Prior to 2020, more and more people were warming up to the idea of working remotely – even with a number of community-based campus workplaces focused on collaboration and teamwork. If you looked at any of the recent “best places to work” lists, you’d likely start to see fewer mentions of “on-campus perks” and more mentions of “flexible working hours” among the benefits. This pointed toward the rise of employee desire for a remote working option. Things obviously escalated once the pandemic hit and it became dangerous to be around our co-workers.
However, those of us who were working remotely already, proceeded as (somewhat) normal. I’ve actually been working full-time as a remote freelancer for over a decade now, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
But even if I think working remotely is great, it’s not without its challenges. Personal and professional boundary lines can easily get blurred and it can lead to a higher risk of burnout. This is especially true if your partner and, or your kids are also home with you due to pandemic restrictions.
Having the option of being in a quiet in-home workspace or physically going into the office may no longer be there for many moving forward. So, for now, how do we deal with maintaining our sense of mental balance while working remotely in an unbalanced time?
Here are a few suggestions I’ve returned to over my years of experience:
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how easily you can find yourself working 7 days a week. You’re not going out on weekends anyway, so you might as well get a head start on Monday, right? Before you know it, you will have worked every day of the next 6 months, and you’ll be totally fried.
Staying mentally balanced while working remotely means being intentional about scheduling off days. If you feel that your employer is pushing you too hard, speak up. Being remote sometimes isn’t the best when it comes to doing temperature checks on co-workers. Extra communication is often necessary to get what you need.
The same applies to sick days. It’s tempting to keep working through an illness that would have normally kept you away from the office. But being home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re resting, especially if you’ve gone all-in on work-life integration.
No matter your remote work schedule, take regular off days and observe your sick days and vacation days. The spiral of perpetual work can be vicious.
When you start working remotely, it’s common for your nonremote friends to suddenly treat you like you don’t have a real job. You might hear a lot of comments like, “You can work anytime! Come out and do X fun thing this one time.” And, you do want to do X fun thing that one time, so you go out. Well, one time that week turns into two, then three. The next thing you know, you fall behind on work deadlines.
Similarly, if you live with a partner, family, or roommates, chronic interruptions can become problematic. Your first inclination might be to give them your attention, but by the time you turn back to your work, 30 minutes is gone and it takes you another 30 minutes just to find your rhythm again.
Setting neat boundaries is ideal, but sometimes they get unavoidably messy. To maintain some mental balance while working remotely, dedicate a level of importance to finding both a time and an environment where you can be most productive. This means being firm, with the people you live with and with yourself.
Find a space where you can be free of distraction or at least not so comfortable that you can’t concentrate. If working with music is your jam, throw on the headphones and let the playlist run. If you have meetings, communicate with everyone ahead of time to lessen the stress of interruptions.
The work hours you have don’t need to be between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, but whatever your work time is, it needs to be non-negotiable. Communicate the importance of having precious work time and treat it as such.
The term “digital nomad” has emerged over the past decade — and while I’m not a fan of the phrase, I love the lifestyle. It involves taking advantage of your remote-worker status to live a life that’s not predicated on your location. In other words, the world is your office.
That might mean taking your laptop along on the occasional trip, or it might mean putting everything in storage (or getting rid of it once and for all) then traveling the globe for any number of months.
This is especially doable if you normally work flexible or odd hours anyway. And if you do work at odd hours, it probably means you sleep at odd hours too — which means time zones aren’t a barrier. Southeast Asia is full of Americans who work at night during United States hours of operation, sleep through the morning, then explore or socialize whenever they get the chance.
Maintaining mental balance while working remotely sometimes means removing any location limitations that can feel suffocating. If you can escape somewhere (safely due to COVID-19) and still get your job done, do it.
Before the pandemic, one of the biggest pitfalls of working remotely was the sense of isolation that came with spending way too much time alone. Now, though the remote-working community has greatly expanded, that same risk still exists. Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, it’s all too easy to find yourself missing the sense of community offered by the office.
Staying mentally balanced while working remotely is dependent on finding some form of community. Get out of the house when you can. Go for a walk or to the store, where you can see and talk with other humans at a safe distance. See your friends who live nearby (just not at the expense of work time, as mentioned earlier).
Coworking spaces are also an increasingly popular option for remote workers seeking a bit of community. These can be as basic as a room with a few desks and reliable internet, or as extravagant as an expansive mall-like compound comprised of private desk spaces, cafes and cafeterias, art galleries, and bunks or rooms to rent.
Clearly, much of this advice skews toward some hopeful future when travel and socializing are more readily available, but I’m going to remain hopeful that time comes sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, get a houseplant and put it wherever your home workspace is. That little bit of life goes a long way.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.