Kick in my door on any given workday, and you would only be able to tell if I’m at work or not based on which computer I’m using. This isn’t uncommon. Remote workers everywhere are making the basic distinction between work and leisure in their space, in their time, or out of thin air.
Examples of the new divisions include working in a different room (encouraged by the Canadian Government via tax breaks), work vs. home slippers, “zoom shirts”, walks to transition from the work role to the personal role (in the place of the morning commute) and the list goes on. But these separations, some being more attitudinal than anything else, can lead to some issues.
Trouble in Paradise?
First, a disclaimer: do not complain about the problems of working remotely to anyone. Not your partner, not your spouse, not your parents nor your children. Do not complain to your friends, extended family, doctor, barber, bartender, therapist, or anyone else. Not even other remote workers. Working remotely is perceived by most as an oasis where you are free from wearying communes, overbearing bosses, and time restrictions.
I’ve been reading as many articles and essays on the work-life balance of remote work as I can. Why? I’m trying to figure out what will make the work from home experience as nice as the onsite workers believe that it is. So, through reading blog posts, academic reviews, and some interviews with recent and experienced remote workers to get their thoughts, I learned a thing or two.
Obviously, there are as many types of remote worker as there are kinds of remote work. This research skews towards younger people (20s-30s), and towards those without children, who I imagine have to be more creative in keeping the separation between work and family. Some people I’ve talked to love working remotely and wouldn’t want to go back, others are looking forward to returning to the office as soon as they can. My focus is on the problems affecting those who are having difficulties working from home and what can be done to help make remote work more pleasant or at least to reduce stress.
My main focus was on the effects that working remotely had on a remote worker’s leisure time. The main idea is that our work lives influence our leisure lives more so than vice versa. If remote work gives people more autonomy over their time, then logically it should lead to more autonomy in leisure. That autonomy creates more involved, creative, and rewarding leisure and an overall more rewarding life.
Do remote workers have more control over their time? Drumroll, please….as you probably have figured out from your own experience if you work remote, the answer is often complicated. There are many obvious time-saves, but there are also some parts of remote work that capture time that you may not have expected. The most obvious time save is that there is no more morning commute.
Seizing the day
Commutes are a drag. Who wouldn’t want to add a good 30 minutes to their sleep? I’m not trying to defend the commute, even though people tell me it’s a great time to listen to podcasts (which to me is like saying hospital stays are a good time to watch TV). But something is lost when there is no more commute. For one, the time freed up in the morning isn’t necessarily saved. I’ve had days where I’ve woken up just in time to turn on the laptop and get to work, as if I had slept under my desk.
The coffee machine wakes up and immediately starts working, not me.
Another lost aspect of the morning commute is that it is (for better or worse) a daily routine you take part in. Interruptions or misfortunes in your morning rituals can often feel like they throw the whole day out of whack. Psychologists who study the impact of roles (personal, professional, etc) in our lives have suggested that the morning commute helps us switch gears into our working days. The Harvard Business Review has a study on work transitions here. What is suggested is to make a morning ritual to get yourself ready for work. It could be as simple as going for a walk, or taking a shower, to as elaborate as recreating the commuting experience at home.
Me? I get up before the crack of dawn to go to the gym and for a run. I’m not recommending you do that, that would make it feel less special.
Ceasing the day
These routines and self-imposed boundaries can work at the end of the day as well. Without a clear transition out of the office, days can extend past their usual time. Because, hey, it’s just one more measly email after all. No harm there. Before you know it, you’ve worked past your normal ending time because “what were you going to do anyway” which is truly unfair to you. So the popular recommendation is again to find ways to have harder stops at the end of the day, such as scheduling plans with friends (solely during patio season and following social distancing guidelines), getting outside or simply shutting off all your work devices.
This “work creep” is a real problem for remote workers. From my research and interviews, having work tasks occupy some of the time usually taken to be one’s own is the norm. Not to an excessive extent but an email there, a phone call here, can start to add up. One survey of remote workers found that remote workers were more productive but also that they worked more. There are many reasons to work more, some positive like if you just love your job to the point where you can’t help but keep working on a project. But the cases where the cause is stress and anxiety is the catalyst to working extra is the one I’d like to focus on.
A catalyst of stress and anxiety for some
Working remotely can make workers feel like they aren’t working enough. The usual distractions, accidents, and complications of the standard workday can loom larger when you aren’t in view of your coworkers and managers. We all intuitively assume that our employer’s number one concern about working remotely is that we won’t work. Even if we don’t check the surveys, we know that this is true. So we don’t want to put ourselves in jeopardy by not appearing busy. After all, the output of trying to reboot your computer over a connectivity issue and skipping out on an hour of work to play mini-golf are equal. When you are in the office you can curse your computer to the high heavens so everyone in earshot can know that at least you intended to do some work. So being online for longer, skipping lunch breaks to be available and checking work matters while on the go are not uncommon for remote workers. For many, this isn’t sustainable. (For others it is! Check out my peer and VFC Fellow Dale’s article to learn more about remote work and DEI.)
Imagine you’re in a big crowd of people (this is becoming harder and harder to picture these days, I know) and you see your friend that you had arranged to meet, how will you get their attention when you are difficult to see? The standard technique is to hoot, holler, and wave one’s hands around like an escaped chimpanzee. This is what is happening to some who are working from home. In order to make yourself visible, I believe, you must extend yourself beyond your normal behaviour. And like our friend the simian fugitive, we can’t keep up that level of activity forever.
It’s not uncommon for workers to try to return to working on-site as early as possible, or to request to come into the office periodically during the week. Not that stress, anxiety are the only motivating factors, many workers enjoy socializing with colleagues or have technical difficulties at home that are resolved by using the office equipment. It would be an oversight to say that a persistent feeling of not getting enough work done and the exertion to prove one is working when not seen doesn’t have any influence.
Work that works for you
So where does that leave us with leisure? From what I gathered, people who have taken their time into their own hands have found the time savings from working remotely beneficial to their leisure. Oftentimes these activities will replace their old rituals. But this isn’t so easy for everyone. Some people let their work tasks creep into their non-work time and eat away at the time they could use for leisure or non-work obligations.
Is working from home a boon for a more leisurely life? Potentially yes, but often actually no. Remote work poses new challenges for those who work mostly on-site. Many people will find different ways to separate or integrate their work and non-work time that work for them. But it is imperative to take stock in how much time you are working off the clock and make sure you are keeping it in a range that suits your needs both at and away from work. Wherever that may be.
Matthew Young is a 2019 RBC Honorary Fellow recipient, and a 2019 VFC Fellow. Matthew is the Support Operations Specialist at CacheFlo. He studied Data Analytics at Nova Scotia Community College. He is interested in writing about work and leisure. He’s also quite the comedian.
Be a champion for leisure time like Matt. Be a Fellow.