How to Set Boundaries While Working Remotely
Burnout has become one of the top concerns for employees working from home right now. According to a recent survey, 27 percent of respondents say their burnout is due to the lack of separation between work and life, while over 20 percent cite unmanageable expectations. Both of these issues can stem from competing priorities and the assumption that employees are constantly available due to stay-at-home orders. But the workplace has become the same space where they are home-schooling or providing daycare for their children, caring for an aging parent or any number of other responsibilities. Even as these orders are lifted, employees might still be working remotely in some capacity and will face these same competing priorities.
As companies look for ways to save money in this unique situation, employees are concerned about their job security, and bringing up burnout with a superior can be difficult. They do not want their role to be in jeopardy as a result of the conversation or for it to appear that they are unable to complete the job they were hired to do.
However, if not discussed, the quality of both your professional and personal life can begin to suffer. To equip employees to have an effective dialogue with their supervisors, let's go over ways to set and adhere to boundaries while working remotely.
Identify how you work best
The foundation of setting boundaries is knowing how you work, what you need and what leads you to be most productive. This is not something that we typically think about, but it's essential when requesting an alternative work plan or making an adjustment to our routines. Getting this information requires some internal reflection. Ask yourself:
- Do I have a place where I can work and be uninterrupted? If not, where can one be created?
- Is this space set up efficiently, or do I need to make adjustments?
- What equipment do I need in my workspace? Do I have this, or is this something I need to acquire (i.e. additional monitor, printer)?
- What time of day am I most productive? Least productive?
- Is there a time of day where I am unable to complete my work due to competing priorities (i.e. childcare)?
- What are my essential projects and what projects, if any, are non-essential?
- What clarity do I need from my supervisor on my responsibilities?
- What specific support do I need to complete my work (i.e. time, alternative resources, connection)?
Discuss your needs with your supervisor
After you have done some reflection, identify your needs and set aside time to have a conversation with your supervisor. This discussion should be done in a quieter space where you are able to focus and engage. Reflect on your answers and make the conversation not only about what you need, but also how this will allow you to complete your role effectively and efficiently. For example, if adjusting your one-on-one weekly meeting to an alternative time allows you to be more focused because your children will be preoccupied on a video call, share that information. Or if you need to scan documents for your clients and do not have the appropriate equipment, ask for it or for alternative suggestions on how to complete this task.
The questions you have asked yourself provide you with the specific information to clarify your concerns. You know what you need to be more productive and can make more clear requests as opposed to vague needs. It will also more likely become a two-way conversation of how you can both support one another to meet the team and organization goals.
Establish your go-to phrases
Despite your best efforts to set boundaries, you are inevitably going to be faced with some additional asks from colleagues or other departments. Whether that is to join a committee, take on a new project or look over something for “just a minute.”
Sometimes we are able to complete the asks, and other times, we are at, or already above, capacity. To set boundaries and meet expectations, it’s important to not say “yes” when you really mean “no.” By taking on something that you are not able to complete, you can leave your team or clients with unfinished or lower quality work. If you find yourself in a position where you are at capacity and need to say no, try the following phrases:
- “I have to look at my schedule first, and then I will get back to you.”
- “That sounds like an interesting project, but if I take it on, I will not be able to complete the other assignments by the deadline.”
- “Thank you for thinking of me for this project, but I am currently working on another assignment due to our client by Friday.”
- “I know this project is really important and you need extra hands, but I am currently overextended.”
If the ask is coming from a supervisor, do not be afraid to ask for help in establishing priorities. Ask for clarification on deadlines, which project(s) take priority or if you can shift responsibilities to a colleague.
Create an availability and communication plan
Once you have established your priorities and working hours, it's time to communicate that information with other members of your organization. Widely spreading this information in an out of office reply, away message, voicemail and any other form of communication is helpful. This gives your team the heads up when you are available or not and allows you to create more concrete boundaries. These are just a few areas to share with your team:
- How to get in touch with you for everyday questions (i.e. text, call, email)
- How to get in touch with you for emergencies and what constitutes an emergency
- Your working hours (days of the week and times)
- Upcoming days off (vacation or otherwise)
Respect the boundaries you set
Boundaries only work if you (and others) respect them. This might sound obvious, but it's easy to fall into old habits. That could be working on your laptop on the couch instead of your designated workspace or responding to emails that “only take a minute” during your off hours. If this is something that you struggle with, find an accountability partner (inside or outside of your organization) to help you follow through on the boundaries you set.
Setting boundaries while working remotely is not easy, especially when you are constantly faced with competing priorities. But knowing how you work best, what you need to be most productive and communicating this to your supervisor and your team is invaluable. And do not forget to follow through and hold yourself accountable for the boundaries you set. Without the follow through, burnout becomes the reality.