When Working From Home Stops Working For You

Working at home

Working from Home

Imagine—it’s Monday morning, and you wake up to the harsh sound of your alarm clock before reluctantly rolling out of bed.  You make breakfast, grab some coffee, and then commute to work, which, in this case, happens to mean walking to your computer 10 feet away.  The benefits of working from home are obvious—you can sleep in later by shortening your commute, and thus allot more time to be productive.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to work in their pajamas?

Working from home is becoming increasingly favored because of the many benefits for both companies and their employees.  The drawbacks of merging the home and the workplace, however, have tended to receive less attention.  Working from home presents unique challenges, and it’s important to plan accordingly if your job allows (or requires) you to work from the comforts of your home.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Context Matters!

For many, commuting to work feels arduous; indeed, this is one reason why working from home is such an attractive idea.  However, the ritual of beginning the work day is actually an important psychological factor in helping us to enter “work mode.”  Consider the first thing you do upon arriving at the office each day.  Few of us walk to our desk, sit down, and immediately begin working; rather, most describe the consistent habit of stopping by the corner store for a cup of coffee, or swinging by a coworker’s desk to chat.  We might organize our desk, refresh ourselves on our to-do list from the day before, or seek direction from a supervisor before diving into a project.  Many can attest that skipping these rituals can leave them feeling “off” for the morning.  This is because these things serve as signals that cue other productive habits and can help adjust our mindset back into “work mode.”

So what happens when our work context becomes the same as our day-to-day context?  What happens when instead of working at our desk, we work at the breakfast table, or in bed, or on the couch?  Our brain receives multiple other signals which cue a variety of behaviors that are not work related, which can seriously impede our productivity or our ability to get into the work that we’re doing.  To this end, those consistently working from home should try to set aside a specific space that is specifically designated for work.  This should be a space where work-related behaviors occur, and other behaviors are limited—a cup of coffee is fine, but avoid eating your lunch or chatting on the phone there when possible.  This will help ensure that you establish new rituals, and, in turn, allows your brain to associate this new context specifically with work.


  • Blurred Boundaries

In the same way that entering work provides us with an important change of context, leaving work cues our brain to shift gears and let go of the work day in order to return home.  Working from home, however, blurs this boundary  in such a way that many who work from home report feeling as though they’re “always on.”  This is difficult not only for the person working from home, but for others in the home as well—especially kids.  Children may not understand why their mom is at home, but not as easily available to play.  This blurred boundary becomes confusing, and can lead to conflict when expectations are violated.

Additionally, the person working from home may feel compelled to continue working after the work day is actually over.  Without physically leaving the work space, it can be difficult to psychologically “leave” work; we may tell ourselves “well, I’ll just finish this one project,” or “If this conference call runs long this time, it’s ok—I’m already at home.”  And indeed, sometimes we may find ourselves staying late at work in the same way we may get “stuck” at the office from time to time.  However, we should be careful about the message that this sends to our other coworkers, our supervisors, and ourselves.  Just because we work from home, doesn’t mean that our home should always be a workplace.  It is critical to retain a separation in order to maintain a good work/life balance.

  • Camaraderie, Collaboration, and Creativity

An additional challenge that comes with working from home or telecommuting is that the day-to-day can quickly begin to feel lonely.  Making friends within the context of a shared office space helps keep camaraderie high, and can provide a sense of support during particularly challenging times at work.  Humans are social creatures, and the everyday interactions with familiar faces creates a distinctly different work environment that one in which we are alone at home for the majority of the day.  Beyond this, creativity and capacity for collaboration is jeopardized when you work alone; opportunities for brainstorming or informally bouncing ideas off of each other decrease significantly, and must be specifically sought out when needed.

To this end, those who work from home should be intentional about continuing to cultivate working relationships with their coworkers.  “Out of sight, out of mind” should not be the rule of thumb for telecommuters; rather, those working from home may find benefits from using video chat to remain included in meetings, or choosing phone calls over emails when communicating with coworkers.  Additionally, extra energy may need to be put toward maintaining social relationships—both in and out of work.  Making plans with coworkers or other friends to connect outside of work can disrupt the monotony that can easily begin to creep in if we aren’t careful.


  • Remember Your Mental Health

The areas of concern above bring added challenges to things that are already challenging for many—work/life balance, conflict, negotiating expectations at work and at home, setting boundaries with coworkers and supervisors, mitigating the effects of isolation, maintaining social relationships, and generally striving toward a life that feels satisfying, rewarding, and balanced.  The extra stress in these areas may not individually be enough to strongly impact your mental health, but together their effects may feel more prominent.  It’s important to continue to check in with yourself from time to time to ensure that you’re living the life you want to live.

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