The beauty part about working from home is that you never have to stop working!
Seriously. It. Never. Has. To. End.
Before we dig in, let’s set the table: I’m extremely privileged to have a job that allowed me to work from home, burrow into a cocoon of safety with the folks I love most, continue to pay my bills, and generally keep my head down while a pandemic raged outside my door. Believe me, I don’t take this for granted.
Now that I’ve put that out there, I can start on the rest.
I worked from home long before the pandemic and loved it: the freedom and flexibility, the nonexistent commute, the sound of my dog snoring lightly in the little bed I set up next to my desk for her. I traveled quite a bit throughout the week for meetings and work related events, so it was rare for me to spend two full days in a row in my home office. So, I carved out Sundays as my day to catch up on emails, research, and other writing intensive tasks, setting up at my desk around 8 AM and working peacefully until about noon, no other people in sight. An introvert’s dream.
When COVID-19 closed down the country in March of 2020, working remotely was nothing new to me. It was odd not to travel to meetings, conferences, and other professional get-togethers, but I didn’t miss them that much at first. What did change was that everyone else with whom I interacted throughout my workday was now working from home too. Suddenly, as though by some dark sorcery that managed to enchant us all simultaneously, what could have been a 10 minute phone call was now an hour long Zoom meeting complete with slide deck, round robin intros, breakout rooms, and icebreakers about what was getting us through the lockdown. And, unlike in person meetings, there was no longer any time built into our shared schedules that allowed for eating, bathroom breaks, or, you know, time to do our actual jobs. It was common practice to have meetings begin at 9 AM and go until 4 or 5, each one an hour, each one starting immediately after the one before it. The Zoom Industrial Complex rose quickly at the beginning of our self-imposed lockdown and loomed large over just about every single professional interaction I’ve had over the last 15ish months.
I get it. We were all missing in person meetups. But did that mean things that definitely could have been handled via email now needed to be a 45 minute long on camera meeting?
The answer is no. And yet…
Just an FYI: if you’ve been on a Zoom with me where my camera is off — despite the constant peer pressure to be visible, always — then you have most definitely accompanied me to the bathroom, to the kitchen to refill my water bottle or fix a snack, around my house as I sweep/dust/scrub (when the hell else am I supposed to get cleaning done?), on the elliptical (only for Zooms after 5 PM), or to the floor to stretch out a body that aches from crouching over a computer all day.
Just to reiterate, I fully understand how fortunate I am to have been able to continue working from the safety of my home during a global pandemic, but, goddamn, it quickly felt less like working from home and more like I was living at work.
The line between working and not working is always a little blurry when you work from home. But, last year, that fuzzy line completely disappeared. Calls happened at night and over the weekend. I worked every day, all day, because it’s not like I could safely do anything outside my house, right? Plus it was an election year, and those are always crazy af in my line of work. It seemed like my mind never clicked from work to home. It was exhausting, but also guilt inducing, because it wasn’t like I was risking my life by working a 16 hour shift in an emergency room. I didn’t have to worry about getting infected with a deadly disease as I rang up groceries for unmasked customers that couldn’t care less about my health and safety. I was sitting at home, safe, in front of my computer. Besides, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway, so I might as well answer those emails, do that research, jump on that weekend Zoom meeting, put together that memo.
I’ve been fully vaccinated for a few weeks. By and large, I’m still working from home, but I had my first in person meeting in well over a year earlier this month. While it was great to see other vaccinated people in person, albeit a little freaky, we’re all still inhabiting an in-between space where we’re expected to live at the office and also leave the house to get work done. Granted, it’s the home office, but, still, we’re living at work. It took several days of plugging away at home to catch up after a day of meetings spent untethered from my computer. You can’t travel for meetings and still manage to get 9 solid hours of screen time, which is the minimum amount you need to get enough work done to justify stopping for the night.
As we collectively emerge from this year like no other in our lifetimes, I’ve begun to set boundaries, even if they are uncomfortable at first. During the weekend, I make a point to do things with family or friends that don’t involve work. Some of y’all might be thinking: how is that a boundary? Isn’t that just normal life?! Well, when you’ve worked 7 days a week for so long, only coming up for air when you’re climbing into bed at night, this is huge. During the week, unless I have to finish a task that can’t wait until morning, I’m done at 5 PM, no exceptions (well, some exceptions, but this is a work in progress). I don’t take work calls in the evening and I don’t set up meetings over the weekend. I do take a few hours on Sundays to catch up on emails and research, like old times, but I’m not on a goddamned Zoom meeting, so it feels a little like the sleepy hours just after dawn when you’re on vacation and no one else is awake yet. Just you, a mug of coffee, the promise of the rest of the day, and a little bit of time to do whatever the hell you want to do in that moment.
I’m taking it step by step and giving myself grace. It’s hard to break bad habits, and working 7 days a week, taking phone calls whenever, and waking in the middle of the night sure you’ve dropped a ball somehow, somewhere are all bad habits. I’ve planned 2 vacations for later in the year. I see friends and family often. I regularly disconnect from my computer for hours at a time.
Most importantly, I refuse to continue living at work.
I love my job, but not enough to do it 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not enough to keep sacrificing time with family and friends. I still have to beat back guilty feelings when I reach for a book instead of a work related task, when I schedule lunch with friends on a Saturday instead of doing that extra research, when I keep watching Netflix instead of taking that 7 PM phone call. I remind myself that, when I worked in an office, stepping out into the parking lot meant I was finished working, that the rest of the day was mine to do whatever I wanted. I felt no guilt then. I shouldn’t feel guilt now, just because my office is nestled inside the rest of my house. All the lines are still there. I just have to enforce them. So, that’s what I’m doing: tracing over the blurry, indistinct lines between work and my personal life until they become bold again.