Dear Drs. Graham and McDonald:

I appreciate your latest post about mitigating what you call the “scarcity effect” by setting boundaries at home. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one struggling during this confusing time. I tried some of your suggestions for setting boundaries at home, and I have already felt a significant decrease in the tension that I was experiencing.

Now I’m eager to hear more about setting work boundaries. I’m having trouble knowing how to set boundaries for when and how I work, especially now that my meeting calendar is ramping up, emails are increasing, and I’m still doing it all from home.

Always Working

Dear Always Working,

We’re coming out of a climate where there’s been a high level of empathy for people working from home. Managers have tended to be lenient about Zoom conferences that included a child on a worker’s lap. Everyone has seemed willing to make atypical accommodations. But now that selected sectors are opening up, many people are trying to figure out how to navigate whatever might come next, whether it’s a change to permanent home-based workplaces, a gradual return to altered workplaces, or some sort of hybrid we can’t yet imagine.

The skill sets you are practicing for setting home boundaries (observe your thoughts and feelings throughout the day, identify what is making you feel that way, experiment with how to communicate about boundaries, and discuss/negotiate what works and doesn’t work between you and others) are also excellent tools for setting work boundaries. This may be the perfect time to employ some of those new skills, as we are facing yet another potential change to the work environment.  

Here are some examples of how negotiating boundaries for your job might look. After talking with your team about work flow and setting up a schedule for your personal obligations (such as childcare, if this is an issue for you), you can let your supervisor and coworkers know that you will be most attentive to Zoom calls held between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Or, that you won’t be able to consistently respond to emails sent after 5 p.m. or on weekends, and that for urgent matters, texting is the best way to reach you. If you are feeling overwhelmed with all that needs to get done, you can set up a call with your supervisor to let him/her know that you need help and guidance regarding how to prioritize your assignments and what to delegate. Notice that all of these boundary-setting scenarios are dependent upon having open, honest conversations in which you describe what you need, take into account what the other person needs, and then negotiate a boundary. We encourage you to see these early attempts as experiments and stay open to modifying the boundary, based on the likely shifts that will happen in the coming days. A special note to leaders: you should encourage your employees to set these types of healthy boundaries. For this to happen, you must model the behavior! As an example, if you are a leader who has encouraged your team to step away from email after 5 p.m., you must do so as well. Remember that your actions speak louder than your words.

Since new physical boundaries will be set in many offices in coming weeks, this could be a good time to initiate conversations about time-site boundaries, too. If you have realized that you can’t work effectively from home, you should ask to be among the first workplace returnees. If you need to remain working at home, ask your boss for a list of deliverables or indicators that prove you can perform your job well in a virtual setting. If those indicators are met within a designated time frame, an otherwise-reluctant boss might allow you to continue working from home for a longer period of time.

Boundary-setting and its role in mitigating the scarcity effect is a recurring theme in our Transforming Success® program. We’re excited to announce a new virtual version of our Transforming Success® program that launches in early 2021. Until now, Transforming Success® has only been available to participants through company-based programs. We’re happy to extend the opportunity for participation to individuals (including those whose companies may choose to cover the cost). To learn more about our Transforming Success® Virtual program, click here.

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