Is the boundary between work and home becoming blurry? Consider yourself part of the majority.

Fifty-eight percent of workers across the globe say their work and personal lives became more integrated during the pandemic, according to a survey of over 1,300 individuals, largely comprised of office workers, by the Conference Board, a nonprofit think tank.

What Are Work Boundaries?

Work boundaries are a combination of personal commitments and company guidelines and policies to keep work time separate from home life and personal time.

What’s more, the Conference Board survey found 47 percent of remote employees are concerned about the blurring of work-life boundaries, while hybrid workers are not far behind with 41 percent expressing similar concerns. 

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How to Set Boundaries at Work

Setting boundaries at work entails creating barriers to prevent intrusions and disruptions into an employee’s space and time, like when they step away from work at a set time every day.

“From an employee perspective, it’s having the ability to separate work and home life. It’s the ability to actually take time off and be with your family doing things that are important to you and spending time not working. It’s having that clear wall between the two,” Louis Efron, principal at consulting and services firm Gallup, told Built In.

One of the best times to establish that clear wall between your work and personal life is during your initial job interview, Efron said.

“If it doesn’t align with how the organization runs, it’s an immediate mismatch so you both need to know,” he added.

For current employees, the onus is on both parties to communicate their scheduling needs.

Leadership coach Woodrie Burich discusses the “power of work boundaries” at TEDxAnchorage. | Video: TEDx Talks

“The perfect relationship is both the employee managing their time and the manager being intentional and thoughtful about their employee’s time. When that comes together, it usually works quite nice. But if one side isn’t doing it, then it usually ends up tipping the scales,” said Efron.

Employees can get a better sense of their needs by tracking and logging how much time they are spending on work during the day and how much on personal time, said Donna McCloskey, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the School of Business Administration at Widener University and author of Re-Defining Work-Life Boundaries: Individual, Organizational and National Policy Implications

Once you are aware of where work-life balance conflicts are occuring, you can discuss having more flexibility with your manager during those times of the day, said McCloskey who schedules personal time on her Outlook calendar to ensure she makes time to walk her dog.

But setting boundaries isn’t just about safeguarding personal time. It includes designating specific times at work to focus on certain projects or to get tasks accomplished.

It’s similar to creating buckets or compartmentalization for our lives and the requests that are made of it, said Laurie Weingart, professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Without setting boundaries at work, employees will be living an always-on or always-available lifestyle. This lifestyle can lead to higher stress, burnout, and lower job and life satisfaction, said McCloskey.

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Types of Boundaries to Set at Work 

There are many types of boundaries that help employees separate their work and lives, McCloskey said.

5 Types of Boundaries to Set at Work

  1. Physical boundaries
  2. Temporal boundaries
  3. Behavioral boundaries
  4. Communicative boundaries
  5. Type-of-work boundaries

 

Physical Boundaries

A physical boundary refers to your personal space, like your office cubicle or desk. If you find a remote coworker frequently uses your cubicle and desk when in town without your permission, for example, they are crossing the physical boundaries of your space. Physical boundaries can also include the expectations you have of space around your body. This could include expressing a preference for shaking hands instead of hugging, according to an Indeed post, or even going to lunch on your own.

 

Temporal Boundaries

Temporal boundaries are often linked to a work schedule. For instance, if you have a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule, your work time is between those hours and anything before or after that schedule is your personal time, said McCloskey. When McCloskey is at work, she puts a do-not-disturb notification on her phone so family and friends do not bother her. But when she is off work, her employer receives a different notification to show she is unavailable.

 

Behavioral Boundaries

Behavioral boundaries separate work life and home life through, as the name implies, certain behaviors. Remote workers, for example, may change their clothes into more casual wear when they finish their workday, or cover their computer with a blanket or put it into a cabinet, McCloskey said.

 

Communicative Boundaries

Communicative boundaries include the various ways to convey when you are on the clock or not working. This information, according to McCloskey, can be communicated via icons used on instant messaging and collaboration platforms like Slack to automatic out-of-office email replies. 

 

Type-of-Work Boundaries

Type-of-work boundaries reflect the specific tasks an employee is hired to perform. But often there is so much more additional work to be done — especially as companies downsize and the work of former colleagues is redistributed to others. A helpful way of thinking about which of these tasks to accept is to distinguish between promotable tasks and non-promotable tasks, said Weingart, co-author of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work

Non-promotable tasks, like setting up meetings or organizing birthday parties at work, are important tasks that need to get done but don’t advance careers. But promotable tasks, such as overseeing a new project, can lead to a promotion. 

For non-promotable tasks, which Weingart noted women tend to get asked to do more than men, she advised employees set boundaries around what type of work they are willing to say “yes” or “no” to. She also suggested looping in managers and HR into these discussions to observe how non-promotable tasks are being distributed between genders.

 

How Employers Can Help With Setting Boundaries at Work

Helping employees set boundaries at work can also benefit employers.

“The reason people set boundaries is to be their best in every domain and be the most effective and most efficient employees,” Weingart told Built In.

For example, work can run more efficiently and effectively when it’s understood by employers and employees’ teammates when they are available, when they are not, what they are willing to do and what they are unable or unwilling to do, Weingart said. 

“When there is that shared understanding of those boundaries, employers will find it easier to make decisions about who to reach out to to do what and also when,” she said.

Employers also have a number of techniques and policies at their disposal to help employees set work boundaries that stick. It’s important employers are involved in helping employees set boundaries, because the shared responsibility will increase the likelihood these boundaries will be honored.

“We put all the responsibilities on employees to set boundaries but if managers aren’t respecting those boundaries, then that’s a recipe for disaster,” Weingart said. She explained misunderstandings can arise when employees set boundaries because managers may mistakenly construe that to mean the employees are not team players nor fully committed to the organization.

“We put all the responsibilities on employees to set boundaries but if managers aren’t respecting those boundaries, then that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Leaders should lead by example and turn off their phones and laptops while on vacation, which in turn makes employees feel it’s fine for them to take similar steps on their breaks, Efron said.

Develop a very localized policy for when an employee is considered on the clock and off the clock, given teams have different needs within an organization and in some cases may straddle different domestic and international time zones, she added.

Managers are increasingly adding a note to the bottom of their email signatures that says if the recipient is receiving the email outside of work hours, there is no expectation they will respond to the email until they return to work.

“Managers recognize that people are working in different time zones and with flexible schedules, so it creates a culture that recognizes employees are not expected to respond to every email, regardless of when it’s received,” McCloskey said.

Intentionally setting boundaries at work can be challenging, Weingart said. 

“It’s hard to give employees recommendations to set hard and fast boundaries that don’t recognize the complexity of work,” she added. “Sometimes we do need to go beyond those agreements, but at the same time when it becomes normative and expected and happening in situations where it doesn’t need to, that’s where we run into problems.”

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