Attorneys: Setting Boundaries When Working from Home
The number of people working from home has skyrocketed over the past few weeks in response to the public health crisis created by the coronavirus. While many lawyers in solo and small firm practices may be used to working from home or other remote locations for extended periods of time, large firm lawyers may not be. Although large firm lawyers may be used to performing discrete tasks from home, working from home for an extended period of time brings an entirely different set of challenges.
Balancing Work and Personal Time
Among the challenges faced by those who are working from home is balancing work and personal or family time. With entire families at home for weeks at a time, under stay at home orders or quarantine, lawyers working from home can find it difficult to work without interruption or to find a quiet place to concentrate. For some, it may be tempting to put work off entirely. For others, it may be the opposite – they may find it hard to walk away from work and find themselves working constantly, with few, if any breaks. Learning to set boundaries between work and home is an essential skill for work-at-home productivity.
Create a Separate Workspace
Since many lawyers never expected to work from home for an extended time, a significant number do not have a dedicated office or other space to work. That means that for many lawyers, their workspace and their family or living spaces overlap. This is further complicated if the lawyer’s spouse and/or children must also work or complete the school year online from home.
If at all possible, designate a separate workspace, whether that is a corner of the dining room, a desk in the living room or a separate room that is temporarily turned into an office. Creating that separate workspace at least approximates going to the office and can help signal when the focus should be on work as opposed to personal or family matters. Wear earphones or noise-canceling headphones or put music on to help drown out sounds from others in the household or from outside.
Keep some spaces within the home for strictly personal/family zones with no work allowed. If the only available workspace is in the bedroom, for example, create a barrier, such as with a screen to separate that space from the rest of the bedroom. This allows the work to be out of view when not working and prevents creating additional stress and anxiety or interfering with relaxation.
Set a Routine with Definite Working Hours
In addition to creating a separate physical workspace, it is important to create defined working hours. That routine can help reduce anxiety and can make it clear to others in the household which hours are work hours that should not be disturbed.
Sticking to the same routine when working from home as when working in the office can help, but it isn’t always possible. More flexibility may be required, such as when two parents must work in shifts to cover time with the children who are also home from school. Consider working in blocks rather than in one full-day shift.
Get Dressed for Work
Getting dressed for work is another psychological signal that can be helpful in a work from home setting. It may not require putting on a suit and tie or professional clothing when working from home every day, but getting dressed in “real” clothing, rather than staying in sweats, leggings, exercise clothes or pajamas all of the time can help signal to your brain that it’s time for work. It’s also helpful to be dressed already in the event that the need for an impromptu video call or meeting arises. Changing out of work clothes and into loungewear at the end of the workday signals it’s time to relax and spend time with family.
Take Regular Breaks
Even lawyers used to working in the office for 10-12 hours daily do not work those hours nonstop. In a large firm, there are numerous interruptions from co-workers coming in to chat to telephone calls to interruptions from staff with questions and more. Those interruptions not only represent human connection and interaction throughout the day, but also serve to break up the workday.
Without those naturally occurring breaks, when working from home, it can be all too easy to burn out. Schedule breaks throughout the workday and engage in very specific activities during those breaks that will help rejuvenate, rather than causing further stress and anxiety. Activities that could increase stress, such as engaging on social media or watching the news during workday breaks should be avoided.
Intentional breaks could include a regular daily team check-in meeting, an exercise break, time spent pursuing a favorite hobby or reading a book. Not only can these breaks help reduce stress, but they can also motivate, inspire, and help improve productivity.
Get Regular Exercise
Again, those with pre-existing routines should stick to them as much as possible. For example, a lawyer who is used to working out three days a week before work should try to continue that as much as possible, even if the workout takes a different form because the gym is temporarily closed. Go for a walk or do some home workouts; there are lots of resources online for exercise programs.
Even just taking regular breaks every hour to get up and walk around can be valuable; it is easy to forget to move while working from home. Walking around during non-video calls can be one good way to limit sitting time.
Finally, setting specific goals for both work and in your personal time can also help reinforce work/home boundaries and create accountability for accomplishing the most important tasks. This is even more effective if the goals are shared with others, such as an assistant or other team member with whom progress on the goals can be shared. This can be an invaluable tool both for those who find it easy to procrastinate while working from home and for those who have difficulty identifying when it is time to complete work for the day.
Working from home for an extended period of time can be a challenge, but it does not have to be an insurmountable one. Fortunately, today’s technology makes it easier than ever to connect to the office and to other vital resources from a remote location.
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