We need to press on the brake pedals to regulate our activity. During work hours, dedicate 100% attention to the matters at hand and the tasks that need to be done. Entertain work-related texts, phone calls, and virtual interactions with colleagues within this time frame because when time is up, there should be zero tolerance for work.
Detach and unplug
When work is over, learn to detach and unplug. Shut down the computer and mute work communications if possible. If you live on your own, rest and spend some me-time. Engage in activities that stimulate your core such as sports, cooking, or gardening. If you live with your family, focus on having quality time with them. Avoid checking your mobile phone or email, and if you happen to see an unread message, do not reply. Reserve it for your next work schedule.
Forget working lunch. We no longer share a physical space with our officemates so take that break the way you want it to. Take a breather by observing breaks in between work tasks. This allows you to rest your mind and body, and prepare them for the next working session. Reenergize by taking breaks to keep productivity and efficiency up. There won’t be a need to go overtime when you have accomplished a lot during your work period.
While multitasking is a good skill to have, it can also be counterproductive to achieving a work-life balance if mismanaged. Do not attempt to mix personal tasks with professional to-do’s. That is just plain taxing that it will take too much energy from you. Refer to your schedule and wait for the right time to run errands or to put that finishing touch on a project.
Reward yourself at the end of the day
Be it your favorite food or binging on Netflix, self-reward will make you look forward to the end of your workday. Give yourself a tap on the back for a job well done today and indulge in that treat that you’ve been denying yourself. Go and recharge, ready for another working day.
How do you know if you have achieved the balance? Only you can tell. After all, work-life balance isn’t set in stone and it varies from person to person. Try these tips as you please but note that they will only work with the right amount of control and self-discipline.
Written By: Frances De Guzman