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6 effective ways to set boundaries with your family when working from home

As the weeks of this crisis drag on, everyone is struggling. Setting more effective boundaries can help.

6 effective ways to set boundaries with your family when working from home
[Image: AlessandroMassimiliano/iStock]

Working from home is one thing; working from home while your entire family is also home is quite another. It can be hard to get things done with distractions, especially if you’re helping your children do schoolwork remotely, too.

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The professional social network Fishbowl asked users: While working from home, have you been able to effectively manage your workload while taking care of your children? Sixty-two percent of working parents said “no.”

Part of the problem is that we’re not setting expectations and boundaries, says Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, organizational psychologist and author of Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life. “We’re suffering without realizing that if we can catch the simple things and address them, they’re less likely to cascade into bigger issues,” she says.

To lessen the stress, it’s important to have a plan. Here are six things you can do to improve your work-from-home situation for everyone in your household:

1. Be proactive

If you have work or an important meeting, let people know, says Goldman-Wetzler. “Assuming your kids are old enough to understand, tell them, ‘I’m about to get on a videoconference at 2 p.m. I’ll be available when I’m done. If you need something, here’s who to ask instead,'” she says.

Setting expectations can go a long way in preventing conflict or anger, says Goldman-Wetzler. “If you don’t set those expectations, then your kids could come screaming and interrupting you on call,” she says. “That raises stress and pressure for you. And it might leave kids feeling bad if don’t handle it the way you’d like to.”

2. Create a schedule

If you have a partner, you should also have direct conversations with them about when you plan to work, says Goldman-Wetzler. “Sit down and negotiate with each other about the hours you’ll work,” she says. “If you’re both working full-time, see if you can split each day to share responsibility with the children. If you can each get a six-hour block of time, it can feel like eight hours if you can be productive.”

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Then put it in writing. “Take out the family calendar you used to have sports practices and write down what hours mom and dad are available,” says Goldman-Wetzler. “Or use a blank piece of paper and create a schedule for the week. Post it somewhere in the kitchen or somewhere central. And make it easy for young kids to understand it, too, which could mean using pictures or drawing a clock.”

Predictability is important, says Jill Koziol, CEO and cofounder of the parenting website Motherly. She and her family start each day the same as they did pre-COVID-19 with a wake-up and breakfast routine.

“The predictability that at 8 a.m. I’m working helps everyone know what to expect,” she says. “My children also know that they will see me around lunchtime and that I ‘leave’ work by 5 p.m. for dedicated family time including dinner, a family walk or game night, and our bedtime routine.”

3. Stick to your schedule

Setting schedules will only work if you stick to them. “When you carve out time, be as productive as you can be,” says Goldman-Wetzler. “Do your best to not procrastinate. Be available to your family when you committed to be. If you say you’re going to be done at 2 p.m., stick as close to that as you can. If you don’t, your word means nothing.”

Sticking to a schedule means having a clear set of priorities, so you can stay on track, says Joshua Zerkel, head of global community for the work management platform Asana. “Without it, distractions can completely derail your day,” he says.

Zerkel recommends using “Do Not Disturb” features that your tech tools offer. “Leverage these tools to help you develop a routine and to manage deadline-oriented activities so digital interruptions won’t send you off course,” he says. “These features can also help you to develop set time for family, household chores, and hopefully some rest, giving more time for balance and flow.”

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4. Be realistic

Setting boundaries will only work if you acknowledge that you have a new reality and some things are going to give. This may require being upfront with your coworkers about how much work you can do and when you’re available.

“My husband and I are being vigilant about blocking off school and child care from home time on our [shared] calendars during the workday,” says Stephanie Hess, Asana’s head of corporate marketing. “It’s a clear way to let teammates know our schedules, build in the breaks where we can play a game with the girls or all do lunch together.”

“Block time on your calendar for family time or feeding the kids the same way you would a client meeting,” adds Cecile Alper Leroux, vice president of human capital management innovation at the talent management platform Ultimate Software. “That way, your coworkers know to expect slower responses during that time.”

5. Have a dedicated workspace

If possible, having clear separation from the rest of the house can help keep distractions to a minimum while giving you a tangible way to separate your work and home spaces, says Alper Leroux. “Your office may look like a closet, a bedroom, or a basement—the key is to find a quiet, uninterrupted space that acts as a physical boundary,” she says.

Close the door. Or if you have to work in common area of your home, wear headphones when you’re not available. Alper Leroux suggests finding a nonverbal way to communicate to your kids when you absolutely cannot be bothered. For example, make a paper “stoplight” for family members by hanging red, yellow, or green construction paper on the door, or establishing rules that a closed door means “emergency only.”

“Of course, this strategy works best for older children, and it is also important to make sure you do have plenty of periods during the day where the door is open or the light is green,” she says.

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6. Cut everyone slack

There’s a natural disruption in productivity while people are adapting to working from home full-time, as this is a new experience for most people, says Zerkel.

“It’s not realistic to expect full productivity while people are juggling working from home, extra family and household responsibilities, for many, and managing pervasive stress and anxiety for just about everyone,” he says. “It’s a lot, and we need to remember that we are humans and not productivity machines. That said, we can still be productive and connected. It just looks different than when we’re sitting with our coworkers at the office.”

Give yourself some slack and forgive yourself and others, says Goldman-Wetzler. “We’re all doing the best we can,” she says. “The silver lining to me of this whole crisis is that when we come out of it, those of us who’ve been perfectionists are learning how to let that go. Learn how to set expectations but also let go of those things that don’t serve you well.”

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