Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

Homework: How distributed teams are setting boundaries between home and office


Published on April 22, 2020

In our Homework series, we’re looking at how behaviors and habits are changing in a fully distributed workforce.

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In part one, we learned why working from home is making it harder to unplug after hours, and how some are able to convert commuting hours in more time with family.

In part two, we’ll find out how our fully distributed workforce is learning to maintain the line between the work they do on the job and their duties at home. Here’s how they manage to make all those overlapping tasks happen in the same place.

Setting boundaries with calendars and headphones 

WFH life can be notably noisier than being in your company’s office, especially when the kids are done with their online classes and bounding around the house. Music is the go-to refuge for many—and it’s particularly helpful whenever you need to signal to housemates that you’re trying to concentrate.  

For Kate Sokolina, Product Analyst at Dropbox, headphones function as a sort of “do not disturb” sign. “I wear them to indicate to my partner that I'm in the zone and would not welcome a distraction—even if I'm making a quick snack. I live in a small space, so my partner and I share a Zoom call calendar to communicate the need for quiet time in the apartment—no dishes or other calls.”

“I wear headphones to indicate to my partner that I'm in the zone and would not welcome a distraction.”

Stacey Stevens Johnson, Director, Head of Product and Partnership Communications at Dropbox, uses her calendar to block off business hours and remind herself when it’s time to transition from professional life to personal, and vice versa. 

“I’m also being careful to set my status on Gchat, Slack, and my calendar if I need to step away to take care of my daughter or take a break,” she says. “As time goes on, I think boundaries will become much more necessary and I expect to get better with them.”

Replacing water cooler chats with virtual happy hours

Joe Topasna, HR Project Manager at Dropbox, says he’s developed three new habits that help him establish a consistent structure in his workday at home.

“First, I still dress as if I'm going to be in front of people,” he says. “I've found that this helps me get in the mindset that I'm entering the 'work' part of my day even though I could feasibly go the entire day without anyone seeing even my face.”

“Second, I separate my work space as much as possible from my non-work space. I work in my living room instead of at my desk in my bedroom. I've found that just being in a different space makes it easier to 'end' my work day.” 

“I’m being careful to set my status on Gchat, Slack, and my calendar if I need to step away to take care of my daughter or take a break.”

He’s also established a new habit of having virtual "coffee chats," "lunches," and "happy hours" to connect with coworkers, friends, and family. 

“Initially setting these up felt weird, but once you get to chatting with people, it starts to feel more natural,” he says. “It's hard to imagine replicating in-person interactions perfectly. However, this really is the best alternative while living under San Francisco's shelter-in-place order.”

Managing family cameos on Zoom calls

Three years ago, having your child dance into the background of your video conference was novel enough to be newsworthy. Now it’s just part of the daily routine for parents working from home. 

“My parents walk behind me, put music on, and turn the lights off while I’m Zoom calls,” says Johnson. “My daughter wants to say ‘hi’ to  anyone I’m talking to and climbs into my lap 300 times a day.”

Johnson says she has a hard time shutting herself in a quiet room to create boundaries that might prevent those interruptions, because it feels too isolating right now. 

“I work in my living room instead of at my desk in my bedroom. Just being in a different space makes it easier to 'end' my work day.” 

“It’s been such a stressful, emotional time that letting the personal creep into the work space is necessary for me,” she explains. “I miss my colleagues, and it provides a social aspect that I need.”

Johnson says her family came to stay with her parents before the lockdown took effect in order to get help with their daughter and have access to more space. “We are so lucky to have this option. So many parents are pulling double duty, which seems unfathomable and unsustainable to me.”

Creating camaraderie and connection

Sometimes, the blurred boundaries are welcome when you miss the social aspect of connecting with your team. 

Despite being physically distant from her co-workers, Johnson says she feels more collaborative than ever. “I’m pulling folks in for discussion around how to approach certain tasks, crowd-sourcing input on projects,” she says. “I really miss ‘pod discussions’ and the opportunity to poll the team in real time about how they might approach a certain situation.”

Johnson says those pod discussions, even the casual ones, are now taking place via Slack, text message, and Zoom. “Our team is craving that sense of connection, so we’re making sure to over-communicate and keep the discussion flowing wherever we can.”

Taking breaks to remind yourself you’re human

Working at home can feel even more sedentary than working at the office: No more walking from your house to the car to the bus to the office up the stairs to your desk to the meeting room. At the same time, you probably have more nervous energy than ever to burn off. 

Whenever Sokolina needs to unplug and move around for a few minutes between meetings, she takes Nintendo Just Dance breaks. “It’s easy to not get sucked in for too long and is a positive, rather than a negative, distraction. Dancing feels life affirming, gets the blood pumping, and can inspire a playlist to listen for the next few hours.”

Topasna says he’s established a new habit of engaging in a few minutes of small talk at the beginning of meetings. “If I haven't chatted with them recently, this becomes incredibly valuable because it gives me insight into challenges my colleagues may be facing,” he says. “For example, folks may need time during the typical 9-5 working hours to care for their loved ones and themselves.”

Stay tuned for part three in our Homework series, where we’ll find out how working from home is affecting productivity.