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Working From Home: How to Set Effective Boundaries

This spring many of us were thrown into sudden homeworking, often with just days or even hours to prepare. What was seen as a novelty for some weeks in the spring is now looking to be a longer-term change.

At Untapped AI we have been following the impacts of this profound change on the leaders on our platform. While some people are thriving, for many working from home has posed tremendous challenges. They are managing teams which are now totally remote. Communication has shifted profoundly as relationships go digital and emotional intelligence has become more vital than ever.

Worryingly, we’ve seen a marked uptick in signs of pre-burnout in our data. As we’ve worked with clients to maintain their mental health and think about the implications for their people, we’ve been returning time and time again to one key focus: Boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the markers, whether physical or psychological, that we use to create the space that we need in our lives and in our relationships with others.

For example, setting a boundary would be when we say ‘no’ to a project or a visit to friends that we know will be just too much. Or it might be about the special space in the house, say the bedroom, where we don’t allow phones. Another example would be being clear about the time when we stop working and move into other aspects of our lives.

There is often nothing hard-and-fast about boundaries – they can be highly individual. That is because we all have different needs, shaped by our personalities, history, and the place we’re at in our lives, or even how well we feel that day.

And perhaps this is why boundaries can be so tricky: Knowing them starts with recognising, acknowledging and respecting our own needs. Seeing that they are valid and worthy of our own attention, and the respect of others.

Work boundaries and Covid-19

Until this spring our key working boundaries have usually been dictated by the needs of our employer, shaped by ‘the 9-5’ norm of the working day. We knew what was expected of us - when we start work, when we stop. We probably had an office we travelled to, creating a helpful transition between home and work at the beginning and end of the working day.

As Covid struck and offices and other workplaces were shuttered, a lot of that flew out the window in record time. Suddenly we were all negotiating our home and workplace boundaries as they blurred together – and alongside managing the anxieties of a global pandemic.

For the leaders we’ve been working with, this lockdown interaction of the personal and the professional has created unique challenges when managing others. While some people have home offices, for many they were in a shared living space along with family members, children, flatmates. Everyone’s needs began to intersect in new and incongruous ways – a recipe for high tension.

Navigating their peoples’ needs in these circumstances means that managers have needed to bring high levels of emotional intelligence in order to listen, understand and act on the different situations their people were thrown into.

Setting Physical Boundaries

Physical boundaries are markers of space or time. Often setting them involves the formation of new habits – for example, setting a time for exercise or yoga at the beginning or end of the day.

There could be simple, practical steps that will help people define working hours and space: one Untapped Accelerator told me she has started going for a bike ride with her husband at the point when they both finish their working days, creating the physical separation that a commute used to.

One of the clearest examples of a physical boundary is the door. If you are lucky enough to have a home office then the closing of your office door at the start of the working day can be one of the clearest physical markers between your work and home selves, and the differing needs of each part of you now you’re working from home.

Setting Emotional Boundaries

Unfortunately, not all of us have access to a room with a closing door for our working lives, and as the pandemic struck we faced the sudden mixing of personal and professional in stark spatial terms. Or perhaps you have a door which closes – but others in your household simply ignore it, opening it as and when they need. This is where things can get far more tricky, as there is a need to focus in on your needs in the working day and how they can be met.

We have to make some difficult choices about our boundaries: Where do they fall, and how rigid or flexible do we need them to be? These are deeply personal decisions based on what you need in order to concentrate, how sociable you are, your role, the expectations of others in your work team and at home.

Knowing our own needs can be surprisingly difficult but it is fundamental to a healthy relationship with others and ourselves, particularly in times of high stress. Fact is, if we don’t define our boundaries clearly with ourselves and others then we end up feeling used and resentful. Your boundaries will shift as circumstances change, so flexibility is key. But even if it takes time to build up self-knowledge of where exactly your boundaries lie, a resolve to know and respect your own boundaries now could make a huge difference to your mental health and relationships going forward.

There are two main ways I consider my boundaries. One is practical: Am I able to get my work done to the standards I need? If not, what can change? Secondly, are my relationships with people at home and work feeling ok, or are there festering annoyances? Anger is often the clearest signal that a boundary is being disrespected, so tune into frustrations and annoyances and ask yourself whether anything needs to shift. It won’t always – and sometimes it’s not possible – but this emotional tuning-in combined with curiosity about what is piquing my feelings is usually a clear guide to boundary infractions.

Once we’ve started to locate our boundaries, or if we feel them shifting, then we need to communicate them. Be honest and open. If you’re still angry, consider giving it some time or going for a walk and thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it. Saying no to people, especially those we love, can be one of the hardest things. But it is also the bedrock of strong, intimate relationships. This is about respecting your own needs and those of others in return.

The Boundaries Audit

We’re no longer in the eye of the storm, but settled into a rhythm of sorts, and adjusting our expectations for longer-term WFH arrangements. If you’re a leader, now is the time to work with the people in your team to help them think about their personal needs, how these might have shifted during lockdown, and how this might continue to impact on their work – their availability, productivity, and wellbeing.

While tech has surely saved us during this pandemic, allowing us to continue working and socialising while physical proximity was risky, it is also contributing to our difficulties in switching off and creating healthy space for rest and sleep. Think about your own tech use and whether your colleagues seem to be working long or irregular hours (e.g. sending emails late at night.)

Here are some questions to get you started - for yourself, and for those you manage:

  • What are your working hours now? Do you stick to them, or would you like to be better at this?

  • Do you feel like you have the space you need to work? Do you have to share your working space?

  • Are you interrupted by children or others in your household?

  • Do you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or unproductive (even if working longer hours)

And questions to ask yourself about how your team is functioning:

  • Do team relationships feel better or worse since lockdown?

  • People communicate differently when online, and it may be that people who have been more introverted in the office are more outgoing digitally – and vice-versa. Think about the individuals in your team and how you can best communicate with each now.

  • Do you know how individuals have been impacted by lockdown – do they have children at home, or housemates? Have they reported a rise in stress or anxiety? Are you worried about pre-burnout symptoms for anyone? (This is a useful guide if you’re not sure.)

  • Have your people communicated differing needs through this time? How have you negotiated the needs of the company and their individual boundaries? Have there been tensions?

Learning to set healthy boundaries is hard work, and it takes time and effort to work on yourself and with others. But it is from a place of acknowledging that we are not all-seeing, all-achieving super-humans – and that we never will be - that we can start to think about what is realistic to ask of ourselves and others.

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