The importance of boundaries and how to set them
Ever since working at home became the norm for many of us, the question of boundaries has become increasingly thorny; what might have worked a month ago is now suddenly outdated. Boundaries will differ for each person, depending on your personality, style of working, and your role, however in their simplest form, boundaries provide a framework within which you can be your most productive. When used effectively, clear boundaries can help to alleviate the pressure around saying "no" and negate the need for awkward conversations. Conversely, boundaries shouldn't be used against you nor should they be used as something to hide behind.
Now that we have a clear idea of what boundaries are, let's explore how to set them.
1. Decide what type of boundary you are looking to set
Boundaries largely fall into one of two categories:
- Working styles - are you a night owl or an early bird? Do you have a sacred lunch hour where you step away from your laptop and phone? How about out of hours/weekend work - do you pick up all emails/slacks or just those that are urgent? I'm a morning person so jumping into emails the moment I wake up is second nature but I really need an interrupted lunch break to step away from my laptop and phone.
- Content - are you clear on what are non-negotiable parts of your role? Are your principal and colleagues clear about what does/doesn't fall into your remit? What projects are you happy to get involved in and what would you prefer to avoid? I'll jump-in whenever and wherever I can add value, but I'll be clear if something is a one-off.
2. Formulate it as a short sentence or phase
Remember to keep it objective and neutral.
A good example - I need the opportunity to step out of work mode
A bad example - I won't want to reply to slack/emails outside of office hours
3. Find your "why"
Why is setting this boundary important to you? Is it so that you can free up some of your time, to help you focus and reprioritise, or to ensure you don't feel burnt out? Finding your why and being able to verbalise it will strengthen the boundary for you and ensure you maintain it.
A good example - I need this boundary to ensure I can fully unwind, have a work/life balance and be fully present when I am in the office
A bad example - I don't want to reply to emails/slacks at home, so I shouldn't have to
4. Define who will be impacted by the boundary
Maybe it is just you, or you and your principal/immediate team, on a rare occasion it could be the whole company (more common in start ups or SMEs). Make a list of who will be impacted and how. This impact list will make the next step much easier.
5. Discuss it with them
This doesn't have to be an overly formal discussion but by being open you avoid any unexpected surprises when your boundary comes into effect. Be clear and concise about what your boundary looks like and how it will work, as well as any impact you can foresee.
What to do when this conversation goes positively?
First and foremost, give yourself a little pat on the back; you have successfully raised a concern or change in working habits, in a calm and considered way, and it has been accepted. Now the key is to use the boundary but remember flexibility : whilst the boundary might make sense today, your working environment might be very different in 6 months time. Suggest a check-in with your principal so you can both feedback on how the boundary is working and whether it needs to be tweaked.
What to do when the conversation doesn't go as you had hoped?
Inhale, exhale, and work out whether it was a hard "no" or a "no, but let's discuss"; both are negotiable, even if the former may take a little more time. Try and understand:
- Why the "no"? What concerns are there around the boundary?
- Could the boundary be framed in a different way i.e. being flexible during the week?
- Could you have a trial period to test the boundary?
If the answer is still unequivocally “no”, I encourage you not to be disheartened and to know your worth: take a look at the wider context, maybe the maybe the environment you are in isn't the most conducive to your success and overall wellbeing.
Setting boundaries is never easy, especially when as EAs we are frequently required to be superhuman. However, effective boundary setting will not only make you better at your role, it will positively impact your day to day and foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect with your principal, team and wider company.