Creating a work-life balance in the time of the coronavirus

So much about our daily lives has turned topsy-turvy due to the coronavirus pandemic. Every time you consider one of your usual activities — getting your hair cut, visiting a friend in person, or attending an event at a favorite music venue — you wonder, when will I be able to do that again? Or you need to buy something, and you really have no choice but to consider ordering it online, even though you prefer your favorite local merchant. In addition, for most of us, our work routines have been transformed — or eliminated.

The new reality gives the concept of “work-life balance” a new twist. If you hadn’t previously integrated your work in your home environment, and you now need to work from home, the coronavirus pandemic has forced your hand. It is the epitome of the need to “balance” work with anything — and everything — else you may be committed to. If you find yourself juggling four Zoom meetings at once over your home wifi bandwidth, say, for work meetings for two parents and school sessions for two kids, you are definitely living a whole new version of the nuclear family at home.

We are all trying to look forward as we create or recreate routines and rituals. It can be daunting, no matter your circumstances. Developing new routines and rituals, perhaps using existing technology but in new ways, requires a learning curve. Maybe you’ve been forced completely redesign your business so your products or services can be offered online — as a delivery-only restaurant or a personal trainer. Or you may not be working at all, if your work has been declared “nonessential” or the demand for your services has cratered.

If you no longer “go” to work, you no longer have a second location with its physical routine and a social community to shape your experience.

And whether you are working from home, or aren’t working at all, you’ve lost the supportive spatial boundaries you used to have. People who are naturally homebodies know how to create boundaries around their space and time. For the rest of us, it’s a new effort. If you no longer “go” to work, you no longer have a second location with its physical routine and a social community to shape your experience.

Connecting with that community may be only via some occasional texts if your construction jobsite has been shut down, or your restaurant shift has been canceled. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have your whole workgroup on video meetings, and you want more collaborative, spontaneous contact with colleagues — but you really don’t want more screen time. Maybe you want more spontaneous interaction with your spouse — after all, you are at home together — but one or both of you is working, and you keep missing each other. Perhaps you aren’t working and want to hang out at your regular coffee shop, but it’s closed. By the end of the day, you might not be sure if you are coming or going.

Recreating the rituals you already know that make work fit into life can make a big difference. Consider the two most significant transitions you used to have in your day: your commute to work, and your commute home. Those transitions gave you time and thought space to let go of your one social space and prepare for the other. Perhaps you’ve found a way to develop a new ritual: a walk around the block, bringing your morning office coffee or tea routine home, or just kissing your spouse goodbye when you head into a different room.

If you are still working, you can do something similar with the rituals you had during your workday. A mid-afternoon espresso run to Peets with co-workers can become a virtual coffee break in your respective kitchens. If you usually ask colleagues about their kids, take the opportunity to find out what’s happening with their disrupted school routines.

Practice makes perfect, they say — or at least it leads to improvement and a sense of confidence and consistency. We are getting better and better at this, learning together with both co-workers and family. Those of us who work from home have rapidly developed more effective home office setups, and managers are learning new sorts of flexibility. Co-workers give clarity on what part of an answer is time-sensitive, and what can wait for later. The verb “zoom” has entered our vocabulary for good.

Ultimately, our understandings of both work and home will shift and evolve, so that taking time for rest, creating your own rituals, and setting boundaries around both work and home will all be possible — and be valued. And in that new moment, beyond the coronavirus quarantine, we will have innovated a work-life balance that we couldn’t have found any other way.

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