Stephen Mizell

Boundaries are the Key to Working Remotely

January 27, 2019

I’ve been working remotely for over four years now, and I’ve had successes and failures in making it a good fit. Overall it’s been a great experience, and I’ll share what I feel is the key to remote work—setting up good boundaries.

When I talk to people about working remotely, their response is on the spectrum from “I would love to do that” to “I would never get any work done.” People are interested in the freedoms that remote work can give, but they are worried they won’t be productive or able to keep a healthy work-life balance.

Good boundaries are the key. Good boundaries are about creating a space to work so you can focus. Good boundaries are about defining a time when you’ll work and when you won’t so you won’t work all the time. Good boundaries are about being honest about the nature of remote work so your coworkers and you can work well together.

Set up a place to work and only work

If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be to try to designate a place in your home for work and make it the only place you work. Create a workspace separate from your living space if possible, because I’ve found it’s too easy to work on the couch or at the kitchen table. That leads to bad habits such as working when you don’t want to work. Your workspace can be an entire room or a desk somewhere away from everyone. Whatever you do, try to find a workspace where you can focus.

Also try not to do personal tasks in your workspace. Though it makes it harder to set aside space only for work, you’ll find it helps make the work-life separation. I found it was too easy to get drawn into doing work tasks even if I was doing personal tasks in the workspace.

For me, I didn’t do well keeping my work in the workspace in the beginning, and it made it tough. I had a separate space, but it wasn’t comfortable and I ended up working in other areas around the house. This made productivity difficult. Things got better once I improved the workspace and got use to spending my time in the workspace.

As a note, I’m not saying you should never leave your workspace. I’m rather suggesting you to not mix living and working spaces. Definitely take breaks to see your family, go for a walk to think, grab lunch with a friend, or find a coffee shop you enjoy to work in. I’ve found I need those times away because otherwise I wouldn’t leave the house.

When you’re at work, you’re at work

The next key for a good work-life balance is to have designated times for working. This is tough to do working from home, and even tougher if you can’t create a separate space. But if you can get the workspace boundary and time boundary figured out, you’ll be in great shape.

For one, it’s important to think of going into your work area as going to work. If you’ve worked in a physical office, you got up at a certain time, got dressed and ready, went to the office, worked for a bit, and then went home. Try to continue this pattern. Even if no one will see you while working, get prepared for the day—it helps create a separation and helps with self-care. When I wait until later in the day to get ready, I never get that feeling like I started work. The whole morning blurs together.

When you’re in your workspace, you’re working. Your family and friends have to treat you that way. You aren’t available for chores, errands, or helping someone out. It’s easy for people to treat you as available because you are physically around more, but you’ll have to work to set this boundary. To everyone but your coworkers, you’re unavailable.

My kids and I had to learn this boundary together over time. Early on, they’d barge in my office to say hello, which I loved, but it would break focus and many times interrupt meetings. They now know I’m working, and they’ll quietly slide notes under my door. That works a lot better and is always a fun surprise.

There are exceptions where you need to leave work for a personal errand. If you have a regular task like picking up your kids everyday during work hours, talk to your manager first. They will probably be understanding, and if you’ve already built up the trust that you get work done working remotely, your manager shouldn’t have a problem with it.

When you’re not working, you’re not working

When you’re off work and you’ve left your space, the opposite of above is true—your coworkers should treat you as unavailable. The best step to take to establish this is to be strict about your working time. You shouldn’t be expected to work more than 40 hours a week, and if you are, it should be an exception. Define a start time and finish time for your work and stick to it, otherwise you’ll have trouble stopping work for the day. Your coworkers will catch on to your pattern and will have it in mind while they work. But it also requires that you respect their personal time and expect they finish at a certain time of the day. Trust works both ways.

Most calendar tools can help with start and stop times. For instance, Outlook lets you set working hours. I also block off time for lunch because it shows up as busy when people try to schedule meetings. The scheduled break lets you get away from lunch so you don’t have to eat at your desk.

Block out your schedule to get work done

Video calls are the primary way people talk remotely. They works well, but the meetings can take up a big portion of your day if you have lots them. If you work at a place where anyone can drop meetings onto your calendar, block out time to get some things done if your work is piling up. People will understand and will be happy to schedule if it’s not urgent.

Use your work computer only for work

If you get a nice computer from your employer, it’ll be tempting to use it for personal tasks. Try to resist. If you are doing personal tasks on your computer after hours, work will be in your focus the entire time. Emails, notification, and opened documents will be trying to steal you away from your personal time. Even a quick glance at email can get your mind thinking about work.

The answer for me was to get a personal computer for personal tasks only. I don’t use it in my workspace, and I don’t do anything work-related on it. It’s an extra expense, but it helps separate work and life.

Just to note, there are some legal issues you don’t have to worry about if you keep a personal machine. If you build something of value on your work machine, there is risk that your employer can claim some ownership of your work. You may not fear this with your employer. However, I think it’s safer to keep things separate if you can. Talk to a lawyer about this before starting remote work.

Keep work apps off your phone if you can

I struggle to keep work email or chat apps off my phone, but if you can, try not to add them. It makes it too easy to reach for your phone as soon as you wake up in the morning, putting your mind into work mode. But I’ve had the need to check my email or calendar when I’m out and about, so I always end up installing them. The answer here may be to practice discipline around when you look at work stuff rather than completely removing it. There is always balance.

Keeping work-related apps on your phone can easily break your boundaries without you noticing it. You might find yourself working on the couch after hours by picking up your phone and opening your email. The phone gives you a false sense that you’re not working—you’re just checking in. If you do it, your family will change their expectations and your coworkers will start to think you work at different hours. Avoid the phone trap if you can.

Success is dependent on others

These boundaries are ones you set for yourself. For success though, it requires others to respect them. Of course, you will also need to work to respect their boundaries and build trust over time. You’ll have to remind people of the boundaries you’ve created. You can say small things like, “Would you mind if we move the meeting? It’s during my lunch,” and people will understand. Even refraining from working after hours will help give people a sense of your boundaries. This to me is key to developing a remote-first or remote-friendly culture.

But what if you can’t set these boundaries?

You may not be able to create a separate space for your work. You may not have the funds to buy a personal computer. I think you can still be successful working remotely, but it may take more discipline. You may have to do more mental separation for your work than physical separation. Either way, keep healthy boundaries in mind.

You also might not be able to work 40 hours a week as the norm. If you are constantly asked to work beyond a normal work week and you have a good relationship with your manager, talk to them about it. Ask for their help in creating a better work-life separation. Good managers are always eager to help their employees be successful.

I recommend the experience

For me, working remotely has been great. I don’t have a commute, I get to see my family in the morning, I get to live in a small town that is calm and quiet, and I get to work with great people all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who help me with these boundaries—especially my wonderful wife—and I have worked with and for people who make the work a lot easier. If you have the opportunity and the means to make it happen, you should give it a shot.