August 26, 2014 / Blog / Coaching Skills / Stress / Work-Life Integration

Five Tips for Setting Boundaries in the Always-on Workplace

I recently attended a panel event on the topic “Lines in the Sand: Setting Boundaries in Today’s Global, Always-On Workplace.” It seems pretty obvious that being “on” and accessible at all hours of the day, on weekends and even during vacations is not a recipe for success – individually or for organizations. People need time to disconnect and recharge in order to be at their most creative and productive when they are working. (Not to mention in order to be a pleasant parent, partner, friend, etc.) But sadly, many organizations constantly push boundaries. It is up to individuals and leaders to keep defining, communicating and demonstrating effective boundary-setting to ensure healthy, productive, engaging work environments.

Here are several great tips from the event:

Establish agreements
Openly establish agreements and boundaries with co-workers. Figure out what works for you and the team and stick with it unless there are extreme circumstances. For example, set a regular start and end time to your day in the office and a time that you might usually scan email later in the evening or first thing in the morning. Or perhaps you will take calls while commuting. Have a clear understanding about how and when you will cover for each other when someone needs to be out of the office during the day, for vacations, etc. Discuss boundaries around weekends. Define “emergencies.”  Teamwork and transparent communication are key.

Boundaries outside of work are important too. Agreements around device-free time, children’s bedtimes, gym time, sleep-in days, etc., can go a long way to enabling regular downtime.

Get clear on what’s important
Get clear on what is important to you outside of work; otherwise it is easy to let work creep into too much of your personal time – robbing you of your work effectiveness and of having a joyful life! For example, many people say that family is important – but get really clear and specific about what is important. Is it important to have dinner together every night? To read bedtime stories? To attend events together? To have family-focused weekends? Clarity and inspiration will make it easier to set and keep boundaries.

Also get clear on what is important at work. Many times boundaries are crossed due to false crises. Don’t create them and don’t overreact when others create them. Often good listening, a few calm questions and quick brainstorming of options can reduce anxiety and panic and allow for a more reasonable approach to an issue that doesn’t have to include it being taken care of tonight. Granted, there are times when crises are real and extra time is needed, but those don’t have to be the norm.

Use technology to your advantage
Leverage technology – especially your calendar. Indicate working hours and/or block out times when you are not available for meetings, including appropriate morning and evening hours. Use auto-reply if you will be unavailable to respond for a longer-than-usual amount of time, e.g. – you are in an all-day meeting. Our love/hate relationship with our addictive mobile devices requires some care too. These things which keep us “on” are also very capable of helping us be “off” by auto-replying to texts if we are driving, in a meeting, sleeping, etc., or by alerting us when a specific person contacts us. (Many apps available.) You can also establish no-device zones or times, e.g. at the dinner table, in the bedroom, on Saturdays.

Be brave – yes is not the only answer
Saying no to a direct request of your time is not easy, especially when the request comes from your boss or an important client. But oftentimes an over-eagerness-to-please can cause you to say yes when you are making an unneeded sacrifice. Always giving an unequivocal yes and/or being overly flexible can set up bad behaviors and expectations from that boss or client. Take a pause and a breath before immediately answering yes. Ask questions to clarify needs and timing – it’s okay to offer alternatives while making sure needs are met.

Remember you have a choice
It can be easy to get overwhelmed with the “always-on” nature of the workplace today and to slip into a victim mentality about it.  But you always have a choice. Focus on what you can control and do your best to maintain healthy boundaries. If your boss or organization has a very different philosophy or culture about boundaries, then it may be time for a new role or organization. You deserve to be thriving, not just surviving.

Let us know your best tips for thriving in today’s always-on workplace. What works for you?

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