Today’s still-newish work-from-home reality has garnered mixed reviews from employees around the globe. Some love the freedom and lack of commute; others miss the cushy offices and camaraderie. One common complaint has arisen from promoters and detractors alike: doing business virtually can create an always-on, 24-hour, work cycle.
This has become so extreme that in some countries, regulators are stepping in. Earlier this month, Portugal became the latest nation to impose limits on what employers can expect from those working at home.
On November 5, Portugal’s parliament approved amendments to the country’s labor laws that make it illegal for managers working in companies with 10 or more employees to contact them about work issues outside of normal working hours. If managers continue to ping workers day and night, the companies they work for could face fines. Other innovative features of Portugal’s new rules: companies must help foot the bill for some remote working expenses, like higher electricity and internet bills; parents of children under the age of eight have the right to work from home without having to arrange it in advance with employers, and companies should hold in-person meetings at least bi-monthly to help combat loneliness and preserve social capital.
Portugal is not the only nation recognizing the need for boundaries. Last February, the European parliament called for the “right to disconnect” to be recognized as a fundamental right in the EU—the right to turn off work-related devices and messaging after hours. France, Italy, and Spain have all legislated to different degrees the right to log off after working hours. In Germany, employees can negotiate with companies for this right. Countries including Slovakia and Ireland have instituted laws and/or codes around this idea, while discussions continue in Canada and Holland.
As legislators are finding, laws around boundaries may be necessary. Technology can lead to the assumption that employees should be reachable at all times, an expectation that translates into never having a break from work. This compromises productivity and happiness, as many of us have seen during this past year and a half. The stress of the never-ending work cycle is one factor driving the “great resignation.”
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No Boundaries, No Employees?
Some people are opting out of the workforce—or fantasizing about doing so—specifically because of the lack of boundaries around private time that the pandemic’s home-based working reality has created. As Australian senior banking exec Sandra Knowles recently told News.com.au, she sees resigning from her job as akin to leaving an abusive relationship, because of the expectation to be available round the clock. “I worked 60 to 70-hour weeks for three months and I was not really rewarded or recognized for that at all,” she told the news outlet.
Knowles is not alone. Some 4.3 million people in the U.S. left their jobs in the month of August alone, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. These were not only frontline workers and those in the hospitality and service industries who found themselves making new risk-versus-reward calculations, and deciding to stay home; senior executives were also opting out.
Setting Boundaries: The DIY approach
The new laws about the right to disconnect and the conversations around them point to the growing recognition that boundaries matter. Still, many countries will not be regulating boundaries, meaning you need to be able to do this yourself. Boundaries help you rise and thrive in the corporate world, and avoid having burnout set in.
The fact is, most of us have to work somewhere, and probably want to. Setting good boundaries is much better than getting so overwhelmed that you leave the workforce altogether. Here are three ways to use the current momentum to establish better boundaries at work:
1. Set Time Limits Around Slack and Other Forms of Instant Internal Communication for Employees
If you lead a team and see that the constant messaging is eating into the time they need to work, set some guidelines for your organization, and model them yourself. You might set a rule that no one sends work-related texts or instant messages before noon or after six. Reserve this time for deep thinking. If someone does have a question, have that person wait to ask it, or better yet, see if they can figure it out without interrupting others.
2. If Work Cuts into Your Personal Life, Carve Personal Time into the Workday
It’s normal in an overseas office for the workday to stretch into the night, or to start super early. These kinds of accommodations must be made to connect with colleagues in different time zones. But wherever you work, when parts of your job must be done outside of normal office hours, allocate time in the day for your personal life in return. If you have a late night meeting, take time to exercise or handle other personal tasks between nine and five. Setting boundaries with carve-outs for personal time is an important skill for everyone working in a virtual or hybrid environment.
3. Convey Your Limits in a Way that Stresses Your Desire to be Collaborative and Excel.
If your job requires you to work outside of standard hours, set some personal limits, and share them in a way that emphasizes your collaborative approach and desire to do well. You might say something like, “These late night meetings are threatening my productivity the next day. I really want to make sure I’m delivering my best.” Then offer a solution. “Let’s prioritize. Pick the most important meeting for me to be at each week, and I’ll attend that one, and shift my start time to later the next day.” Or, “I don’t mind starting meetings at 6 a.m. and exposing my bedhead once a week, but I can’t do it everyday; let me delegate the other meetings to someone else on my team , who can also learn from them.”
If work is creeping into every hour of your waking (and sleeping) life—and you’re now daydreaming about moving to Portugal, where your time will be protected—you are a candidate for a boundary-setting intervention. Take the time to think through a plan, and then implement clear rules around your own time and that of your team members. Good boundaries make good employees, and a happier, better performing team.