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Setting Boundaries in the Virtual Working World

Written By Jenna Britton | Feb 10, 2021

I’m a bit of a people-pleaser.

Listen, I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth (and I’m working on it).

I was the straight-A student that all the teachers loved.

I was the kid my mom never had to discipline.

And as an adult, I’ve sometimes been the employee who raises her hand for everything, who never pushes back when she’s feeling fatigued, who takes on tasks that aren’t her responsibility.

I have often blurred the boundaries between what I was hired to do, and what I feel I need to do because someone else wants or needs me too — or, perhaps worse, because I feel they can’t do it without me!

Without boundaries, both professionally and personally, I have sometimes become resentful, unhappy, and burnt all the way out. And — surprise! — when that happens, nobody wins; most of all, me.

You don’t even have to identify as people-pleasing to understand the value of boundaries, especially in a professional setting where we’re often made to feel that saying “yes” to everything is the only way to get ahead (or pay your rent).

This has become even more important to consider in the virtual working world, where the line between work-time and personal-time has become increasingly blurred.

In June 2020, Stanford economist, Nicholas Bloom, shared that almost twice as many U.S. employees are working from home than at an office — and many of them are managing not only the daily demands of work, but also homeschooling children, taking care of older family members, and managing their own mental health in what has seemed to be a state of perpetual crisis.

If we’re spending all of our time (working and not) at home, how do we know when to turn off the emails, shut down the computer, walk away from yet another Zoom meeting request?

The answer is by setting boundaries — something that’s not easy to do with the people we love, let alone with those who sign our paychecks. But it’s necessary.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are like invisible guardrails — and when communicated well, they identify clear, reasonable guidelines about the space (whether physical, mental, or emotional) between you and another person. At work, they highlight how you both can best be in a working relationship with one another in a healthy way.

While boundaries are important to the integrity — and sustainability — of professional relationships, the practice of putting them in place is slightly different than it might be in your personal life.

Because, more often than not, there’s a power dynamic at play at work. Regardless of how “flat” an organization claims to be, there’s always a hierarchy of relationship: there may be someone who you manage and there’s more than likely someone who manages you.

For that reason, setting boundaries at work — while still necessary and important — might require a different sort of conversation and agreements.

How to Set Boundaries at Work

Know Your Limits

The thing about boundaries is they’re unique and specific to the people who set them. Only you know when something is crossing a line for you. That means that setting boundaries starts with getting clear on them yourself first.

Taking the responsibilities of your job into consideration, think about what you’re able and willing (and already committed) to take on and what you may need to delegate or turn down.

Think about where you can ask for help or better coordinate what needs to get done. Think about the realities of your personal life and how that may affect how you can best show up at work. And think about what you’re comfortable with doing — and what you’re not.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll get to sit down with your manager and lay out a specific, step-by-step plan for how you like to work and call it a day. As with any relationship, there will need to be give-and-take and compromise.

But by getting clear with yourself first, you can better highlight the boundaries that would be most helpful in your role and in your life.

Consider Other People

Okay, yes, I know I just told you to think about yourself, about your life, and about your needs and responsibilities — but the reality is that in any relationship, including those with your boss and your colleagues, you’re not the only person involved.

Your boundaries should be authentic and specific to how you might work best, but before you begin to communicate them, it can also be helpful to consider other perspectives.

How can you create processes that not only help you manage your responsibilities, but also help make other people’s working lives easier?

If you want to delegate a task, how can you be as clear and collaborative with the colleague you hope will take it on?

You don’t necessarily have to compromise on your boundaries — especially those that maintain your physical, mental, and emotional safety — but take a look at what you’ve listed and consider how those guardrails might affect everyone else you work with.

Wherever it’s possible to compromise and find a solution that makes collaboration and getting stuff done happen more smoothly, you’re a lot more likely to get buy-in from all involved.

Communicate Clearly

Being clear about what is expected of you and what can be expected from you can sometimes feel tough, especially if you’re not familiar or comfortable with confrontation (or the potential for it).

But as Brene Brown says in her book, Dare to Lead: “Clear is kind.”

Not being clear — about expectations, about workload, about priorities, about the realities of your life outside of work — helps no one in the end.

Because when you’re clear on your boundaries, both with yourself and with those they affect, people can actually, ya know, respect them. Being clear about your boundaries means that you’re better able to do your job and support others in doing theirs (and vice versa).

This is why it’s important to get clear with yourself first — by the time you’re ready to communicate your boundaries to someone else, you’ll know exactly what to say.

Assess (and Reassess) as Needed

You may find that you want to revisit — or need to re-communicate — your boundaries sometimes, and that’s totally okay.

Especially if this practice is new to you, you may find that something that worked for you before no longer does, or vice versa. Be open to changing your mind and revisiting conversations about what works well for you and what doesn’t.

You may also have a hard line with your boundaries and need to be clear that they won’t be changing, and that’s okay too. But if you’re open to a conversation about what works for both you and your colleagues, that may be even better.

Much like personal boundaries, your professional boundaries will likely be different from your peers’. But as the ways we work continue to evolve, there are certain general considerations it’s helpful to keep in mind as you get clear on the ways you work best.

Now that it’s clear most companies can be flexible beyond the traditional 9-to-5 work schedule, consider what hours might work best for you.

Think about how comfortable you feel keeping your camera on for every meeting you attend.

If it doesn’t feel appropriate to talk about your personal life with your colleagues — or share the inside of your home on a video call — establishing a boundary of personal privacy could be helpful.

Figure out what works best to ensure that you are set up to work most effectively and in a way that feels good. And, if boundaries are new to you, know that this may take some practice.

But as wellness expert and mental health advocate, Melissa Urban, says: “Boundaries are a necessary part of maintaining healthy relationships.” And healthy relationships are a necessary part of professional fulfillment — both for you and for your employer.

Get comfortable being clear about where you’re at and what you need to show up best and do your job well.

Because everyone benefits from that in the end.

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