Establish routines to rein in work-from-home days

By LISA KLEIN

The pandemic turned traditional office life on its head, pushing millions of downtown commuters into makeshift home workspaces that have evolved into full-blown job headquarters over the past year.

While many are returning to their high-rise desks and conference rooms part time, most are continuing to work from home much of the week. They may finally need to consider how to permanently manage working from their personal space.

“When we think about the traditional nine-to-five office type of context, that gives us some differentiation in terms of physical spaces and temporal routines,” said Tammy D. Allen, a Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology fellow and distinguished professor at the University of South Florida.

“That serves as a guidepost as to when and where different roles are enacted,” she said. “When I’m at home I’m a family member and when I’m at work I’m an employee.”

Desk directions

Physically going to an office sets up a daily routine with clear transitions between job tasks and personal time.

In the office, the transitions are obvious. Dress codes, commute times and scheduled breaks, and built-in designated space just for work, are all physical ways that trigger the mental switch from work to personal time, but they are not so clear when working from home and there can be more of them.

“When you have the traditional schedule, you’re going to have fewer of those transitions,” Ms. Allen said. “When you’re working at home entirely you might have many, many of those transitions every day.”

According to Ms. Allen, the data reveals that most workers do prefer a hybrid work model that allows them some time at home with the freedom to take care of personal tasks when they are able.

But at the same time, telecommuters often find themselves rapidly changing gears throughout the day, going from Zoom meeting to laundry and spreadsheets to groceries in the blink of an eye.

“Having those periods of transition can be stress points because they involve task switching,” Ms. Allen said. “You need some sort of routine that tells us, ‘I’m leaving work behind and now I’m becoming a family member.’”

Creating a daily routine eases transition times while working at home. Image credit: Getty Images

There are four main ways to manage transition times at home: behavior routines, temporal routines, physical routines and communication.

Behavioral routines at home will mimic certain things that someone does to go to work each day.

Instead of hopping on a train or in the car to get to work, a commute can be faked at home with short walk around the neighborhood before and after the workday.

Getting dressed is another beneficial behavior many telecommuters have thrown out the window.

“Go ahead and put on some proper pants and a shirt so you’re mentally feeling like, I’m at work, and then at 5 you put the sweatpants on like you’re off the clock,” Ms. Allen said. “It’s a cognitive tool.”

Temporal routines can be all over the place when working from home, but the important thing is to “establish a routine that works for you,” Ms. Allen said.

No matter how long someone decides to stretch their day, personal activities and errands should consistently be done at the same time to establish a clear transition. Setting up specific chunks of time that are only for work is key.

A physical routine mainly means “having a designated space for work, like most people do when they go into the office,” Ms. Allen said.

“One of the things our research has found is having a home office with a door is beneficial because of its ability to block out noise,” she said.

Which leads to the final pillar of transition management, communication.

“If you’re working at home with a bunch of roommates or a partner who likes to frequently interrupt you, you’ve got the same sort of problem with an open office and lots of coworkers,” Ms. Allen said.

Whether at home or in the office, work schedules must be communicated with coworkers and family members.

In the office, let co-workers know when a homeschooling session is happening or when meetings are best scheduled.

At home, tell spouses and kids that when the office door is closed, there are no interruptions.

“It comes back to this notion of boundary management and the ways that we manage our boundaries with others,” Ms. Allen said.

“When you think about those four different strategies and implement those in a way that fits your preferences and needs, that should enable better productivity and better well-being,” she said.

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