“Feierabend” and routines during remote work

In a recent Financial Times piece, I made the case for the importance of routines in helping us be productive and happy. In particular, those of us working from home need routines that help mark the beginning and end of the workday, lest work overrun our whole day. Now, the BBC has an article about the German concept of Feierabend and its utility in helping us build better routines:

How ‘Feierabend’ helps Germans disconnect from the workday

For workers struggling to adapt to remote work – and as many freelancers well know – one of the largest issues with the shift is that there’s no clear end to the workday. Even if you work abnormal hours due to other demands in your life or personal preference, remote working makes it easy to put in more hours than you should (and many of us work too much already). Many Germans would argue that a clean disconnection is needed — and that’s where Feierabend can help.

In early agricultural days, the ringing of the church bells signalled the end of the workday and the start of evening prayers and rest. Later, “in the context of industrialisation, questions of how to handle ‘time’ on a daily basis became vital to an increasing number of people due to new kinds of labour and changing working conditions”, says Dr Caroline Rothauge, assistant professor of modern and contemporary history at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. “Especially factory workers and trade employees fought for shorter working hours and, thus, resting periods such as a ‘Feierabend’ or a weekend.” She adds a common idea around 1900 was that ‘free time’ should be used to regenerate body and mind. “Thus, work and free time were conceived of as two sides of the same coin: using free time adequately makes one fit for working again and, at best, even increases one’s performance.”

Advocates of this “hygiene of work” philosophy recommended measures like going for walks outdoors and avoiding drinking or dancing (especially for young women). “They gave a lot of thought to – in their words – reforming and refining factory workers’ and trade employees’ ways to recreate and entertain themselves,” says Rothauge. “Only then could ‘real rest’ and thus the ‘the functional use’ of their ‘free time’ be guaranteed.”

As executive coach Paula McLeod says in the BBC article, “People need something to replace the shift that happens when they commute to and from the office,” she says. The BBC piece talks about a couple people who use regular afternoon bike rides to replace their commute, or have adjusted their dining schedules to get hungry around 5pm (an ingenious piece of life hacking!).

[Nils] Backhaus says that even something as simple as changing clothes from something a bit smarter during work hours (say, trousers with a waistband) to comfortable jogging pants after work can help your mind switch from being “on” and in work mode to turning off for the evening. It’s important that “your mind is in line with what you’re doing right now”, he says. “These routines get lost in Covid-19’s boundarylessness of work and private routine, but help the body to adapt.”

Mindset is key, but so are new habits. Adopting a routine and establishing boundaries to help disconnect from work can begin with the individual, but they also resonate with colleagues – and, if you’re a manager, leading by example can help your team feel like they can disconnect too.

So build those rituals! Everyone will be happier and better for it.

(This critical German-language take on the BBC article is also interesting.)

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