Updated: December 2, 2020
Ayes, another hot topic. Or rather boring topic being sensationalized. We've got the pandemic, people work from home more than before, and this leads to a startling revelation! For some people, this is not the optimal way of doing stuff what they get paid for to do. Curtain.
Except, I feel like adding to the entropy. As always, ALWAYS, I find the common narrative to the general story weird. We all have the same facts (or do we), and yet, for some reason, we don't always get to the same conclusion. When I read: work/home balance disrupted due to pandemic, I go, wait what. Indeed, it's now time and place for me to vomit my own perception of the reality onto the masses. Do read on, if you like.
Help, the pandemic made me a workaholic!
No, it didn't. It doesn't work like that. Workaholics are born not made. But first, some context.
Working from home is not an ideal setup for most people. There are many reasons for that, including but not limited to: no dedicated home office, no dedicated home office equipment (furniture and hardware), insufficient network bandwidth, inability to create an isolated space for work without home activities. All these are known facts, but the chief problem is when they are forced onto someone, like say the current global situation.
Then, there's the social element. Going to the workplace is not just about moving your mouse, hitting your keyboard and attending a meeting in some building that isn't your home. There's socializing with your colleagues, talk about common interests and hobbies, fun little rituals like coffee, lunch or cigarette breaks. All of these help people bond (or sometimes, hate their colleagues extra), leading to a more pleasant (or not) work experience. Usually, such activities are virtually [sic] non-existent when you work from your home, and the only interface you have with the outside world is via a cam-and-mic combo through this or that application.
Working in a sub-optimal setting can degrade a person's productivity - or mood - which in turn, degrades the productivity further. If you are working from home, and you do not have all the necessary pieces to be comfortable and focused, it can be hard achieving the desired results, which leads to stress, and the cycle of un-fun gets even tighter.
But none of this is really a direct reason for any type of work/home imbalance. These are simply factors that can exacerbate already bad situations, or make people behave in a sub-optimal manner, which can impair their judgment and efficiency, which then can really affect how people treat their work and home activities. So it's not the cause. Quite the opposite. We're warming up. Not there yet.
And then, there's the inconsiderate manager to consider ... but more on that latter.
It's not all bad, though
There are also real, practical advantages to working from home. One, you no longer need to commute. Two, your "trips" - to the bathroom, kitchen or elsewhere - should be shorter, unless you have a really big house or take 35 minutes to brew your coffee. Three, there should be fewer distractions, the type you would normally experience in the office (not ignoring the home distractions), things like chitchat in the parking lot, chitchat in the elevator, chitchat near or around your desk, the odd random rumor or news or gossip you hear and decide to join in, the music and phone calls and whatnot. All of these translate into valuable time that is now YOURS.
I am quite confident that a typical office worker spends 30-40% of their total office time on totally unnecessary activities, and that time is now available, and the working-from-home worker can now make good use of it, if they have the drive and discipline. The emphasis is on if.
And this is where the real problem starts.
Idle time is designed to be wasted
Most people don't work efficiently. This is my conclusion after watching people work for roughly twenty years. Idleness is considered a bad thing. On a personal level, people struggle with having nothing to do, so they invent reasons to be be busy. On a corporate level, (bad) managers expect their employees to be busy or look busy, because they don't know how to measure productivity.
The only thing they have going for them is the dry work definition of 9-5 or whatever the typical shift hours are. And so, the combo of trying to look busy and looking busy leads to a terrible wastage. People sit at their desks doing bullshit just because that's the path of least resistance. Office Space, Peter Gibbons, you get it.
We need to blame the lousy work policies for this - because on average, in a typical office setting, there is almost no way to measure actual output. Brick laying is simple. You put a brick down, excellent. But what about email? Or presentations? How do fourteen emails and three meetings translate into productivity? At the end of the year, companies have a macro view of their results, but on an individual level, it's a black box.
Imagine a workplace where you'd be allowed to go home after you actually finished your daily quota (whatever it is). People would bunker down, finish everything two or five hours early and then disappear from the office. Amazing, isn't it?
Alas, the reality is far more wasteful.
There are two ways people get compensated (in broad terms, hi hi) for their work. They get a global salary or they get paid by the hour. In the first case, it doesn't really matter how much time you spend in the office, one minute or one day, you still get paid the same. In the second, your work is paid for every hour you spend working, so to speak.
On paper, both these systems make sense - in reality, they translate into wastage.
With global workers, actual time spent at work shouldn't matter - only the actual output should. Ah. However, in reality, employers want their staff to spend as much time in the office. This way, they get "more work" for less pay (they cross streams and look at the hourly wage). Again, this is because most companies don't know how to measure actual work productivity - mediocre managers and all that - so more is more. Looking busy is the way to manage it. Global workers are judged by an hourly output. Logic ftw!
With hourly workers, idle time = free grub, and the employer can't have that. In this case, it is in the employer's interest to have people spend as little time as possible in the office but generate as much work as possible (of course). From the employee's perspective, it's the opposite. If you're paid by the hour, you want to work as slowly as you can. The balance is somewhere in the middle, but it translates into: looking busy.
But looking busy is the opposite of efficiency.
Productive people don't waste time
As a counterpoint, I've also observed how productive people work (myself among them). Productive people work in discrete bursts. They do one task, efficiently, thoroughly, then they stop, rest, context switch, then do another task. Productive people usually work LESS time than the average slogger, but they achieve far more. They do 60-90 minutes, followed by 15-30 minutes breaks (or longer), and they maintain a very high level of focus and quality throughout.
Most people do the opposite - they sit down and sort of work, settling into a slow, inefficient routine that is full of distractions - most of them self-made, boring and useless tasks that don't contribute anything to achieving results for the task at hand, and often with few if any breaks. But this sounds vague.
So here's a short list of things that indicate a typical, average and not-very-efficient office worker:
- They have tons of email in their inbox - one of the reasons I hate "modern" email is the lack of folder hierarchy and the ability to tug away completed tasks based on emails. Of course, you can archive email or use email clients that can do this, but that's not the point, the point is the whole approach. Anyway, in scenarios that allow users to move read/completed email away, you will notice that more productive people usually have neat, lean inboxes, with only a small list of unread items - all of which actually translate into tasks they want to do in fact. Unproductive people have long inboxes.
- Inefficient people will use the preview pane - another nonsense that forces people to read and re-read the same content multiple times without actioning them. This mostly affects email clients though, so one could claim a point for "modern" email here. But then, there are tons of "productivity" apps, which contribute similar wastage, with people spending more time on emojis, reactions and upvote buttons than actual content.
- Inefficient workers will burden themselves with lots of small tasks, because inefficient people confuse quantity for results, and they think that say triaging 25 bugs or solving 25 tickets translates into productivity. Unfortunately, this is also used by (bad) management as a measurement stick for office productivity, leading people to normalize their work into the smallest quantum of activity that can be observed. This is your Quantum Mechanics Office Lemma.
- They will sit down the entire day at their desk, not moving.
- They will pigeonhole themselves into trifles or unimportant detail, because they usually can't think or work in a strategic manner.
- They will frequently switch between tasks without having them completed.
So how does this relate to working for home?
It relates beautifully. People with lousy habits and bad time management will suddenly find themselves in a situation where the boundaries are less defined (home), there's less immediate supervision, and there's ample free time that could potentially be used effectively - again, I'm not ignoring the home distractions, they exist and they are valid.
So what will the average worker do at this point? Enjoy this new (ideal) workplace scenario that should have existed in the first place? Nope. Old habits die hard.
They will not use the extra hours they gain for something useful - say like private, home things. They will simply SMEAR their existing workload over a greater stretch of time, work even less efficiently, and of course find themselves reasons and obstacles to remain looking busy even if their manager isn't always breathing down their neck.
And so, if an average worker was previously FORCED to commute for two hours, plus spend another 1.5 hours on work activities that take them away from their desk - call it involuntary but useful breaks - they will not have extra 3.5 hours to waste with the same amount of work they normally have. Because they are not efficient and productive, they won't have the strict boundaries of discipline or self-discipline for their tasks, and so the work day will turn from a foggy slog into an even longer and foggier slog! And if they get bored, they may feel tempted to do some home things in parallel, leading to yet more context switching, more fragmentation, extra distraction, even less focus and less productivity.
This is one of the primary reasons why working from home can feel exhausting to lots of people. Simply because they don't have the necessary rigor to be efficient and productive.
I mentioned managers - and now we must talk about them, too.
The proverbial Lumberg
If you've seen Office Space, a legendary production by legendary Mike Judge, then you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, then you must have experienced the phenomenon, without having named it. Managers who like to constantly prod and ask for updates, who constantly ping you on whatever communication tool you use, who are always frenetic without any real strategic imperative.
Congratulations, you've just met 99.99% of all managers worldwide! Unfortunately, this is what happens when mediocre people with low productivity get promoted into positions of power. No reason to get upset. 'Tis the reality of the world, and you won't change it.
In an ideal scenario, a manager would understand that people working from home may also need to attend to non-work stuff or that non-work stuff schedule may interfere with the work shift. A considerate manager would HELP their less efficient employees create a strict, practical work routine that can help them be efficient and not waste time. A considerate manager would work on improving communication and reporting - so that people who no longer work in the same office can still maintain a good level of situational awareness and information sharing.
The way it is, a typical manager will "envy" the fact their employees now have extra free time saved by no longer commuting, they may resent not having the proximity of power and control they normally have in the office, and so they may decide they need to "push" and "assert" themselves so their employees do not slack.
And thus, the manager introduces further disruption into the work-home equation.
This is where the balance breaks.
At this point, most people will throw hands up in the air and shout "pandemic" or some other external reason for their anguish. But the thing is, externalizing responsibility is another trait of inefficient people. Personalities don't change - it's just that specific situations or scenarios help bring out different personality traits we normally have.
But, at the end of the day, it's YOUR choice. Really.
Workaholics will always be workaholics
And productive people will always fight inefficiency and nonsense so they can retain their edge - because productive people value time and effort, they will do everything to push back on any attempt to disrupt their work/home balance.
Choice. The final frontier. You may say, hello, kids, mortgage, obligations! Wait.
In the middle, you have the Average Jo, who will simply mold themselves to whatever shape the situation calls for, and then, of course, they will complain that their life is harder because XYZ external reasons. However, this is your choice.
Not the choice about having a lousy manager. That's not really a choice. Or to be forced to work to pay your bills. Not a choice again. But to work the way you do ... that is your choice! You may not be free, but you're free to choose how shackled you want to be. You may not like the concept, and you may hate yourself for it, but it is ultimately yours. Enjoying the corporate nonsense your way! And by enjoying, I mean, not.
So what's the golden, magical formula then?
Well, the solution, for people who lack the self-discipline to handle situational ambiguity (most people) is to create a strict work/home routine, and then stick to it with an almost military-like level of precision. Alas, this is easier said than done. And there are no magic solutions here, I'm afraid. If you want inspirational nonsense, you've come to the wrong website.
That said, I will still try to give you something tangible and practical so this article doesn't turn out to be a complete waste of time after all. And rule number one is not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by bullshit.
If you want to be bullied, you will be bullied
As scary and pretentious as my suggestions may sound, they are nothing more than the translation of basic animal principles to the office settings. Other people will always, constantly, consciously and subconsciously, be testing your limits. Your manager will push as far as you let them. You will allow yourself to be burdened with crap within the tolerance of your acceptable risks, be it mortgage, kids or else. This may sounds cruel, unfair, highly cynical or delusionally academic, but the thing is, it doesn't make it any less true.
If you find your work/home balance affected, this means the situation is not optimal for you (for whatever reason). Unless you resolve it, you will suffer. If you agreed with the changes and found them utterly fair, there would be no reason to complain. But the fact people are clamoring and complaining about the new disruptions to their lives following the massive migration of workforce from the office to their homes means that they are not handling the situation as they should. Either they ought to accept the new burdens or resolve them. Anything else is just moaning without results, and that's not productive.
When there's a void, a gap, someone will exploit it. You have the option to set the limits before someone else does that for you. And that means being efficient and productive - having strict limits to how you do things and when you do them. You will also discover that other people will yield once they realize that you won't give in. Hint: most people confuse what I just wrote with "saying no to your manager" - no, that's not what I meant.
What I meant is: create your OWN schedule so that your (bad) manager doesn't create it for you.
If you respect yourself, your own work schedule and your home schedule, then you will see, in lots of cases, that things fall in quite naturally, and that your habits will be accepted, be it your morning run, your afternoon tea, your midday laundry routine. But for that respect to manifest itself, you need the routine - which is what most inefficient people don't have.
Work from home routine
We need to recap a few things - so if you feel you "got the point" - don't hate me (just yet).
If you are not a workaholic and simply feel you're a victim of a sub-optimized work environment you find yourself in, then bootcamp yourself out it. Set a schedule and then follow it. Strictly. If you waver from it, if you go back to smearing, it's your fault. In fact, if you actually REDUCE your work hours, you may discover the time pressure will help you keep focused. Because working against deadlines seems to motivate people, go figure.
The mindblowing revelation is when you discover you can do your typical work load in just 3-4 hours, and then use the rest of the time to enjoy your home, fully and unreservedly and without glancing at your stupid inbox every 15 minutes for that "urgent" email. Relax. If your work is truly urgent, you won't be working from home to begin with.
But ... but ...
The second mindblowing revelation is when you realize your (bad) manager may realize that you have extra 3-4 hours spare time, and then they try to cram in more work for you, because why not have 2x results without paying 2x more! Golly.
This is something that is very hard to fix. Bad managers are a pandemic of their own, and there's no vaccine.
I've discussed that in my perfect IT team article. Giving magic solutions would be highly arrogant of me. Like I said, there's really no silver bullet solution here. The best you can do is to stick with your own schedule, not deviate from it, and try as much as you (as much as your reality tolerates) not to give in to more work and bullshit from people who have zero respect for your life and needs.
In the end, it comes down to things you do control. You don't control your manager or other people. But you do control your home, your work. Focus on that.
Practical tips and tricks
To make this pseudo-helpful article a bit more helpful:
- Your character is the primary factor in your home/work balance. Don't blame the world for it.
- Most people are inefficient and unproductive, and the lack of office routine exacerbates these traits.
- Most people will busily idle when there's no boundary to their work.
- Most people don't have a defined routine (and discipline) by which they organize - and separate - work.
- Productive people work less but achieve more because they don't waste time on trifles, unnecessary tasks or constant context switching.
- Productive people usually follow a very strict schedule of tasks and activities, often planned well ahead.
- You can't become productive overnight ('tis your personality), but you can define some markers to keep you focused, e.g.: strict breaks.
- Your manager can be of massive help - or detriment - to your work. No magic there.
The story of the work/home balance is not one of pandemics or realities where people suddenly find themselves working from home, and the boundaries between their office and home are blurred. No. That's just the manifestation of a deeper problem. The problem is the paradox of free time.
For inefficient people with low self-discipline, free previously-work time will translate into work time, or they will allow others, like their managers, to dictate their schedule, both of which are self-made decisions. There is no golden formula that solves it, but keeping to a strict timetable can restore some of the so-called work/home balance, which, generally speaking, if you talk about it, YOU have a problem. Introspection. Step number one. We're done here. Now you can go back to pretending to looking busy - keep that IM icon all green and active.
P.S. Images used in this article are in public domain, unless noted and credited otherwise.