To support necessary downtime, recharge, and stay engaged, it’s essential to set boundaries at work around your time, your attention, and your personal life. Before COVID began to spread in the U.S., two-thirds of American workers reported feeling burned out at work. And today, with more people working at home and juggling other responsibilities, the risk of burnout is even higher.
Managers can help remote employees set boundaries at work by explicitly addressing the risk of burnout. Leaders should develop communication guidelines and establish metrics for employee success. Also, they should not only encourage employees to take vacation but also model these important behaviors themselves.
The Current Difficulty with Setting Boundaries at Work
I recently wrote for Harvard Business Review about the challenges caused by the flexible schedules inherent in pandemic-induced remote work. In that article, I share my client-based insight into how the “flexibility” of working from home is actually a double-edged sword.
Prior to the pandemic, the boundary between work and personal lives was already eroding due to technology that fosters a 24/7 “always on” work culture. Now, with many people working from their bedrooms and kitchen tables, the boundary has blurred even more.
Schedules have shifted to accommodate the balancing act. For example, an employee with children who would normally be in school or summer camp may now have their children home full-time. This can result in sporadic working hours during the day, and additional deep-focus work after tucking the children into bed at night.
So How Can You Help Employees Preserve Their Personal Lives?
If you’re a manager trying to foster the productivity of your team, you have a lot of influence over their work-life balance, and I’d like to help ensure you are wielding that influence in a way that is beneficial for both the team members and the organization in the long run. Below are 5 ways to help your employees set boundaries at work, in order to avoid burnout. If you are an individual contributor, you can still use the advice to your advantage.
1. Be direct in acknowledging and addressing the problem
Let’s say that you manage a team of ten knowledge workers across the globe, and many have switched up their working hours. You would be forgiven for wondering when to expect your employees to complete a task or respond to an email.
Your team members are likely eager to show you that they are committed to their jobs. The result is that no matter what time you put in a request for work or send an email, your employees will feel compelled to respond, especially if you are above them on the corporate hierarchy.
But the expectation to be “always-on” can lead to burnout. Start by explicitly telling your team that you understand the burnout risk, and that working remotely and at different hours from one another can lead to decreased productivity and reduced work satisfaction. Explain that you would like to proactively work with them on a work-life balance plan, to prevent these negative outcomes.
Simply acknowledging the issue that many of your employees may already be experiencing will demonstrate your empathy and may help alleviate stress.
2. Create clear communication guidelines for your team
Whether or not you are actually sending your team members email in off-hours isn’t necessarily the problem. A study out of Virginia Tech showed that even the expectation that you might send an email after hours causes employees anxiety. A follow-up study showed that emailing employees after hours not only affects their own mental health, but also the well-being of their family members.
And even if you don’t expect an employee working in another time zone to answer your emails, that worker might make the opposite assumption.
Be Explicit and Detailed
What is the solution? With a team of workers across the globe who have possibly shifted hours as a result of the pandemic, your best bet is to explicitly state what you do and do not expect in terms of communication.
Communication guidelines should include:
- Your company or team email policy. (Yes, your company needs one of those.)
- Guidance about when tasks are expected to be completed.
- Hours when you are available to answer questions from direct reports.
Make Your Technology Serve You
In addition to the email policy, I recommend in the article “communication hours” so that outside those hours, staff can work if they need to, but also feel comfortable being disconnected, knowing that an urgent situation will prompt a phone call or text.
Encourage your employees to use the “Do Not Disturb” mode on their apps and devices when they are not working. They can also use the “Delay Send” feature of email so that their email app only sends emails to other team members during the company’s predetermined “communication hours.”
3. Work with each employee on KPIs
While a customer service agent may be required to keep certain hours, it’s difficult and often counterproductive in a required, and unplanned, remote-work situation to enforce specific work hours on knowledge workers who traditionally have more independence anyway.
Team members will likely need to create their own schedules. Aside from any truly mandatory meetings, it’s a good idea to establish mutually-agreed upon weekly outcomes with each team member. I recommend that you explicitly communicate that you’re not concerned with “time in seat” but about results, and evaluate employees accordingly, also taking into account their unique home situation.
4. Encourage vacation
According to Project:Time Off, prior to the pandemic, the majority of US workers did not take all of their vacation time. Now, while many vacation spots are closed and many are concerned about air travel, it’s even less likely that your employees will take vacation. This, however, is a big mistake.
Vacation time does not need to involve travel to recharge our batteries. It’s the opportunity to play, and disengage from work activities, that nourishes our souls and restores us for the challenges ahead. That said, to help your employees set boundaries at work and avoid burnout, talk to them about taking vacation time, even if they will have a ‘staycation.’
When a team member takes time off, no one should contact that person unless it is a true emergency. Let the vacationing employee know they will receive a phone call or text if there is an urgent matter, so they do not need to monitor email during their vacation time. But everyone on your team should be able to take time off (including the boss), and be completely out of touch. Everyone in your organization should have someone who can step in for them if necessary. Otherwise your company has bigger problems than burnout.
5. Model how to set boundaries at work
As a manager, your actions speak louder than words.
If you talk about communication guidelines and do not follow them yourself, your employees will quickly take the hint and abandon them. If you tell your employees to take time off, you need to do the same. After you tell employees not to use the “Do Not Disturb” mode on their phones, you should begin using it as well.
By modeling your own boundaries, you will encourage your employees to set boundaries at work and preserve their ability to achieve appropriate and beneficial work-life balance.
Help Your Remote Workers Set Boundaries
When you help your remote employees set boundaries at work, you’re more likely to help them avoid burnout during these trying times.
Eventually, if your team returns to the office, continue to practice these five strategies. Doing so will further help your team members increase their productivity and satisfaction at work.