Boundaries When Working Remotely
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began in the US, there were a whole slew of new challenges to work through. From merging work and home life, to social isolation, to fear for health and safety, we have certainly been through a lot. Many of these challenges were noticed, but without much choice in the matter, they were not worked or optimized based on individual need. Now, years later but with many of the same concerns persistent but perhaps slightly altered, we are again faced with challenges. For many who are now beginning to return to in-person or hybrid work, there is opportunity to reflect on boundaries when working remotely and how they impact you.
Boundaries When Working Remotely: What are they?
When defining workplace boundaries, it is helpful to think about them as the invisible distinction you make between your work self and the rest of you. What is the difference between your work self and the rest of you? The work self is when you are “on”, or in work-mode. Maybe you’re less relaxed, more focused on productivity, goal/task oriented, have a “professional” face on. Workplace boundaries serve to differentiate the difference between your working self and personal self, or separate your work life from your personal life. For some people, the person you are at work is totally separate from the person they are at home (rigid work boundaries). For others, those identities are one and the same (loose work boundaries). For many, it’s somewhere in between. In an environment of remote or hybrid work, it is very easy for those boundaries to become very loose unintentionally.
Boundaries When Working Remotely: Causes for Issues
The reason it’s so easy for boundaries with work to unintentionally loosen in remote or hybrid-work is multifaceted, but generally stems from the loss of actual physical space demarcating the difference between home life and work life.
For example, for many, the commute to and from their physical work space was an important transition time to reflect, “shake off” the day, and prepare to enter a different kind of setting, whether that is social/recreational, family, or home more generally. Having the time between leaving work and entering the next thing was a quiet signal to your body and mind that the work day is over, you can think about work problems tomorrow and begin to think about what is coming next. Now, it is common for those who work from home to close their computer and immediately walk into another person (partner, child, roommate, etc.) or place (living room, kitchen, etc.) plunging them into the next phase without any transition time.
In this context, it is also less common to have a hard cut-off time for work. Perhaps at the office, you would leave when most people would generally leave so that there was a general ending time for your work day. When all of your work can be done on your computer and there are no coworkers to signal they are signing off, it is possible to keep working unnoticed. In addition, without any commute time, it is easier to work up until the point that you absolutely have to stop (to eat, for plans, etc).
Another reason boundaries with work have become muddied is that it is a relatively new concept that so many people are able to work from home. With this new ability, there are new ways in which we can be flexible about our time-off work. For instance, an employee who just had surgery and has orders to stay home for 2 weeks post-operation may decide to take the first week off of work completely, but work from home the second week. They are technically staying home, right? In the past that might have been two full weeks away from work, whereas now it is one week. Of course this is not everyone’s experience, but a simple example of the ways that many people are working more than they previously had or would have before remote work was so prolific.
Another complicating factor in being able to work from home is the ease in which one can work “just a little bit”. If you are on vacation and get a work-related message, you may have your laptop nearby and decide to solve the problem very quickly. Whether you are sucked into working for longer than anticipated after that or really do just do the simple task and log off, your vacation time has been infiltrated with work time.
With most meetings happening virtually for those who work hybrid or remote jobs, it is easy to just pop on to a meeting just to say hi, or take some important meetings but not all on a half day or day off. So while virtual meetings are extremely convenient, sometimes their convenience is exactly what makes them so ripe for messy boundaries.
Boundaries When Working Remotely: Social Factors
For many, the beginning of remote work coincided with loss of many social interactions and relationships. Perhaps you were able to stay connected to your immediate friends and family, but those relationships in further tiers did not survive the impact of the pandemic. Many have described feeling far away from or too far removed from people they haven’t interacted with in over two years, especially when some of those people were distant relationships anyways, perhaps people they saw a few times a year or only at particular events that no longer take place.
Because of this loss or thinning of social connections, work relationships act as a substitute to take their place. The people we work with and see everyday serve an important role in being people that we get some social needs met, often in unplanned ways. With loneliness on the rise in the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, work, a big and necessary chunk of most people’s lives filled in many gaps in social connections. In doing so, “popping into” a meeting with coworkers you like even if you are not needed in the meeting, texting with coworkers during off-work hours, and other forms of connection to work are maintained in new ways. Work as a place for social connection also means that people are more likely to meet up with coworkers for a meal or drinks after work than others. When doing so, it can be easy to begin talking about work even though you’re not at work. In this way, you are still “on.”
Throughout the pandemic, we have also grown accustomed to meeting more of our needs inside our homes—another factor that reduces the social connections available. Because of an inability to seek out needs in public spaces earlier in the pandemic or because of understanding the convenience of doing things at home, there has been a shift in the amount of activities that we do at home versus outside of our home. As an example, someone who frequently attended yoga in-person before the pandemic began might have grown used to practicing yoga at home. As yoga studios shifted to live streaming classes out of necessity, this person might have purchased all the materials they needed to have a similar experience at home. Many yoga studios continue to offer live-stream classes, which means many people now practice at home more often than not. A similar pattern can be found with other kinds of exercise, one of which is evidenced by the huge rise in companies like Pelaton who sell exercise bikes for the home and include a subscription to virtual workouts. Activities like these can be found in many arenas of life, not just fitness. Think coffee, cooking, online ordering, and so on. All of these needs newly being met at home contribute to less of a need to leave the house. This can lead to fewer social interactions which leads to social interactions at work being more important than ever before.
When things are going wrong at home or in your family, work can also fill in as a place to avoid issues. Many people were not ready for the sudden shift to being with significant others, roommates, or children all day every day. With new issues potentially arising in these arenas, work can also serve as an escape, which leads to working more.
Boundaries When Working Remotely: Reflection Questions
Now that we have considered many of the causes of looser work boundaries, it is helpful to reflect on the ways these changes may be impacting you. Consider the following questions:
Now that the way you work has changed, how have your boundaries changed?
Are there ways that your boundaries with work have been crossed compared to before the pandemic? How?
What are the factors at play that have impacted your relationship to work since the pandemic began?
If you find yourself working more than you previously have, are your reasons for working more worthwhile to you?
Are you happy with your relationship with work? Why or why not?
In your typical day, who do you spend the most time interacting with? In what area of your life (social, family, work, etc.) are these relationships? Are you happy with your social connections outside of work? How does this impact how connected you feel to people you work with?
What are some activities that you previously did outside of the house but now regularly do at home instead? What impact has this had on you?
If you are concerned about how your boundaries have changed when working remotely after reflecting on these questions, know that there are steps you can take. You can try to adjust your boundaries with work based on what you have learned about yourself. If you are seeking to create changes with your relationship to work but want help or are struggling, many of our therapists at The Center For Growth can help. Reach out today.