Professional Boundaries and Remote WorkNatalia Persin
The rise in remote work has blurred the line between working and non-working hours for many people. Companies adjusting to various events in the last several years have – purposefully or not – stacked the responsibilities of several jobs on the shoulders of a single remote worker.
It’s not always possible to hold a firm stance in your job, but there are some ways remote workers can make sure they aren’t expected to respond to emails at all hours of the night and won’t receive negative performance reviews for simply stopping work when the day is finished.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about why remote workers consistently find themselves overworked and what creatives working outside of a traditional office space can do to clearly define the limits of their roles.
Role Shifts: Who Is Responsible?
There’s no one answer to this question that will be completely accurate for every business. In the worst-case scenario, a manager or some other decision-maker trying to shave some money off-payroll expenditures just overloaded workers with additional tasks and projects. In the best-case scenario, an expanded role is preparation for a promotion.
The most likely case, though, is that wires got crossed or no system was in place to help higher-ups see what kind of work their employees had been doing. In any case, managers and the people who assign responsibilities are the ones making the choice and anytime staff becomes overwhelmed it represents a failure on the part of the management.
But what can individual employees do to escape being overworked and having their work-life balance thrown completely off?
Setting Professional Boundaries
It can be difficult to assert yourself when higher-ups are trying to offer new responsibilities. Most workers have the hope that taking new responsibilities will lead to a pay raise or a promotion. But sometimes it’s just work that needs to be done and it’s given out either carelessly or without consideration of anything except its being done.
What kind of professional boundaries can you set to keep yourself sane and preserve your life outside of work? Here are a few ideas:
- Working Hours
One of the biggest problems for remote employees is that people tend to email them and try to schedule calls and meetings at all hours of the day or night. If you’re working on a fully remote team where members are located all over the world, this problem is likely to be compounded because of time zones.
Clearly define when you will be available and when you will not. It might sound a bit harsh, but it will save many hours of unproductive meetings and prevent burnout in the long run.
Email is notorious for ruining off time. Frequently even when an immediate response is not expected, recipients still feel the need to respond right away. Push notifications across devices ensure that emails coming in at any time can interrupt free time in your schedule.
But that doesn’t mean clearly establishing your working hours is impossible. Most software used for remote team communication offers away settings and messages. Two good tactics for setting working hours are inviting the whole team to do the same and using a separate work email that isn’t linked to any other device so you don’t get notifications when you’re off the clock.
- Duties & Assignments
The nature of client relationships tends to limit how individual remote workers can address which assignments they want to take. However, there is one part of this issue that can be addressed more easily.
When you get a job and get through the onboarding process, you generally expect a certain set of conditions as set out in the job description and interview. It should align with the skills you have with some room for skill-building. Most importantly, you shouldn’t be in a position where you are assuming the risk for something you aren’t absolutely sure you’re capable of doing.
If you’re working in a place where you’re punished for making noise when new responsibilities or duties are added or snuck into your job, that may be a sign you need to look for a new job. Management should be able to clearly explain why they’ve made the decision to add new duties, especially if they say it can’t come with a commensurate pay raise.
- Personal Business
Some offices are small and close-knit while others are larger and have big teams. Even if you are in a small business setting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the people in the office will want to be familiar with their coworkers outside the office.
Separating work friends from personal friends is a healthy thing to do. Even if you occasionally go out with coworkers after hours, that doesn’t mean everyone will be best friends with one another.
The most dangerous aspect of the personal/professional divide is when there is unwanted contact from a coworker who is invasive during work hours or doesn’t respect the work-personal life divide. The workplace should have an HR department or something similar with an established procedure for reporting improper social conduct.
Remote work might seem like a place where this is a non-issue because everyone is physically separated. But it can have the same problem to a different degree because the tone of all the meetings is much less formal than it would likely be in a traditional office. While it is most likely to be limited to verbal offenses, it can nonetheless take your head away from your work and ruin the work atmosphere.
This is the big one and it’s not limited to remote workspaces by any stretch of the imagination. Understanding the reasoning behind a salary as well as the future prospects for raises is important so that you can chart out a realistic career path.
There’s a difference between setting a boundary about salaries and asking for a raise. The boundary is more about the work-to-pay ratio and making sure that your salary information is as private as you want it to be. Alternatively, restricting discussion about salaries between coworkers in a private conversation may be against regulations.
Most of the time, remote workers have an easier time avoiding salary discussion issues because they usually spend less time face-to-face with smaller groups of coworkers. But they should still take care that their salary information is private and their right to discuss as they wish.
It’s also important to keep an accurate list of responsibilities and make some noise with a supervisor or manager if you feel your salary isn’t rising in step with new duties. Bringing such an issue up in a private conversation with the right party should be an option no matter where you work.
Videoconferencing & Virtual Workspaces
Two hallmarks of remote work are the videoconference and group workspaces like Slack that allow teams to communicate with one another and share information such as project files or reports.
These are also two areas most rife with boundary problems. A lot of the reason this is so is likely because they are relatively new to most of the people using them. Remote work had an explosion of popularity from 2020 onward but especially given that it was treated as an ad hoc solution for at least the early stages, remote work platforms still have some kinks to work out.
The etiquette around these workspaces and videoconferences is fairly clear. Wear the right clothes, show up on time, and remember to leave your microphone muted at the appropriate time. When it comes to workspaces and group chats, remember not to post things that are too far outside the line of work. There might be a water cooler chat or something similar, but there’s still a line dividing appropriate content from inappropriate content.
There should be some standards set for how to behave in virtual workspaces and during videoconferences. If HR or management hasn’t set out any such guidelines, it could be a good opportunity for the team to get together and come up with some ground rules. If they’re effective, it could lead to a company-wide set of rules.
WFH vs. Remote Work
Another issue arising with remote work boundaries is that the arrangement of the remote work could change or be poorly defined. Are you fully remote and allowed to work from anywhere or are you strictly work from home? Does it matter that you live near a physical office or not? Is a “return to work” in your future?
The arrangement of the exact nature and timeline of your remote work needs to be agreed upon before it’s begun and any adjustments need to be correctly and formally acknowledged so that you don’t find yourself running between partly remote and in-person work when that’s not what you wanted or expected.
It can get extra complicated when you have a flex schedule, working some of the time from home or remotely and the other part of the time in-person in a traditional office. Some companies treat remote workers as a kind of reserve army that they can deploy to in-person work and meetings at will, but that’s unfair to the workers unless it was already agreed upon as such an arrangement.
How to Establish Personal Boundaries as a Remote Worker
Explaining your professional boundaries is a challenge, especially when it requires a dedicated videoconference to do so. It can also appear uncalled for when other team members aren’t present in the chat or video call when a given boundary is crossed. The team can be all together more conveniently than ever even when they’re working remotely, but they’re also a bit splintered because they aren’t constantly in one another’s presence like they would be if they were in a traditional office.
Setting your boundaries needs to be done respectfully, even if it’s to people who are responsible for crossing those same boundaries. It’s not an ideal arrangement, but the best strategy is to start from a place of cooperation and explain why you have the boundaries you have.
Harassment and crossing personal lines are the most difficult lines to establish, especially when you don’t have the support of decision-makers or an HR department that enforces rules and can stop egregious oversteps of professional boundaries.
For other issues like work responsibilities or salary problems, it’s also best to take care to maintain a level of discretion and respect when entering into such conversations since they’re likely to happen with people you work closely with and will need to continue to work closely with in the future. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be persistent about establishing your boundaries, but it does mean that you don’t need to escalate things to their most intense right away.
Communicating Through Text
Sometimes using email or chats to communicate complicated issues like professional boundaries is difficult because flat text may read differently than it would sound if you were able to say it out loud in a regular conversation. You miss out on tonal differences and facial expressions that would otherwise help make the meaning of the conversation.
That makes establishing professional boundaries difficult as a remote worker. You may not be able to get all the right people together for a videoconference when you want to make a definitive line in the sand. Email chains and chats alike can be derailed by tangents and misunderstandings from other parties and getting back to the original subject isn’t always easy to do.
Whenever possible, you should try to use video chats to discuss your own professional boundaries and let others give their opinion and discuss their own boundaries too. Structuring these meetings will help them get taken more seriously and hopefully lead to real concrete changes that the whole team can work with.
The idea isn’t to set up arbitrary rules but rather to establish how working at the company can be fair and as agreed upon for all the employees and management. No matter what level you are at in a given company, you can still have professional boundaries crossed by others. Addressing these frankly whenever they arise is the fastest way to problem solve without spending too much time and resources.
Teambuilding and Professional Boundaries
In the end, establishing boundaries definitively as a team will build a better company culture and make everyone happier to work where they work. The team itself will be stronger and all the teams in a company can function more smoothly if the rules are defined.
From a management perspective, seeking out these kinds of professional boundaries from team members and helping establish them as hard and fast rules or even just rules of thumb is a smart leadership move. The team will feel more comfortable with you and your empathy for their problems will be obvious.
It can also remove some apprehension that could prevent people from coming forward with their problems. A good tactic for higher-ups and other decision-makers is to establish a code of conduct that team members can approve and add to as they continue working together.
Professional boundaries are often as difficult to outline and enforce as the ones in our personal lives. Navigating them in a traditional office setting is challenging enough, but the recent rush to remote work has created an entirely new challenge.
In a remote work setting, you should try to be clear and use video communication to make professional standard-setting a team effort. When everyone helps establish rules, they have a greater stake in seeing them enforced. From a management perspective, doing this demonstrates empathy for the team and an interest in their well-being regardless of the profit motive that drives the mechanism of the business overall.
Taking the time to place boundaries and determine how they can be preserved is important in a new setting like remote workplaces. The nature of remote work itself means that agreements about work arrangements could be an issue in and of themselves.
Attitudes toward remote work are still fairly relaxed and people still don’t hold digital workplaces to the same standard as they do an office in a high-rise building, for example. But as we progress toward a world where remote work is more and more common, learning how we can work together within them without transgressions is the best way to make sure the workplace of the future is one we all want to work in.