One of the major benefits of working from home is cutting out the commute. Yes, you can now feasibly be showered, caffeinated, and into a meeting in 15 minutes! What a world we live in. But all of this may come at a cost to the employee. A common complaint among home workers is that workdays are becoming longer and longer, with fewer breaks between meetings. Technology has made us more efficient for sure, but have workdays been made longer as a result?
Employees that work from home tend to work longer hours in the workday. Commute times and regular breaks throughout the day tend to be taken up more by working, resulting in a workday that is more like 9 or 10 hours instead of 7 to 8 hours. This varies across jobs, but the trend is that remote employees have these longer workdays. Employees must consciously make time for activities and breaks that can bring back a work-life balance when working from home to bring them in line with the legal 7-8 hour workday.
Let’s look at the evidence.
Ending the commute
Studies have shown that a move to remote work is resulting in more residents living in the periphery of cities. This is leading to less traffic congestion and quicker travel times for people that do still commute. This is great for remote workers as they can now benefit from less expensive neighborhoods in the suburbs or country and can enjoy faster commutes when they do need to drive to the office on occasion.
What do remote workers do with the time gained?
More often than not workers are, well, working through the time gained from not having to commute. A study done pre-COVID-19 showed that people that worked from home were more likely to exhibit stress and experience burnout. Other researchers have shown that working from home can sometimes interrupt our work-life balance. For some, working from home may offer a much-needed shift towards family life. For others, often women, the added burden of looking after children while working from home can further increase stress and burnout.
In short, working from home can often lead to working more intensively for more hours, with an inability to “shut off.” This manifests itself in many remote employees simply putting in more hours in the day. Commute time alone can add a couple of extra hours per day for remote employees, especially if meeting schedules start early and end late.
There is also a tendency for companies to run too many meetings as they become used to the technology. “Wow! This is great! We can all meet from home whenever we want.” What inevitably happens is that workers’ precious break time and even the time gained from the commute get filled up by more and more Zoom calls, check-ins, and brainstorms. As soon as the time is freed up, it is often eaten up by the employer or colleagues.
Burnout from external stressors
When employees first start working from home they may think that they have to prove themselves to management, working extra hours to compensate for the fact that they are working from home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many external stressors also provided a source of anxiety and stress for remote employees. The context itself can cause anxiety and depression which makes longer workdays and additional workloads even more unsustainable. Lack of sleep and fatigue is a common symptom of burnout among those working from home. This may come from the sense that they “live at the office” as opposed to work from home. The physical distance between you and your desk is decreased, so you soon feel like you are constantly on call.
But what do we, as remote workers, do about this?
Re-asserting our work-life balance
Employees need to be aware that they only owe their employer a normal workday. This means that they should be logging off when they would normally be hopping on the train home. Just because the location of the work changed, does not mean that your employer is entitled to more work from employees. This doesn’t mean that you should slack or significantly lower your productivity, but it does mean that you should be conscious about burnout and how to avoid it.
Track your time
The best way to figure out if you are experiencing work day shift (longer than a normal workday) is to start tracking your time on the job. For a few days use a time tracking app like Toggl to track your time from the minute you sit at your desk until you finish for the day, If you use the app on your phone you can pause the timer during breaks, lunch, etc. You’ll be surprised how much time you may be putting in from your home office.
Unplug and take breaks
Unplugging and recharging during the workday is important. Taking regular breaks helps you decompress from tough tasks and get some separation from the work. We recommend something like the Pomodoro technique to actually block out your daily tasks into manageable chunks, therefore making it harder to fall into working way past quitting time. Block out these breaks specifically.
Take a lunch! So many remote workers feel the need to eat at their desks and not truly take the one hour lunch they are entitled to. You’re at home! Exercise those cooking muscles and make some spectacular lunches when you’re at home.
Do some housework
Catching up on mindless chores around the house can also be helpful. Make sure these aren’t super terrible chores, but things you don’t mind doing that will get your mind off work. They can also get you moving physically which is a huge benefit when you spend 7+ hours a day sitting at a desk.
Socialize and have some family time
Lastly, take some time for family and friends. Go out for a coffee with a friend down the road. Spend some time watching Netflix with your kids or significant other. What is important is to prioritize friends and family in the time that has been given to you when working from home.
Work-life balance is not just a buzzword used by tech companies trying to attract talent. It truly is a way to counteract the negative aspects of working from home. Not only will it stave off burnout if you have a better work-life balance, but it will also make you more productive! When you come to a task refreshed and ready to go it is way better than being stuck in a constant state of stress and being overwhelmed.
Some practical ways to make sure your working from home workday is reasonable
We mentioned a few ideas above, but let’s go ahead and put down some really practical ways to make sure you are giving a normal workday, not an extended remote workday that your employer is likely not paying for:
- Take regular, planned walks during the workday. Set a timer for them and make sure you book them off in your shared Calendar so people don’t call an impromptu meeting during your walk.
- Replace your morning commute time with a walk. Who said that you had to be at your desk earlier just because you are working from home?
- Get outside. Sometimes just taking a break from the indoors can help a good deal. Grab a coffee and stand outside for a bit and enjoy the fresh air. Think of this as a smoke break for someone that may or may not smoke…
- Set your do not disturb features on your computer and your phone. Apps like Slack can set a DND mode and your smartphone can mute certain notifications at a given hour. Once the clock hits 5 or 6 PM, be unavailable.
- Set your work hours in Gmail so your colleagues know when you generally log off.
- Set a smart light bulb up in your desk lamp. I did this and set it to fade out at precisely 5 PM, giving me a good visual indicator of when my workday is done.
- Make your home office in a space that is separate from the areas you rest or chill out in. Yes, this means that your bed is out of bounds for office work. Make it clear to your brain that your work only takes place in a specific physical space for a specific amount of time.
- Align your workday with that of your colleagues. If you wake up very early and start working when the rest of your crew tends to do a 9 to 5, you risk having to be available for these core working hours for things like meetings with others. Aligning with the normal core working hours of the company is critical.
- Eat meals in the kitchen or dining room. Don’t take your sandwich to your desk unless you really have to. Take your whole lunch hour when you can.
- Put on work clothes every morning. Having these on is a great signal that tells your brain that this is time for “work you.” You will want to jump into some sweats come 5 PM and it will feel great. This keeps a level of regularity to your schedule that demarcates work and personal time.
Staving off burnout is a real problem that you should think about as a remote employee. And you have advantages when working from home that you should take advantage of by taking breaks while at home. We hope some of these ideas have helped give you a sense of what is reasonable during a workday to bring more balance to your work life.