How to draw boundaries between work and home

Before you return to work

1 Be honest with yourself about what your preferences are

Thinking about your contractual hours, how much time are you prepared to give to work beyond those? What activities would you like to do with your child(ren) each week? What would you like to do for yourself? What time would you like to spend with your partner? And how much time are you prepared to put into domestic chores? Be honest with yourself about what's important and what you're prepared to give - you're more likely to be seen as committed and engaged at work and happy at home if you're living purposefully.

"Very difficult to draw hard boundaries and stick to them, not if you want to be taken seriously anyway. A lot depends on the culture of your organisation. If it is common, for example, for people to be picking up emails at home in the evening then if you refuse to do that things are not going to progress well and you will need to move. This question is much more complex, it is about your own inner boundaries in a way and how you personally reconcile your home life and work life.”

Solicitor, in-house, private sector

“Having a child has increased my discipline to leave work at the 'correct' time rather than just work on (at a possibly less efficient rate). I compartmentalise my work more now both mentally and physically. I set aside times to work at home and work hard to ensure that work does not bleed into family time.”

Solicitor, in-house, third sector

2 Ditch the phrase 'work/life balance'

Work/life balance suggests all things in equal measure and that work is separate to the 'good life', which doesn't resonate with many professionals who derive meaning and pleasure from their work. Instead, focus on working out some clear boundaries that enable you to spread your energy around the range of things that are most important to you (as above). For example, you could decide to: 'be at home and do bath and bedtime three out of five nights in the week' or 'turn phone off at 9pm and not switch on until 6am, no matter what' or 'step away from my desk every day for 30 minutes at lunch' or 'be able to do a long day at least once a week so I can really get stuck in without needing to leave'.

3 Reset expectations with your partner/wider family

Invite your partner or other family members to mull over this question before you go back to work: ‘How can we best organise ourselves when we're both at work?’ Agree a time to discuss it and agree who's doing what (eg domestic tasks and childcare drops and pick-ups), when and for how long. Reserve the language of 'favours', 'could you help me?'  and 'thank you for doing that' for times someone is doing something that you've agreed is your responsibility. Saying those things at times other than that sends the signal that domestic life is your responsibility.

“Ensure that your childcare is fixed so that you can focus on work when at work, but do not allow work to take away time from your family. I never work Sundays. I use flexitime so that I can work more or less depending on what my children need. But when at work, I am at work, not worrying about where they are and what they are doing - I trust my husband and their schools to do that.”

Karen Wilkie, solicitor, Peterkins

“I can't really work from home and that suits, as I want to work at work and be a mum at home. However, I do have access to emails on days at home so I'm not coming in to any horrible surprises the next day.”

Suzie Falconer, solicitor, Walker Laird

“I try to leave on time every day. It is really important to me to ensure that my children see enough of me during the week. To that end, I have moved jobs. I live in Ayr but have always worked in Glasgow, a commute of more than an hour each way. I have recently started working with a firm in Ayr and the balance is far better. I can take my children to school/nursery and sometimes collect them while still working a 3.5 day week (spread over five short days). I appreciate, though, that I am lucky as my employer has been very flexible with me.”

Lynsay Kelly, solicitor, J & A Boyd

“I try to have clear boundaries. I am lucky that we operate a flexi system too, which means I can juggle my hours coming in and going home. We sit down for dinner together as often as possible.”

Kate Hart, solicitor, General Teaching Council for Scotland

4 Share your boundaries and respect them

Share the work-related boundaries you've agreed with your line manager with your broader team and clients, where appropriate. If, for instance, your team are clear that you're not likely to have time for a chat in the office at 4.50pm but that you can talk from the train at 5.15pm or that you look at emails until 9pm, it'll be easier for you than if you're trying to keep your flexible arrangement covert. Be firm with yourself on boundaries 80% of the time to ensure others see you mean them (20% wiggle room to demonstrate you know flexibility is a two-way street).

"In our 24/7 world, the boundaries between work and home are increasingly blurred. There are times when you just have to switch off the phone and focus on your baby. Don’t feel guilty, motherhood is the most important job of all. I have always found that clients are understanding of the demands of working mothers and often respect the juggling act. A couple of hours with your baby before bedtime are precious and you can always answer emails once they are asleep."

“I make sure that I leave work at a reasonable time, I try not to take work home in the evening or at weekends (although I will on the rare occasion that it is merited). I ensure that I work my contracted hours and obtain the best outcomes for my internal clients. I will undertake work out of hours if required in emergency situations, however, I expect to receive time in lieu, and I have an understanding line manager who is well aware that I am committed to my role.”

Solicitor, in-house, public sector

“Ensure flexibility. Never, ever take a call ten minutes before you are meant to leave to collect a child. Always stop calls half an hour before. That call you take as a quick one will inevitably make you late. Be strong, say no, and stick to timetables.”

Solicitor, private practice

Sarah Douglas
“Try and limit time in the office to your contracted hours. If need be, identify what work can be done at home - legal research, reading articles, drafting etc, and take your laptop home and do it in the evening when the children are in bed. Limit work social events - there is no need to attend everything you are invited to.”

Sarah Douglas, solicitor, Digby Brown LLP

“I don't usually work at weekends. I look at and respond to work emails on the two weekday afternoons I don't technically work, but don't do that at weekends or main holidays. I leave on time (no choice, have to do pick-up) and refuse to use my phone in the car when driving, as I would then inevitably do that when my child is in the car which is not a good example to her.”

Solicitor, private practice

Fiona Scott
“Yes, it's all a balancing act. You need to be very focused during the day to ensure you are getting through the workload before dashing off to collect children from childcare. You want to be flexible and enthusiastic but to some extent, you also need to draw the line (no one else will) and be realistic about agreeing deadlines given you have other commitments outside work. If possible, try to agree that another colleague will also be a point of contact for clients in order to provide a seamless service. I fully accept that there are times when the deal I am working on is busy and I will need to work extra hours to get the job done. However, if this starts to become the norm or is looking like it's because the team is under-resourced then you need to have a discussion with your boss about how the issue is resolved.”

Fiona Scott, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna

“It's a constant balancing act. You have to look at what you're being paid against what your hours in reality are and try to make it work for yourself in a way that feels broadly fair. It's not easy. I do draw boundaries - but they are not fixed. For example, I check my emails a couple of times a day on my day off. My out-of-office message is on so people know I'm not there so I don't do work that can wait. I only deal with something if it needs to be dealt with that day. However, if a colleague asks for help that day, I will sometimes make an exception because the collaborative spirit is so important making flexible working work - you need to build up the brownie points. I also leave my phone behind when I go on holiday.”

Solicitor, private practice