Rituals, routines, and taking a shower: “Boundary work” when working at home

Sitting for hours among honking cars in highway traffic, waiting for delayed trains in the freezing rain, circling block after block looking for parking… One of the many joys of working from home is avoiding those rush hour headaches.

But commutes do serve a purpose — they act as cues that your work day is beginning or ending, providing a clear separation between home and the office (even if many of us are still checking emails and notifications well past our official working hours). Commutes can offer a mental space where you can consider your to-do list as you make your way into the office — or close out thoughts from the day’s meetings before you shift gears into making your dinner plans for the evening.

Finding ways to recreate this physical and mental space while working from home can be challenging. In our publication “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow: Best Practices for Remote Work,” we ask: “What replaces the commute as a transition between work and home? Because you don’t have these natural breaks, you need to create your own.”

Social scientists call this “boundary work.” As noted by researcher Samantha K. Ammons:

“… work-family boundaries come in four different forms (cognitive, physical, temporal, and behavioral) that combine to create “personal realm configurations” (6) that can be arranged along the segmentation to integration continuum (Nippert-Eng 1996). In its purest form segmentation is the complete physical, behavioral, mental, and temporal separation of home and work roles (i.e., never the two shall meet), such that home and work are not only physically separate but all objects, people, and thoughts associated with one domain do not carry over into another. At the opposite end of the continuum is integration, which is the complete blurring of home and work roles and domains.”

Now that remote work isn’t just “the future” (it’s here!), nailing down the details of this boundary work is more important than ever.

Nippert-Eng found that people usually fall into two different categories:

  1. Segmentors: people who create clear boundaries between their personal and work lives.
  2. Integrators: people who blur the lines between work and home and have difficulty telling where their work life ends and their non-work life begins.

According to the study, neither segmenting nor integrating is better than the other. But if you’re a segmenter (or want more segmentation between work and home), some thoughtful rituals and routines can help you define boundaries to give you the space you need (physical or mental). 

It might seem convenient to just roll out of bed, make coffee, and sit down at your computer to get started for the day, but one or two daily boundary work rituals might help clear your mind and increase productivity when you’re actually in “work mode.” 

Here are a few ideas for little rituals or routines to signify the start or end of your day:

  • Exercise.
  • Meditate for five minutes.
  • Take a shower.
  • Put on shoes before work. (Then take them off and change your socks after work.)
  • Put on designated “work clothes.” (Yes, sometimes getting out of pajamas is worth it!)
  • Buy a desk lamp and turn it on when you begin work — and off at the end of the day.
  • Walk to a coffee shop for your morning brew. 
  • Get your must-do tasks (kids’ lunches, starting the dishwasher, shipping a return package) out of the way before starting your work day.
  • Try to start and stop work at the same time each day. (Setting 15-minute alarms can help earmark wind-up and wind-down time). 
  • If your team uses instant messages (IM), say good morning and goodnight (or that you’ll be back after a break) to communicate your availability and give yourself permission when you need to step away.
  • Eat lunch away from your desk — without screens and with your notifications turned off.
  • Snooze notifications during breaks and after designated working hours.
  • Walk the dog in the afternoon sunlight, or pet your cat for a bit.
  • Walk to get the mail.
  • Make yourself a cup of hot tea.
  • Light a candle or use a diffuser. 
  • Clean your desk after work to prepare for the next day.
  • Play a game or read a book with your kids.
  • Turn off your computer completely. (Seriously, not just sleep mode).

For more tips on remote work and boundary work, see our publication “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow: Best Practices for Remote Work.”