While I was catching up with an old friend who had just started a new job, she told me she was having trouble balancing her personal needs with all the craziness happening at work. To top it off, she had to start her job during the pandemic, meaning she never met her boss or her coworkers face to face. My heart immediately went out to her, and I shared some of my secrets for setting boundaries in the workplace for better work life balance

As young professionals, both knowing our limits and defining our work boundaries are so important. At the end of the day, we can’t do it all, nor should we try. Clear workplace boundaries can help us be successful in our current roles without compromising our work life balance.

Cropped image of happy young beautiful woman businessman posing outdoors outside walking chatting by mobile phone drinking coffee.

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Defining Workplace Boundaries

Boundaries are everywhere. At work, at school, at church. In relationships, in friendships. On the road, on the highway. At the mall, at the grocery store. Yet we cringe when we hear the word boundaries and fear putting up some of our own.

But boundaries are there to protect us. On the highway, they make sure each car stays in their own lane. At the mall, they create an orderly fashion at checkout. At school, they tell us when classes start, when classes end, and what percentage each of our exams will count for.

So, why not boundaries at work? 

Work Home Boundaries for Work Life Balance

Workplace boundaries define the parameters around which you work and give others guidelines on how to contact you, when to contact you, and how to work with you in a respectful way. 

Setting strong boundaries at work aid in maintaining a healthy work life balance.

How do you set up a healthy work life balance?

A healthy work life balance is about having a well-rounded life. You can set up a healthy work life balance by making sure you have sufficient time for your personal commitments, work commitments, and social commitments. Giving too much to one area will likewise affect your performance in the others, so the key is to find balance.

By personal commitments, I mainly mean self-care. All the things that you need to do to be a healthy, functioning adult: cooking, eating, cleaning, laundry, doctor’s appt, relaxing, etc. As for your work commitments, you want to have the time and energy to complete your work responsibilities in a timely manner and do quality work. 

Lastly, a healthy work life balance should allow time for you to make and keep a reasonable number of social commitments. How much? Hard to say and depends on your job and what you’re comfortable with. But if you’re unable to see your friends and family at all, then it’s time to reevaluate.

What are healthy boundaries at work?

So, the healthy boundaries at work are those that allow you to have a well-rounded, balanced life. You should have the mental capacity and energy to take care of yourself, pursue your passions, and meet social commitments. Additionally, healthy boundaries at work contribute to how you are treated at work by your company and your team. 

However, you have to manage your expectations. Not all workplace boundaries will work for all jobs. It will depend on your job responsibilities, the work culture at your company, and your personality.

What are some examples of professional boundaries?

Some examples of professional boundaries would be:

  • Not taking calls after a certain time
  • Having blocks of time that are “no meeting zones”
  • Not discussing certain topics (age, politics, salaries, etc.)
  • Asking for people to communicate via email and company IM instead of text and phone
  • Only working late a certain number of nights a week
  • Having other team members send you work or their contributions in a timely manner

Perhaps some of these are workplace boundaries you’ve already set in place. Others you may really want to set in place. Stay tuned for how in the next section.

How to Set Boundaries at Work

There are three simple steps for how to set boundaries at work. First, you must choose the right workplace boundaries. Second, you have to communicate those workplace boundaries. Last, you must stick to your workplace boundaries

This approach is a rinse and repeat way to respond to changes at work, new responsibilities, different team members, and still maintain a healthy work life balance.

1. Choosing the right workplace Boundaries

Workplace boundaries should be meaningful to you, your work, and your company. There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach (sorry, guys).  But here are a few tips for how to set boundaries at work and choose the right ones:

  • Don’t just have workplace boundaries to have them – every boundary you have should have a motive or reason why it exists.
  • Think about the parts of your job or work life balance that irk you. Ask yourself why. Here are some examples.
    • I’m always doing presentations late at night
      • Why? Because I don’t get the slides until late afternoon
    • I never have enough time to eat lunch
      • Why? Because I always have meetings during lunch
  • Brainstorm boundaries that would help combat those problems. Here are some examples of workplace boundaries for the problems above.
    • I’m always doing presentations late at night
      • Boundary: Tell the team to get me the latest slides by noon or I will use the previous rendition.
    • I never have enough time to eat lunch
      • Boundary: Block off time on my calendar for lunch so that I have at least 30 minutes for lunch everyday. 
  • Be realistic. Your boundaries should have some wiggle room or they will fail often. (More on that in a later section.)

Perhaps some of these workplace boundaries will work for your tough work situations. Or you’re laughing at them saying that will never work. 

Okay, start brainstorming different ones. There are multiple ways to solve the same problem. You’ve just got to find the best workplace boundaries for you.

Another strategy is to discuss some of the workplace boundaries that you’ve chosen with your manager or a trusted mentor at your company. They can give you feedback to let you know if your boundaries are realistic given the company culture.

Related: How to Find a Great Mentor at Work

2. Communicating your workplace Boundaries

Now that you’ve got workplace boundaries, it’s time to share them with the teams and people that you work with. 

This is the part that scares me the most. I’m wondering how my coworkers will react. Will there be pushback? If there is, how will I react?

Breathe. You can do this.

How do you politely set boundaries?

Think about your workplace boundaries as ways to increase your personal productivity and your team’s productivity. In your conversations, make the conversation less about you and more about the impact to your work, your project, and the team.

For example, let’s say you are always doing the presentations late at night because you don’t get the content until late afternoon. The boundary you are proposing is that your colleagues send you their content before noon.

Instead of saying, “You guys always send things to me late, so I have to spend my whole evening on my computer instead of relaxing…”

How about, “I’ve noticed that the quality of our presentations is better when we all have time to do a final review. Why don’t we have a team rule where all the content is sent to me by noon. That way I can compile it before the end of the day and we can all review?”

The difference between these two approaches is that you’re focusing on how the behavior impacts the quality of the work and how it reflects on the team. 

By making it more about the team and less about you, the team is more likely to see and understand your point of view. 

When setting boundaries politely, it’s also important to monitor your tone and choice of words. This is not time to point fingers or shift blame, and it will just make your coworkers more defensive. Instead focus on the situation and the solution you are proposing. 

3. Sticking to Your Workplace Boundaries

Now that you have workplace boundaries and you’ve communicated them to your team, the next step is to put them in place and stand by them. Otherwise, your new workplace boundaries are likely to be forgotten or ignored. 

When other people push your boundaries, you’ve got to push back.

Kara J Lovett Co.

How do you enforce boundaries at work?

To enforce boundaries at work, you must first clearly communicate them. It’s also helpful to get team confirmation and agreement on those workplace boundaries. At the close of the conversation, reiterate what was agreed upon or send out an email with a list of the new boundaries.

Second, you enforce boundaries at work by following them yourself. If, for example, you’ve asked everyone not to schedule meetings during your lunch hour, then make sure you’re not doing the same to others. 

Lead by example.

Lastly, you have to learn to say no. If you receive a meeting invite for your lunch time, then decline and reply with a restatement of your boundaries. When your boss asks you to stay up late for the status report again, mention the boundaries that you agreed on and say no, it will get done first thing in the morning though.

It can be scary to say no to our boss or our coworkers. We want to be well-liked and a team player. But, assuming your workplace boundaries are reasonable and consistent with the work and office culture, they should be respected. If you’re looking for a more polite way to say no, try offering other solutions that work within your workplace boundaries. 

4. Determining Exceptions for Boundaries in the Workplace

At a leadership talk I attended, an executive was discussing work life balance and the workplace boundaries she’d put in place so that she could attend all her children’s performances and sport games. After that, she said that every rule has exceptions, but the exception should be your choice and no one else’s.

So after you’ve enforced your boundaries for a while, put your foot down, and said no, it may be time to consider your exceptions rule. The best workplace boundaries do have exceptions because there will at some point be an emergency or a tight deadline where there is no other option than to break a workplace boundary.

That’s okay. As long as it’s not the norm

All exceptions to your workplace boundaries should be exceptions, rare and determined by you.

Setting Team Boundaries at Work

In addition to workplace boundaries that guide how you work and when you work, consider setting team boundaries at work, too. These team boundaries will guide how you work with your team, how your team works together, and how your team interacts with you. 

I’ll start with the person I’ve had the most difficulty setting boundaries with—my B-O-S-S.

5. Setting Boundaries with Your Boss

I recommend setting boundaries with your boss after you’ve been in the position for at least a month. You’ll know how your boss works and how you work. That way, you can figure out which workplace boundaries would promote the most harmony.

When setting boundaries with your boss, it’s important to attack it from the lens of your productivity and your personal wellbeing. 

Setting Work Boundaries: Listen to Your Boss’s Viewpoint

Don’t go into the conversation angry or with a complaining attitude. Approach the situation calmly and with a clear head. Focus on the impact to the quality of your work.

For example, one of my colleagues was having trouble getting his work done because his boss would call him randomly throughout the day, interrupting his focus and workflow. He ended up having a conversation with his boss and explaining that he was less productive when he received constant interruptions. His boss, as it turned out, just needed to get daily status updates from his. The two were able to agree on setting up daily checkpoint in the morning and sending status updates at the end of the day.

So, when you present your case, make sure to be listening to what your boss has to say. He/She may have an explanation for the behavior. 

By working together, you can both come up with a solution that suits both of your needs.

6. How do you set boundaries with coworkers at work?

Equally as important as setting boundaries with your boss is setting boundaries with your coworkers. You might start the conversation by asking them what workplace boundaries they have or what they do to maintain a healthy work life balance. Some of the answers may surprise you, and some of them you might want to take as your own workplace boundaries. 

This is a good transition into what boundaries you want to have with your coworkers. Also, discuss the team’s ways of working to bring up team and personal boundaries.

How do you set boundaries with a difficult coworker?

We all have difficult coworkers who push our workplace boundaries. Here are some ways you can set boundaries even with them.

Start by doing some research. Ask your mentor and your manager about your workplace boundaries and if they are reasonable given the work culture. Troubleshoot ways to approach your coworker and put these workplace boundaries in place. 

Second, approach the setting of workplace boundaries from the team angle. Instead of having a one-on-one conversation with the difficult coworker, schedule a meeting with the whole team to discuss work boundaries. Nowadays, you can do it under the guise that the pandemic has changed your ways of working, thus your team should find a way to adapt. In this conversation, set team boundaries that will include this difficult coworker.

Third, enforce your boundaries and stick to them. The best teacher is experience. After setting boundaries with a difficult co-worker, follow through with them. You don’t have to do it in a rude or impolite way. In fact, make sure to be polite, but more than that, be consistent. If they’re taking advantage of your “exceptions” then stop granting them exceptions. 

For instance, if your boundary is needing a 48-hour lead time on a design, then send them a polite email saying that you can’t meet that deadline. To cover your trail, CC your manager and reiterate the workplace boundary you’ve set in place.

Lastly, ask for intervention from a human resource professional or your team lead / manager. If you’re constantly having trouble setting boundaries with a difficult coworker, ask for help. Make sure to have everything clearly documented in case of questions, and ask them help you resolve the issue. 

Escalation may seem like taking it too far, but workplace boundaries are for your overall well-being as an employee and a person. It’s a serious matter that warrants the escalation because it affects your ability to do your job.

Related: Dealing with Tough Work Situations and How to Not Give Up

Woman's hands writing on her laptop at home. Concept of setting workplace boundaries to increase productivity at home.

7. Workplace Boundaries to Consider as a Young Professional

As a young professional, we are often the youngest person in the room. So, it’s important to have clear expectations from your boss as to your role on the team or on a project. You don’t want other people to push their work off onto you just because you’re the “new kid on the block.” Once you have clear responsibilities from your boss, then you can push back with your own workplace boundaries.

For example, you might ask that your coworkers don’t always stick you with taking the meeting notes. Suggest that everyone on the team take turns. Or, instead of getting stuck with formatting slides late into the evening, suggest that everyone format their slides to fit the template before sending them to you. These are just small changes to the team’s ways of working that protect your work life balance.

Approach these conversations by positioning yourself as another team member who is contributing to the team’s overall goal and looking to learn and gain valuable experience. You can do both. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to get stuck with all the grunt work just because you’re a young professional.

Setting Work Boundaries in the Name of Work Life Balance

I’ll end with a personal story about how I chose to set workplace boundaries for a better work life balance.

When the pandemic hit and all consulting work went remote, my boss started calling me at random times throughout the day and in the evening to chat. She’d catch me up on a meeting she just had for another project. She’d rattle off things we needed to do before she forgot, or just call to finish an earlier conversation.

While well-intentioned, these short updates quickly turned into hour-long calls. They began eating into my working time and my evenings. I’d be trying to cook dinner over the stove while still on the phone.

Resolving Conflict with Workplace Boundaries

So, I set workplace boundaries in place. 

As soon as she called, I would answer and tell her how much time I had to talk. That made it easier for me to end the conversation before it went on too long. If she called me after I’d shut down for the night, I would let the phone ring. 

I know it sounds crazy not to pick up when your boss calls. But I realized that if it were something urgent, she would text me or leave me a voicemail. Otherwise, it could wait until the morning. And with that, I got my evenings back. 

So while it can be scary to have these tough conversations about setting workplace boundaries, I know you’ll find that they result in a better work life balance and wellbeing for you as a young professional.

How do you set boundaries? What are your professional workplace boundaries?

Leave me a comment below!

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