Ah, the dream of working from home! But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
As the novelty of working in our pyjamas and taking lunch time naps wears off, we realise what we have left behind: the comfortable predictability of the morning ritual; the comradery of the crowded train journey punctuated by the frisson of imagined adventures hidden in secret glances and half smiles; the impromptu banter of our colleagues; and perhaps above all, the laying claim to our personal territory of space and time, into which we can escape from the demands of home life and rule supreme for the hours of each working day.
As we leave a part of our lives and ourselves behind, other parts call for our attention, some with a loud clamour, others with the gentle tug of a child.
And so we become acquainted once more with the challenges of our personal relationships that we skilfully avoided through daily absence; our children, who we lovingly shuffled off to school each day with a sigh of relief tinged with anxiety, now become permanent long-term residents of the household; and each day as we admire the quiet and the clear blue skies, we hear the questioning of our own sense of self and purpose, an unavoidable voice in uncertain times.
In this world of lost and found, of together-ness and apart-ness, how do we keep grounded, remain capable, and maintain healthy relationships?
Here are four basic steps to get you started if you live with others. We have assumed a reasonably healthy level of communication in ordering the steps. We will be writing another article for people living alone.
Step 1: Get creative
It’s easy to try and stick to what we know, but when we do so, we lose opportunities for something new. We are in new times which call for new ideas. So if you and your household are open to new ideas about home life in lock down, you can start by asking some basic open questions to reveal what you want to avoid as a household and what you want to achieve.
Get together and ask questions like:
- What does poor home life during lockdown look like? What are our worst fears? What do we need to do to avoid them?
- What does good home life during lockdown look like? What would our best outcome be? What do we need to do to support it?
- How can each person in the household contribute to and support the outcome we want?
Until you talk about this, you don’t really know what your household wants or needs. Take the opportunity to create something consciously from the start of this precious time that you have together.
Step 2: Set boundaries and routines
One of the key challenges with home working is boundary setting. The daily routine of office work and school life comes with ready-made boundaries of when and where. Morning and evening commutes, and the morning and afternoon school run, mark the entry and leaving points.
We realise now that the daily routine we so often railed against had a purpose and value which is now missing.
Home working and prolonged co-living in lock-down means that boundaries need to be created at home.
Everyone in the household needs to have boundaries. Boundaries allow us to feel safe. Everyone needs to understand what they are and why they are there. Everyone needs to respect them.
This is particularly important for children, who will take their lead from adults. If the adults feel rudderless and at sea, so will the children. Boundaries and routines, and the order they bring, will help keep the peace.
Once you have identified what good living in lock down looks like, start creating boundaries and routines.
Here are some ideas on what each person might do. Children will need to be supported by adults, or if very young, adults need to do this for them:
- Make a list of your needs
- Create an initial daily routine. If you are working, try to plan, order and time your daily schedule as close as you can to your normal workday, assuming your normal work-day is helpful to you. It’s what you are used to. In reality if there are young children in the home these will need to be modified, but it is a good starting point. Children will need to have a go at creating their routine too.
- Create beginning and ending rituals. These don’t need to be elaborate. It might be nothing simpler than always taking a shower, putting on some smart clothes and having a coffee before you start work. For children it might be clearing the table after breakfast.
- Create some ground rules for communicating and checking-in with work colleagues (for household communication, see step 3). When working remotely, it can feel as though you need a specific reason to call someone, whereas in the workplace people tend to converse more casually and naturally. Work out with colleagues how your social needs can best be met, whether with scheduled calls or casual communication. Spend time understanding each other’s needs. Maintaining regular social contact with work colleagues can ease the pressure at home.
- Try to set aside a particular space for people to work, play and rest, including private space to be alone.
When this is done, there needs to be a conversation with the household to moderate everyone’s ideas to a working whole. Compromises need to be made. Keep things under constant review: one of the defining characteristics of healthy home life is flexibility.
Step 3: Develop open communication
Open communication is an antidote to projection and mind-reading. Projection and mind-reading are among the most effective self-made traps to ensnare relationships, particularly when the pressure is on. We set these traps whenever we make assumptions about the meaning behind someone else’s behaviour.
These assumptions are very often wrong. When we assume and attribute motives, feelings and intentions to another, we deny the other their own identity in the relationship, and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to understand them better. We rob our relationship of its truth.
Make the effort to develop open communication at home. You can read more about effective communication in many of our earlier articles (for example, here, here, here). It can seem challenging if you are not used to it, but as with everything, it gets easier with practice and when someone starts the others will follow.
Key points are:
- Express your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-blaming way. Rather than saying, “You make me feel….” Say instead, “When I see this, I feel….”. This ensures that you take responsibility for your own feelings. By avoiding blame and accusation it helps keep temperatures down.
- Listen actively. This means listening with patience, non-judgment, and without blame. Listen for the purpose of understanding the other person’s perspective, not validating your own. Rather than, “So what your saying is…” ask open questions, “What do you mean?”
- Identify needs. At the root of most relationship conflict are needs that are not being met, and so the way out of conflict is to address needs. Try to arrive at a place where you can say, “I feel this way because I need…..”
- Make requests. Once needs are identified, requests can be made so that needs can be met. “Do you think we can exercise outside separately? I really need some alone time.”
Step 4: Practice gratitude and enjoy simple pleasures
Acknowledging what we are grateful for is a proven booster for wellbeing and happiness. Practice it every day, not just in your thoughts but in your actions. Take time over your food; slow down your eating and enjoy it. It was not so long ago that you regularly skipped lunch or ate the same sorry sandwich alone at your desk each day.
When things get tense at home, take time out and play the gratitude game: take it in turns to express one thing you are grateful for in your housemate or family member. Handled well, it works wonders, particularly among warring siblings. If you are in a romantic relationship, remind each other of the wonders of your early love.
The opportunity is now
Remember: every problem is a solution in the making.
The opportunity for personal and relationship development is now. Seize it.
The authors are systemic coaches providing individual, couples and team coaching and holding workshops to enhance professional performance through personal development and skills learning, particularly among lawyers. All their coaching and training services can be delivered online. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org