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As the work from home mandate returns, here’s how to keep doing it without losing your mind

When many office workers were sent home in March 2020, they didn’t imagine they’d be in the same position again at the end of 2021. Author Cate Sevilla looks at how to keep on track from the kitchen table

Thursday 09 December 2021 12:41 GMT

Pre 2020, the occasional day spent working from home used to feel like a treat, if not a bit cheeky. It was a break from the relentless commuting, respite from back-to-back meetings in soulless rooms with ridiculous names.  

However, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic and several national lockdowns later – while working from home gave many of us the privileged opportunity to stay employed and/or maintain some form of an income when others were out on the frontline – it’s also left many of us feeling exhausted, demotivated, and generally pretty awful.  

When we were encouraged to return to offices over the summer, many welcomed the balance offered by this new hybrid way of working. We could work at home for a few days a week which allowed us to catch up on life admin and spend time looking after pets and children, and then we could see our colleagues in person on the other days, breaking up the week with positive collaboration.

Despite the challenges working from home full-time again poses, there are things that we can do, such as boundary-setting and being mindful of motivation levels, to give us a bit of peace, and help us look after ourselves as we WFH through the rest of this crisis.

Here are a few things you can try.

Setting and enforcing boundaries

Firstly, you’re going to need to get familiar with setting and enforcing boundaries with your work and your household. The key to this, is that you also have to be consistent with those boundaries – there’s zero point in setting or announcing boundaries if you’re not willing to follow through with the consistent and considered execution of them on a daily basis. (Boring, I know!) 

A good first step is to be crystal clear with your colleagues and managers about when you are and aren’t available for meetings or to respond to emails or messages – for example, making sure your team know the hours you plan on working that day or week, “We don’t have childcare this week so I’ll be shifting my working hours from 7am-3pm.”  

But beyond communicating your needs, you also need to be mindful that your behaviour is consistent with what you claim you need. You have to show your clients/co-workers/boss that when you say “I’m unavailable from 1-2pm” that you’re actually unavailable and unresponsive at that time. You have to train the people you work how to respect your time by actually respecting it yourself.

You have to train the people you work how to respect your time by actually respecting it yourself

With your family, partner, or people you live with – setting these boundaries on your time and energy is definitely trickier. Saying “I’m in Zoom meetings from 10-4pm, I mustn’t be disturbed!’ to your toddler as you shut the door in the face probably isn’t going to work. This also probably won’t work with your partner or flatmates for extended periods of time, either, because, well, you share the space you live in.  

But communicating your schedule each morning, having conversations about who can answer the door for deliveries that day, who can walk the dog, and making it known when you have higher priority calls that you really can’t be interrupted for will make a big difference. (As will having that awkward conversation about how loudly your partner talks on Zoom calls.)  

Motivation, ambition and acceptance

Until we can all return to some semblance of ‘normal’ office working again, accepting the impact remote work has had on our career progression, motivation and goals is crucial. I would love to say that there are surefire ways to maintain the same level of achievement and progression in your current job while we’re working remotely in a global pandemic, but honestly, I just don’t think it’s replicable.  

Both management and employees need to accept that the last 21 months were not normal – and just in the same way students weren’t expected to sit exams this summer, perhaps we shouldn’t be evaluated and reviewed against the same standards as were pre-pandemic, either.

We need to be mindful and forgiving about our motivation levels at this time, too. Firstly, you don’t need to be ambitious or have goals right now if you’re focusing on surviving, recovering, and holding onto your own resilience for dear life. It’s also completely OK to just put in the bare minimum at work right now. Honestly. If you’ve only got about 35 per cent of yourself to give right now, fine.  

 If you’ve only got about 35 per cent of yourself to give right now, fine

To keep your job safe, focus on just delivering what you’re meant to deliver on time and turning up for the meetings you’re meant to be in. Beyond that, how is anyone really going to know that you’re giving a slim percentage of what you’re capable of during ‘normal times’? (Spoiler alert: they won’t!)

On the other hand, if you’re desperate for a challenge and are wanting to reach a specific goal or two, go for it! But, and it’s a very big but, remember when and where you are. If you’re hoping to achieve X, plan out your strategy and milestones for how you’ll achieve that goal in a way that is different to how you might have achieved it in, say, 2019.  

The importance of empathy

In addition to being mindful and kind to ourselves with regards to our goals and motivation, and setting those all-important boundaries – integral to helping all of us get through these next however many weeks or even months of home-working, is being flexible and empathetic with our colleagues.  

So, as much as we need to put fences around our time and close the borders on our contactability while working from home – we also need to turn up our empathy and to be aware of the totality of what our co-workers are all dealing with. It’s a delicate balance.

The more respectful and empathetic to ourselves and to the boundaries and humanity of others, the more tolerable things will be. We’re all just doing our best. We also all need more than anyone can really give us right now – but knowing and accepting this will make everything just that much more bearable, even on Zoom calls.

Cate Sevilla is a journalist and author of “How to work without losing your mind”. You can buy it here.

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