How to Avoid “Always-Available” Status While Working from Home
Not long ago, we were trying to convince our bosses to let us work remotely, and we got our chance with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Gallup, from mid-March to April 2020, the percentage of Americans working from home or offered flex time rose from 31 to 62 percent. The same poll shows remote work to be popular.
But working from home presents distinct challenges, such as creating an “always-available” environment. When you are always available, your work-life balance goes wonky as the barriers between the two disintegrate. Family time is interrupted by just one more email. Sleep is curtailed by midnight notification jingles. And the sense that you can relax in your home becomes a distant memory.
There are steps you can take to resist creating an always-available environment and refortify those weakened work-home barriers.
Keep a schedule
To avoid being always available, you need to set aside time for unavailability. The best tool for that is a well-crafted schedule.
Schedule a specific time in the day for work but not communication. This should be when you are at peak focus, so you can put your best work into your most important tasks. Then schedule a time to respond to emails, texts, and instant messages—preferably when you need a mental breather. Finally, schedule time to completely unplug from work and plug into life.
Then stick to your schedule! A good way to do that is to keep expectations in check. Trying to do too much is not only burdensome, but it pushes you to meet those unrealistic expectations. This requires extended work time, which further perpetuates the always-available environment.
Your time is important, too
When you are done for the day, you need to shut down your business brain. That wasn’t easy when you could physically leave the office, but it’s especially difficult when the office is your home. To maintain a healthy separation between work and home, create unplugging rituals.
For example, you should pause notifications, so your attention is not drawn back to unfinished projects. Also, keep work relegated to a specific space, one only used for work and not relaxing. Desk? Yes. Bed? No. At the end of the day, walk away from that space and do not return until the next morning.
These little rituals help mentally reinforce the difference between work and home, even when the environment is the same. This makes it easier to become unavailable and stick to your schedule.
Even remotely, coworkers place a demand on your time. They are likely new to working at home, too, so try to be flexible with a poorly timed request or two. Remember: Even remote, you’re still a team.
But if coworkers maintain an always-available environment, their mismanagement may often bleed into your life. Your thoughtful schedule will not save you from 11:45 p.m. email requests, midnight follow-up texts, and a morning phone call wondering why you dropped the ball.
To avoid such cases, be sure to set your online status to unavailable and perhaps even utilize a well-worded automated email. If problems persist, an honest conversation works best. Simply let the coworker know what your schedule is and what they can expect from you. Don’t be accusatory, simply explain.
If the problem is companywide, that is a trickier issue. Reach out to your supervisor and let them know your concerns. They will hopefully understand, and you can begin the dialogue to iterate new policies for this unprecedented paradigm.
In an open-office environment, people see your physical presence as an indication of your availability. Similarly, the internet has conditioned us to view people’s availability as synonymous with the instant-access services and information we enjoy online.
As a result, working from home can be a lot like surviving an open-office environment. It requires patience, a thoughtful strategy, and gentle reinforcements that signal the value of your time and needs—an appreciation of the irony won’t hurt either. If you managed to find that balance though, you can create an environment of strategic availability and may make the case to continue working from home after the pandemic subsides.