Going Remote Is Forcing Us to Finally Talk About Work Boundaries

The conversations you need to have as you figure out how to work as a team

Photo: svetikd/Getty Images

1. Understand the difference between boundaries and barriers

The line that divides my home state of Idaho from the state of Wyoming looks like this:

Photos: Wikipedia Commons

2. Figure out how you work best

You can’t set effective boundaries with others if you can’t articulate what you need and how you work best. So step back and identify the following:

  • What challenges are you up against? What is most likely to get in the way of you doing your best work?
  • What information do you need in order to do your best work?
  • When do you need uninterrupted time in order to do your best work? When is it most disruptive to be interrupted?
  • What’s your optimal work style? When do you do your clearest thinking? When are you best able to get into a flow?
  • What’s the best way for people to ask quick things of you?
  • What’s the right way for people to get a hold of you in an emergency? For instance, if something truly merits interrupting you, should people call you? Text you with the word “urgent”?
  • Is it okay for someone to spring a real-time conversation on you? Or do you prefer for nonemergency conversations to be scheduled or come with prior warning?

3. Put yourself in your teammates’ shoes, and figure out what they need to succeed

Making an effort to understand what your teammates are up against doesn’t just help you learn how to work with them. It also lets them know that you care. It pays to personally ask the people you work with:

  • What challenges are you up against?
  • What information do you need in order to do your best work?
  • What are the best communication channels for you?
  • When do you do your clearest thinking? When are you best able to get into a flow?

4. Communicate your boundaries in terms of agreements for the greater good

Setting boundaries is about making clear what you agree to be responsible for, and what you expect of others. When you communicate your boundaries with people, it’s helpful to frame them in terms of your desire for the greater good — the team’s overall success. It’s easier for colleagues to hear the word “no” when it comes with big-picture context.

5. Caring means you “give” based on long-term benefit, not short-term fear

Social psychology research shows that “givers” in the workplace end up at both the top and the bottom of the food chain. Why? Because some people “give” to their colleagues in the short-term at the expense of the long-term. Successful givers are helpful in ways that contribute maximally in the long run.

What about people who don’t respect your boundaries?

In my story about the graphic designer, I made a bigger mess by attempting to set some boundaries and failing. I didn’t do a good job initially, because I set up barriers instead. I tried to push the sales team away instead of figuring out how to help the team get its best work done.

Explorer, journalist. Author of Dream Teams and other books. My views are my own. For my main body of work, visit www.shanesnow.com

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