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The Impact of Working from Home: How to Improve Your Work-Life Balance

Pile of stones perfectly balanced

Airs and graces replaced by chaotic home-spaces.

Does this sum up your current or recent experience of work-life balance during the pandemic?

It’s been a bit of a journey for all of us. A marathon even. We’ve just passed six months of the strangest times any of us will have experienced. We weren’t trained or prepared for this.

I used to like planning my day, enjoying a healthy routine and being organized and structured. In mid-March 2020 that all changed.

It was a bit strange for me. I’d spent the last 1-2 years writing a book called Get a Life! Creating a Successful Work-Life Balance. Publishing schedules, including the development, production and promotion process, can take a good 12-18 months and a release date is usually determined far in advance.

And guess what. My book had been scheduled for launch in mid-March 2020. Disaster!

Except, and it was a slowly emerging epiphany, I suddenly realized that as we all scampered into our Lockdown burrows, work-life balance was going to be one of our greatest challenges of 2020 and beyond.

To mark Work-Life Balance week, I’ve been asked to consider the impact of work-life balance whilst working from home and the impact the Lockdown and Restrictions have had on this.

Prior to lock-down, my routine was as follows;

5:30 am – alarm goes off, hit snooze button
5:40 am – alarm goes off again, quickly regret having put it on snooze
5:50 am – quick wash, dress and jump into car
5:55 am – eventually get DAB signal to listen to Virgin Radio during my work commute
6:30 am – arrive at swimming pool
6:40 am – gingerly slide into cold pool and wake up quickly
7:10 am – exit pool, shower, dress and notice I’m wearing two odd socks
7:30 am – get to my desk and start my day piling through 50+ emails
1:00 pm – lunch and short walk round the block, unless raining (PS. I live in Scotland)
2:00 pm – back at desk
4:00 pm – commute home
9:45 pm – bed and consider setting alarm earlier, then ignore this

During Lockdown and restrictions;

7:30 am – alarm goes off
8:30 am – alarm battery fading having hit snooze button 6 times
9:00 am – start work with breakfast
9:10 am – pick out toast crumbs from laptop keyboard
10:00 am – first AV conference call – realize I’ve worn the same T-shirt for three days in a row
10:15 am – parcel courier rings door-bell (realize I’m not on mute during conference call)
11:00 am – end AV call, unpack parcel containing abdominal exerciser. Try it out
11:05 am – collapse in a heap…

Okay, this is a slightly fabricated narrative, but the point is that our normal structure and routine has gone out the window. We’ve just had to adapt. It’s been trial and error. It hasn’t been easy. But I think we all need a slap on the back for hanging in there and doing the best we could.

Researching and writing Get a Life! prompted me to identify some 45 potential themes that can contribute to or influence a positive work-life balance. A significant number of these have proved useful as I have also sought to forge my own new work-life balance, working from home and in the face of continuing restrictions.

I have crafted a 'top five' list which I’d like to share with you because they work for me. I appreciate we’re all different, we have unique circumstances and we’re all impacted in a multitude of ways, but here goes.

1. Health and wellbeing

So, my six-pack abdominal muscles have retreated to a one-pack, but I aim to do at least three things each day which contributes to my health and wellbeing.

Weather permitting, I’ll go out for a walk for an hour before work. Or, I’ll give time in the day to call a friend or family member, especially those living on their own. Or, I’ll benefit from our large fridge to chop up a tasty salad for lunch. Or, I’ll pop out for a 20-minute break to do some gardening (also known as weeding). Or, I’ll find 15 minutes to listen to a YouTube meditation track. Or, once and for all, I’ll mend that wobbly toilet-seat.

Despite the above, I’m not actually working less than normal but, instead, I’m spending time on productive and health initiatives that might otherwise have been spent chatting to colleagues in the corridor or walking to and from meetings.

Health and wellbeing include physical and mental health but can also extend to financial, social, relational and spiritual health.

For my diet, I try to work with the guidance from Public Health England, as below. I now have time to eat more healthily than I have before and I feel the benefits. I’m more alert, focused and productive. I can do more in less time, so I can now squeeze in some of the other home-demands without diminishing my work output. In fact, having breaks during my day to do ‘home-stuff’ refreshes my brain, gives me a break and generates a focusing recharge.

eatwell-guide.jpg

2. The art of juggling

This is a tough one, particularly when working from home. I don’t have kids but I have many colleagues who do. I’m full of admiration for how they muddled through home-schooling and their attempt to balance work and home commitments.

With or without kids, we’ve all needed to juggle our lives in some shape or form. Recently I heard an apt analogy: It’s like mopping a floor whilst a muddy dog runs circles around you. You’re not going to easily accomplish what you intend.

Having conflicting demands means we need to be proactive and more ‘in-the-moment’, but to maintain some semblance of effectiveness with work demands we still need to prioritize.

I’ve found a useful model which helps with this. Developed by Dwight Eisenhower, it helps you to assess what’s urgent and important and what’s not. The idea is, you initially what’s urgent and important but also work towards reducing the urgent issues by planning better so you can focus on what’s important and not urgent.

Crucially, this involves incorporating home lives as well as work lives, so what becomes urgent and important might involve family responsibilities which might mean postponing or rescheduling work demands.

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3. Perfectionism and acceptance strategy

Most of us like to complete a task to the best of our ability. But perfectionism can creep in, where we feel we ‘must’ create a perfect outcome. In most cases, this is not only unrealistic but it’s usually counter-productive. Few of us can be ‘perfect’ in what we seek to achieve and by maintaining a perfectionist attitude we set ourselves up for failure. In so doing we create stress and pressure to achieve the unachievable and set up the spiral of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

What is emerging during this pandemic is the fact that most of us are doing our best with juggling home and work demands. The reality is that in the majority of cases, this is enough. It’s good enough.

Developing an acceptance perspective helps us to create a reality-check and appreciate that we will experience blips and frustrations along the way. I don’t know anyone who has not experienced some emotional meltdown during lockdown. It many cases this involves challenges connected with home or family responsibilities and/or our computers and information technology (IT).

We have needed to rely on IT much more, and when things go wrong they create elevated stress beyond what might have been in the pre-pandemic life. We might lack IT competence and expertise. Or we might lose internet connectivity or battle with a computer that decides to misbehave and malfunction. ‘The computer says NO’.  

One of my team last week said to me.  "Once I accepted I’m always going to have the odd IT problem now and again, it made be breathe out and give myself some slack".

4. Home and work interface

When we started lockdown, I quickly appreciated that I did not have a two-hour round-trip commute each day. And it saved me a lot in fuel. But soon I felt a strange loss when I realized the commute gave me a time to think and prepare for the day ahead and decompress when I returned home. My place of work gave me a change of environment from home and home gave me a break from work. Now, it’s lumped together.

I’m probably keeping in touch with family members and friends more, too. And in some cases, availability and practicality have meant this might take place during work-time.

You might think this means I’m working less. But I’m not. The reality is that if I didn’t keep these communication lines open, I would worry more, which would impact work negatively. It’s about finding a balance.

The absence of a commute probably means my ‘work’-day is longer. But actually, this is now peppered with home-demands. So it’s not about work and home-lives as two separations; they are now inextricably inter-connected. I like this. I believe this is the way it should be. I now have space for both.

I’m really lucky because I have a spare bedroom converted solely for my home office, so I can close the door at the end of the day and leave work there. But I know many have a more limited workspace, using the kitchen table or balancing a laptop on their knees from the lounge sofa. Busy households will also mean having people milling around and making noise. Or the internet is creaking under the strain of multiple family users, for work, rest and play.

What seems to work best here is devising a pretty strict rota. Decide who’s using the computer or internet when and for what purpose. Schedule, rotate and negotiate. Again, it’s about being smarter with what may amount to less available work time.

I remember meeting a scriptwriter who used to work 9-5. She was a single-parent and feared her productivity would plummet with caring demands. But by changing her work routine to schedule around her daughter’s needs, she achieved the same output in half the time.

5. Trust and compassion

This leads to my final point about mutual trust. We are all juggling home and work lives. We all need to give and take. This might mean we’re dealing with more home-demands that we would have before, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps our work-life balance was weighted too much on the work side and our home/family-lives suffered?

With the increased use of audio-visual communication platforms like Google Hangouts, Zoom and MS Teams, there has been a feeling of increased disinhibition. What might have been a well-crafted work-persona has melted to allow us to be more real and human. Airs and graces replaced by chaotic home spaces.

This has heralded a new era of compassionate leadership which has introduced empathy, communication and understanding into how we manage or are managed. The longer we’re stuck in this pandemic limbo, the more opportunity emerges to find better ways of being and doing.

We’re not out of the woods yet and we’ll be counting the cost in human, health and economic terms for decades to come, but I genuinely believe some things will change for the better.

In conclusion, I’d like to finish with the closing part of a recent speech from Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister. Not only does it encapsulate compassionate leadership but it helps us to appreciate we really are in this together:

All of this is incredibly tough - and six months on, it only gets tougher.

But we should never forget that humanity has come through even bigger challenges than this one - and it did so without the benefits of modern technology that allow us to stay connected while physically part.

And though it doesn't feel like this now, this pandemic will pass.

It won't last forever and one day, hopefully soon, we will be looking back on it, not living through it.

So, though we are all struggling with this - and believe me, we are all struggling - let's pull together. Let's keep going, try to keep smiling, keep hoping and keep looking out for each other.

Be strong, be kind and let's continue to act out of love and solidarity. 

I will never be able to thank all of you enough for the sacrifices you have made so far. And I am sorry to have to ask for more.

But if we stick with it - and if we stick together - I do know we will get through this.