Updated: Sep 1, 2021
My husband is a firefighter, and he is absolutely wired for this very specific job. He loves the uncertainty each day; he loves the rush of adrenaline when they receive a call; and… yes… he loves running into fires.
But the other thing he loves is that when he leaves the station, he’s done with work. That’s it. Done. All issues, emergencies, station news, etc. are left behind.
He can (and this will blow your mind) actually wait until his next shift to find out an answer to a work-related question or an update to some staffing or policy change. He has freakishly healthy boundaries when it comes to work because they’re a natural part of his job; when he leaves the station, he leaves all issues “back at the office.”
That feels like a waning luxury in corporate culture, but it shouldn’t be. All of us—especially remote employees—need to establish and communicate healthy boundaries. Not only for our own sanity, but as a point of integrity and honesty with our managers and teams.
Here are a few ways you can get into a healthy work-from-home flow.
Admit you need boundaries
Some people believe that working remotely is a luxury afforded to a few, and if you don’t drop everything the moment someone reaches out to you, then you must, clearly, be eating bon bons and watching HGTV instead of doing your job.
In the past, I sometimes felt I should have my chat status set to "available" all the time so people knew I was working (or ready to say “how high” when they said “jump”).
But think about this for a moment: when people work in an office, they have visible ways to show when they’re not available or just need time to focus. For instance, they can move locations, close a door, put on headphones, or even use literal signs on their desk to let others know if they’re free to talk. They set boundaries in a visible way.
So, why should remote team members not have the flexibility—I’d even argue: the responsibility—to define and communicate the same information? Being honest about your need for boundaries and your availability will help manage the team’s expectations and allow everyone to work more efficiently together.
To show you’re available when you’re not is detrimental, unhealthy, and insincere.
Set your boundaries
I’ve read umpteen articles about working from home, and one consistent theme is true: it’s critical to establish a routine. Go so far as to pretend like you are going to the office: wake up, shower, work out, have breakfast… whatever your normal routine would be. (Having done the first two, especially come in handy if you need to join a spontaneous video call!) But in addition to that, also think through: what are my work hours, and what other priorities do I have? One of my favorite tools is the “Weekly planning grid” from Stay Forth Designs.
Although it’s not super granular, you can use this to compartmentalize each week, see the balance of work, life, family, and events, and set yourself to be intentional each week.
Communicate your boundaries
Below are four ways you can easily communicate your established boundaries:
1. SET “WORK HOURS” IN YOUR CALENDAR State your standard work hours in your calendar client. I’ve seen this available in Google Calendar and Outlook, and the lovely thing is that they automatically adjust to time zones! So, if someone tries to set up a meeting with you that falls outside your work hours, they will get a note saying so.
2. SLACK “GOOD MORNING” AND “GOOD NIGHT” AS IF YOU WERE IN THE OFFICE This is such a simple thing that takes mere seconds, but it communicates volumes! When you’re done for the day, especially if you’ve just been in a Slack conversation with teammates, simply write “Ok, I’m done for today. Have a great evening! (or… morning… feel free to joke across time zones)
Or, if you’re not sure if the conversation is done, just let them team know, “I have to go in five minutes, so if there’s anything more I can provide, please let me know.” So simple. But so powerful.
3. BE CREATIVE, BUT HONEST, WITH SLACK STATUSES Teammates and managers need to trust when they can reach out and/or when you’ll respond to a question in your queue. So in Slack, for instance, they need to be able to trust the little status icon that indicates whether we’re truly available or not.
In a meeting? There’s a status for that.
Running a quick errand? Then “snooze” and put a note in the comment box stating when you’ll be back online.
Finishing up work for the day? Then mark yourself as “away.”
Need time to concentrate, and you don’t want to be disturbed? I’ve used this little guy a number of times:
4. SET "OUT OF OFFICE" EMAIL MESSAGES WHEN YOU’RE, WELL… OUT OF THE OFFICE If you’re going to be on vacation, at a conference, or taking time off for any number of reasons, ensure that people who email you aren’t expecting an immediate reply. You can be formal, casual, or even funny if you want, but make sure your out-of-office reply includes:
A brief statement that you’re “out of the office”
The days you’re out
The day you’ll return
Who to contact in case the email is urgent (your manager, or another colleague who’s agreed to be on point)
In some cases, if needed, you can add a statement like, “I will check email periodically, but I won’t be able to respond as quickly as normal.” But only write that if it’s true.
Communicating your boundaries will not only manage other people’s expectations for your availability, but it’ll also take a load off your mind as well.
Flex your boundaries (only when truly needed)
Now, the truth is, as remote employees, flexibility goes both ways.
We enjoy many aspects of this flexibility, but If your teammates are literally half way across the world, you will occasionally have to attend a meeting at a less than ideal time.
However, if teams are built on trust, transparency, and good communication, then the manager can guide the team to ensure those less-than-ideal meeting times rotate and don’t always fall on the same people. And, if there is an actual emergency that cannot wait for an ideal time, then the team should be ready to flex. (But, managers, don’t abuse that!)
In short, just remember that everyone needs boundaries;, they just look different for remote team members. Simply set them, communicate them, and wisely flex them when necessary.