Living at Work

The new working from home.

Missing the old normal

Home is where the heart is. These days it’s also where the job, the school, the gym and everything else is. COVID-19 and our emergency response forced many of us to “work from home” whether we wanted to or not. Unfortunately, “fifteen days to flatten the curve” has transmuted into seemingly endless shutdowns, school closures and social distancing from everyone except our kids.  

We wake, work, eat, play and sleep in an overly familiar environment, with overly familiar people. How many of us will never complain about a 45-minute commute again? All alone for 45 blessed minutes, cosseted in a personally adjusted, lumbar supported faux leather chair with climate control, listening to your favorite podcast or playlist. Did I mention all alone? Both ways? 

The good old days.

In our minds today, our offices, places we often dreaded, feel like a sanctuary spa. Ergonomically situated workstations, bubbly spring water machines, lunch breaks with menus, the gentle hum of adult (ones we aren’t married to) conversation—Nirvana. 

All of that goodness—commuting, cubicles and chit-chat—is gone and we don’t know when, or if, it’s ever coming back. Working from home has become living at work. 

The Farmer’s Life 

People in agricultural America, before the car, seldom travelled more than eight miles from home in their entire lifetimes. Sound familiar?

We’re all farmers now. Up with the sun to milk cows, do chores, sow crops, move livestock and mend fences. All day, then down with the sun we fall in a heap. Tomorrow, it starts all over again. Do farmers even have Fridays? They definitely don’t have TGIF.

Farmers are renowned for their amazing work ethic. It’s not that they want to be heroes. It’s because their work never stops and neither do they. But their work isn’t really like our work. It’s integrated into their lives in ways ours is not, and cannot be. They can live at work and work can be their lives, because it doesn’t place demands on them that they can’t control. 

Our work comes at us from many directions and countless agendas. Each day we get emails and calls from coworkers and clients presenting new and pressing problems. A farmer doesn’t get emails from the cornfield telling her to drop everything and come running. The farmer knows the corn’s timetable well in advance and integrates it into her workflow. 

Corn answers to her.

Sure, some of the animals can create a little chaos. But that’s why farmers build fences around pastures and sheep pens. Chaos is our work world. Hair-on-fire, Friday afternoon client calls don’t usually happen inside a sheep pen. Unfortunately, we can’t fence in our clients. The way we work is pressurized and demanding. It’s been designed for us to give a total commitment for a limited duration of time. We call it a grind, a rat race, a salt mine. We never call it a dairy farm or a field of kale.  

But now we are living at work. We have brought a rat race into our family room. We might need to make some adjustments. Like farmers, we probably need to build some fences to keep the good in and the bad out.

When Work Never Stops

Did you know that people tend to work more when they live at work (oops, I meant work from home)? It turns out, quite a bit more.  

We work more because there is often no natural stopping point. There simply is no end to work. It’s like the cows that need milking every day. On the day you retire, or fall dead on a Zoom call, you are gently slid away from your desk, a few kind words are solemnly spoken, and then your role and responsibilities are shifted to someone else. The work must go on.

Likewise, when you are at home, there is no natural end to the workday. To me this is the key understanding necessary to healthily and successfully working in this space. Seeing coworkers head for the door is no longer the signal that we’ve reached the end of the workday. I must create my own signals for starting, doing and ending work. I have to recreate boundaries that the workplace used to provide.

Attention, Time, Space and Thought

I need to build fences around what I pay attention to and when. There is a time to talk to my children and a time to take a call. I have to work to make certain neither one tramples on the other.   

I need fences around my time. Work engagement demands a good deal of my time. But so does my family. And so does my personal mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. These time demands need accounting, budgeting and management from me.  

One of the best ways to create healthy work boundaries is to create a separate workspace within your home. This has been a real challenge for many people because they were sent home without prior planning. Adding children to the space has only made it more difficult. Smith has had a remote workforce since our founding (check out the article below).

Maybe the most important fence is one for our minds. It’s the reason I wrote this article. We need to think about the “live at work” situation we find ourselves in. We need to own it and be intentional about making it work for our families and our jobs. This probably won’t happen naturally. 

We’ll have to find ways to push back against endless work, setting boundaries for when we think about work and when we don’t. Just as important, we’ll need to create mental space to give our work the undivided attention it needs. 

Living at work is not the best alternative for most people. But working from home can be very freeing, rewarding and productive. My wife and I both enjoy working from home. My hope is that this temporary situation will help us sort out long-term work arrangements for ourselves, and our organizations. That we’ll end up with a more flexible and accommodating work environment for everyone when this is over. 

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