How to set work-life boundaries as a remote worker

Jelena Fisic

Last updated on: July 8, 2022

Do you check your professional inbox after work hours in your free time? Do you sometimes sneak a peek at your work phone during a vacation, to see if there is any news? If your answer on either (or both) of these questions is “Yes”, maybe you have trouble setting work-life boundaries. 

If you’re working from home — which you presumably are, since you’re reading this blog post — the challenges become even greater. 

One of these challenges is the problem of work-life boundaries. Now that your morning commute consists of going from your bed to your desk in your slippers, you slowly lose the ability to distinguish between work and life. How is this possible? The term that comes to my mind is frantumaglia, popularized by Elena Ferrante, meaning “dissolving boundaries”. It is a phenomenon where the boundaries between two things become almost invisible, so we cannot tell those two things apart. 

Since remote work is here to stay, it’s time we deal with the ways to distinguish between work and life and to make these boundaries at least a bit clearer. The key word here is balance. In the following paragraphs, we will define work-life boundaries and see how they lead to a healthy work-life balance. We will also provide you with some steps that will help you set clearer work-life boundaries.

How to set work-life boundaries as a remote worker - cover

What are work-life boundaries and how do they relate to a healthy work-life balance?

Work-life boundaries give us a framework in which we work and spend time with our friends and family. They help us distinguish between our work hours and private life. After all, work-life boundaries are a means to achieving a healthy work-life balance. In their research, Opportunity to Work at Home in the Context of Work-Life Balance, Alan Felstead and his colleagues define work-life balance as “the relationship between the institutional and cultural times and spaces of work and non-work in societies where income is predominantly generated and distributed through labor markets”. 

We have the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1980s to thank for coining the phrase “work-life balance”. To make it easier for women in the workforce, flexible working schedules and maternity leave were introduced. In the beginning, this concept concerned only women, who were expected to hold down their jobs, continue to be primary caretakers of the children, and perform domestic work. Later, this concept was used to address the problems of both working men and women. 

This kind of balance is especially hard to achieve when working from home. What once was almost solely reserved for IT companies and a few odd freelance jobs, has become “the future of work” since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Luckily, the work-from-home arrangement seems to work for a lot of people — in the 2021 State of the Work report, a staggering 97% of respondents said that they would recommend remote work to others. Thanks to technological advances, it is now possible for workers to stay in touch with their colleagues 24/7, which can significantly upset the work-life balance. Let’s see why it is crucial for us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The importance of work-life boundaries when working from home

To better understand work-life balance and work-life boundaries, let’s look at the benefits they bring to remote workers.

Work-life boundaries ensure we fulfill our basic needs for a good life

We should first address the nature of our needs. What better way than to consider them in the light of Maslow’s theory of human motivation. Namely, according to Maslow, people have needs that need to be met in order. Firstly, our physiological needs have to be fulfilled, such as food and water. Furthermore, we need to feel safe, to feel loved, and belong to a group. Only then can we move on to the issues of self-esteem, cognitive and aesthetic needs. After that, comes the highest level – self-actualization. 

Now that we’ve categorized our needs, it is clear that all the basic needs depend on our work. By earning money, we can buy food, and provide ourselves with a roof over our head. Safety comes from regular income. At the workplace, we also belong to a group, and our self-esteem stems partly from the success we achieve at work. So, the lower levels of needs in the hierarchy of needs are largely met through our professional activities. The higher levels in this hierarchy belong to needs that cannot be satisfied through work. This is where our lifestyle and having free time come forward. 

Work-life boundaries help us reduce stress

Undefined work-life boundaries lead to physical and mental exhaustion and, eventually, to burnout. When there are no clear-cut lines between work and private life, we may become overwhelmed with both daily work tasks and private matters. Setting boundaries helps us deal with these issues and decreases levels of stress. Only then do we feel we have control over our daily tasks, and, subsequently, over our life. 

For instance, since I’ve changed my job, I have a more structured day than before, which allows me to spend more time with my family and friends, and replenish my energy. My levels of cortisol have definitely dropped, thanks to the healthier work-life boundaries.

Work-life boundaries help us stay focused at work

When we set work-life boundaries, we give ourselves a set time frame during which we can get the work done more attentively. Bear in mind, multitasking is our enemy. When we try to juggle work and private life, we usually end up in a bigger mess than we were before. However, setting clear work-life boundaries helps us concentrate on our work during work hours. Since we know we have limited time to do the daily tasks, we tend to focus better and do a better job overall. Apart from that, we also achieve a better work-life balance. Consequently, when our improved focus helps us finish work on time, we have more free time to pursue our hobbies and hang out with friends and family. This all improves the quality of our life. Paradoxically, these boundaries are the ones that set us free.

These are the reasons why establishing a proper work-life balance is so important for remote workers to feel truly satisfied. But what happens when life-work boundaries get blurred? What are the consequences?

Why is having poor work-life boundaries a problem in remote work?

Having poor work-life boundaries leads to burnout, increased emotional exhaustion, and numerous health issues. 

Research has shown that the lack of a healthy work-life balance can result in a variety of stress factors, including fatigue, discouragement, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, unhappiness, anxiety, etc.

Add to all that the fact that remote workers face some common challenges such as stress, loneliness, and anxiety. Remote work itself may lead to feelings of isolation and can reduce their productivity and mental well-being. According to the survey conducted by the British Royal Society for Public Health, remote work impacts people’s mental health. A serious percentage of  67% of the surveyees said they felt less connected to their colleagues, and 56% of them noticed they found it harder to switch off. This inability to unplug is at the heart of the problem of setting healthy boundaries. 

The 3 steps to creating work-life boundaries as a remote worker

Now that we are familiar with the dangers poor work-life boundaries bring about, it’s time we identify the main steps toward clear work-life boundaries when working from home. As someone who has been working from home for 15 years, I know all the challenges too well. That feeling of “maybe I could do this one more thing, so it would be easier for me tomorrow” was very hard for me to get rid of. And, spoiler alert, it won’t be easier tomorrow, since you’ll have some new genius ideas about “easing the workload for another day”. That day never comes, and you’re caught in a whirlwind of tasks. So, it is crucial to have some boundaries between work and life. 

Setting them is easier with these 3 steps:

Step #1: Create a designated workspace

When working remotely, it is essential we find a workspace in which we feel both comfortable and productive. It is easy to forget about this aspect, but we’ll show you why it is important to have a designated workspace. 

🚩 The problem it solves: Working in every corner of your home

That day has come – you are finally allowed to work from home. Amazing! You can work from the comfort of your bed, in your pajamas, without makeup, and with a messy bun that is genuinely messy (not the kind on which you spend half an hour to make it look effortless and chic). Your new sofa beckons you with its velvet cushions. A dream come true! Yes, it all sounds lovely and certainly more comfortable than the office chair and your sensible heels, but beware! As comfy as it may sound, this way of working can lead to blurred work-life boundaries. The next thing you know, you are working in your bathtub after hours because time flies when you’re having fun. No, those bath bombs you bought to treat yourself are there for your free time, not for your work hours — sitting in a tub with the papers and invoices doesn’t count as a “me time”. We have a red flag situation. It’s time to reconsider your work-life boundaries.

✅ How to create a designated workspace 

First of all, having a designated workspace really helps you set work-life boundaries. It need not be a whole room if you’re tight with space. A corner with a desk, a chair, and a cabinet for storing work papers are more than enough. Add to that a plant, to cheer you up, and a motivational picture for you to gaze at when you’re feeling tired, and the boundary is set. Now you know – your work time ends when you leave your desk. Maybe you’ll be tempted to go back to it, but resist the urge. 

Another tip that might help you would be to work from a coffee shop or a library a day or two a week. After all, working remotely does not necessarily mean that you have to work from home. Find a place that suits you and does not interfere with your working process. Order that latte and enjoy your day. 

A little extra tip, for those who want to trick their brain: fake a commute in order to force yourself to distinguish between work and private life during the day. Before starting a workday go for a brief walk around the block. If you have a dog, a walk is a given. Even if you don’t, go soak up some sun. Also, when you’re finished with the work, go for another half an hour walk, to trick your brain into thinking that you’re coming home from work. 

Step #2: Limit your work hours

When speaking of setting work-life boundaries, a limited work schedule is equally important. We will show you why it is advisable to limit your work hours. 

🚩 The problem it solves: Working around the clock

Just because you’re used to “commuting” to your workspace in your slippers doesn’t mean you don’t need a start and an end to your workday. I suppose there are days when you “accidentally” work from dawn to dusk (or vice versa) because there is so much work to be done. Maybe you even forget to have lunch because you got caught up in a workload. Working from home is not an excuse nor a reason to work all day. Precisely these are the factors that blur the line between work and home, when we talk about time. But don’t worry, we have solutions to your problem.

✅ How to limit your work hours

First and foremost, set work hours. Yes, you do need structure, even when working remotely. There are some tools that can assist you in tracking your time spent working. Take breaks every 90 minutes, to avoid exhaustion, or try out the famous Pomodoro technique

Equally important is to set your morning routine, which will help you get started with the workday. Some high-performing people like to start their day with a workout. It helps them activate their minds, as well as bodies, and prepare them for the day ahead. I like to take a shower first thing in the morning and do my skincare routine. Then I change into my WFH clothes, have a cup of tea and breakfast, and make myself a cup of coffee. Only then can my day truly begin.

What you do in advance, the night before is also far-reaching. For instance, you could make a to-do list and stick with it. Another useful tip is to prepare your meals in advance, so you don’t have to bother with cooking while working on a challenging daily task. Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep because it also helps you be more productive and structured the next day. An extra tip for better sleep: refrain from using your phone at least 30 minutes before going to bed because blue screens suppress melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel tired and prepares us for sleep. 

Step #3: Set boundaries with the people you work and live with

When talking about remote work and work-life boundaries, we have to mention boundaries that concern our interactions with other people, both from work and private life. In her research, Managing Work life in the Digital Age, Ellen Ernst Kossek argues that one of the main culprits of blurred work-life boundaries is the constant use of technology and social media.  In the following passages, we will deal with some examples of blurred boundaries with other people and give you possible solutions for this problem. 

🚩 The problem it solves: Being always available to everyone

Since the social aspect of our life encompasses both people from work and people from our private life (and even these two spheres overlap), we can sort problems with undefined boundaries with people into — problems with boundaries with colleagues and problems with boundaries with friends. 

  • Colleagues having too many requests – Keeping in mind that maybe email is not a perfect solution for communication while working remotely, communication with colleagues usually takes place via chat apps. If you’re using the same chat app for both communication with friends and with colleagues, the work-life boundaries may quickly become blurred. Maybe your coworkers have different work hours, and they continue to send work-related messages long after you have finished with your work. For example, maybe your colleague needs help with something, and, although you’re done with work for the day (if we don’t count working on your second glass of wine after work), you feel like you cannot ignore them and have to lend a helping hand. 
  • Friends and family not taking your work-from-home schedule seriously – When you’re working from home, your friends sometimes don’t see it as real work.  Just because you’re in your sweatpants in your own home doesn’t mean you’re not working. Still, you might get some odd requests from your friends during your working hours. No, you cannot pick them up at the airport or watch their kid for a few hours. Your work schedule may be flexible, but you’re expected to work at certain hours that overlap with the work hours of your team members.

✅ How to set boundaries with the people you work with

Since we’ve established that the majority of remote work communication takes place via chat apps, it is best that you use a separate business messaging app such as Pumble for professional communication, so that you don’t have to be available to your colleagues all day. Keep in mind that there is a certain chat etiquette you should follow. 

If you don’t want to be distracted during your busy hours, maybe the best solution for you is asynchronous communication. Pumble allows you to set your status if you need some quiet so that the notifications are on pause. 

Setting your status in Pumble
Setting your status in Pumble

Still, setting work-life boundaries doesn’t imply you should alienate yourself from your colleagues. Namely, if you need a break during work hours, you can create your own virtual water cooler (or use the existing one). This is possible through various channels in the chat app, where you can discuss off-work topics with your colleagues. 

An example of a public channel on Pumble
An example of a public channel on Pumble

Here we have an example of a public channel on Pumble, dedicated to pets. This is the best place for you to discuss topics related to your furry (or feathery or scaly) friends with your colleagues. You can ask for advice about anything related to your beloved pet and share stories about your pet’s shenanigans. These types of channels are the best way to take a break from work and chit-chat with colleagues with similar interests. 

✅ How to set boundaries with family and friends

Saying no is hard, but it is one of the crucial aspects of being assertive. Sometimes you’re afraid to say no for that famous fear of missing out, but keep in mind that you can practice saying no. It is proof that you’re in control of your life. In their article “I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior, Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt state that saying no is essential for your well-being. In their research, they hypothesize and empirically demonstrate that even framing a refusal using “I don’t” as opposed to “I can’t” is more empowering. Yes, you can pick your friend from the airport, but you don’t want to do that during work hours. 

Wrapping Up

An upset work-life balance can lead to burnout and various health problems. Unfortunately, with remote workers, this issue gets exacerbated. Isolation and loneliness remote workers sometimes feel only deepens the problem. That’s why we need to set healthy work-life boundaries. When tackled separately, the subtypes of work-life boundaries (spatial, temporal, and social) are easier to deal with. Luckily, for each of these obstacles there lies the solution. As Friedrich Hölderlin so wisely put it: Where there is danger, the rescue grows as well.” We just need to take certain steps (3, in this case) to find it.

Author: JelenaFisic

Jelena Fisic is a writer and researcher, constantly reading and broadening her knowledge about communication and collaboration. As a long-time remote worker, she is eager to share her experiences and gathered knowledge, and give you some tips for improving team communication and collaboration skills while working from home.

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