Set and keep to boundaries
My favourite poet, Robert Frost, once advised us that: “Good fences make good neighbours.” In the quest for the right work-life balance and workplace wellbeing, building the right fences can be your best friend.
In the first of my five principles for achieving and maintaining the right work-life balance for you, I wrote about the importance of being honest with yourself and those around you. Now we build upon that thought and look at setting the right boundaries (or fences) for you. The right rules of the game. The framework in which you are prepared to operate. How and when you will work.
Boundaries in the context of work-life balance are about setting the right terms of reference or rules of engagement so that expectations are set and managed; what your employer can expect of you and what you can expect of them. This is your chance to shape how your experience in the role will pan out.
Most people in the workplace make the mistake of having these things agreed for them; imposed on them; put in place without their input or explicit sign off. It just happens.
The traditional way this works is that you get offered a new job. You are excited about it. You really want it. That stands to reason, since you’re likely to have applied for it and gone through a fairly painful, time-consuming and stressful process to land it. As a result of this – and with the fatigue that often accompanies an appointment – you just want to get the paperwork signed, passports scanned and starting dates agreed.
Before you have time to take a breath, you’ve started, you’re two weeks in and your focus is on making a good impression and proving your new boss’ judgment in appointment you was a master stroke. Your eagerness to “hit the ground running” means that you can get off on the wrong foot.
We all know the cliche of “start as you mean to go on” but few of us really take that to heart as we start a new role. By the way, the same principles and approach apply to getting a new boss; moving teams; returning after a period off sick; coming back to work after a maternity or paternity break; or any time there is a natural break or change at work. The start of a new calendar, financial or performance year could also be a good time to hit the rest button.
So, what is the alternative?
You need to be clear – 100% clear – about how and when you will work. You need to take the lead. You need to draw your boundaries yourself. You need to have a grown up conversation about how you see the role working out. I have done this with all my recent clients and before I took on my current role at LJMU. Whenever you do it – either before or after the role is offered and accepted – the earlier the better. In my experience hardly any employers or new bosses will instigate this conversation – and if they do it is unlikely to be for your benefit but because they want you to agree to terms and conditions that suit them. You need to own this; you need to drive the conversation. Get there first.
The advice here is not to be a nightmare employee who makes unrealistic and unreasonable demands, or who gives the impression of total inflexibility and intransigence. This is about getting a healthly approach to work so that you will enjoy it and your employer will get the most out of you. This is about workplace wellbeing – something that every employer who is worth their salt is talking about and says they are committed to – so call them on it; call their bluff; make them put their money where their mouth is. But do it in a mature, co-operative and sensible way.
How does the conversation go?
“I am really excited about the role and the organisation and want to bring a lot to this job. I also want to really enjoy it and achieve the right work-life balance for me. So, I would like us to talk about how we can work together. I know how I like to work and how you will get the best out of me. For example, I like to start early/late and finish early/late.”
You need to be clear about which suits you. Spell this out. Use specific times to illustrate what you mean. This is not a good moment for ambiguity. Say exactly what you mean. If you would like to work at home one day a week or every so often, ask about this as soon as you can. Ask what day is the busiest/least busy for meetings. Ask if there other team members who work at home or work part time. Ask what suits the organisation for you to have a late start one morning if that suits you.
Be honest too about why you might want to work flexible or specific hours. If you do the school run, tell them. If you have dogs that need walking, tell them. If you look after your elderly relative and need to be home by a set time, tell them. Whatever is important to you – whether it’s caring responsibilities or your commitment to your own health which means you attend a dance class, play five a side football, sing in a choir or anything else, build that into your working weeks and be up front about that commitment.
Say that you appreciate there will always be times when things will change and you will always try to be flexible but flexibility is a two-way thing – so that if you are asked to stay late to do something that cannot wait or attend a evening function as part of your job – you will get the flexibility in return to make up this personal time very soon.
Setting boundaries is also about lunchtimes. If you are happy to stay in the office at lunchtime I suggest you do something at your desk that is clearly non-work activity. Read a book, the newspaper, a magazine, plug in your earphones etc. Move from your desk into a quiet area or canteen/communal space. Or go out for a walk/take your lunch to the local park. Be clear that this is your time to recharge the batteries and get a break from work.
The other part of this boundaries conversation is about how you like to work. Do you want regular 121 meetings with your boss? Do you want to send a weekly or fortnightly update email to help structure your work and priorities and keep them, updated so they are not chasing you for updates and reminders? How do you like to receive feedback (face to face, by email etc)?
These are all preferences for you to share when you set your boundaries. Set yourself up for success in the role by talking about all the things you would like control/manage. Be clear on your red lines and discuss them openly. Don’t be defensive – there is no need – just be clear and straightforward. “This is how I work best”, rather than “I don’t like this or that”.
The opposite of this is being the person who doesn’t draw these boundaries and as a result you are working through each lunchtime and will be asked to do more and more and more.
We will talk in the next post about my third principle – saying no – in which we will touch on how to handle requests you don’t want to fulfil. In the meantime, imagine your ideal working day; your start and finish time; your lunch break; your willingness to work evenings or weekends (if the job requires that); your interest in managing people; how you want to be managed; how your want to receive feedback. Think about what would work best for you and talk about it; get it agreed as early as possible and then – without being dogmatic or channelling Theresa May’s iron-like inflexibility, stick to your guns.
Imagine you are painting a picture. You have drawn the outline image. It is exactly how you hoped it would turn out. All you have to do now is colour it in. Take a breath. Be clear about the outcome you want. Stay within the lines. Don’t rush in and start splashing paint everywhere and then live to regret that whatever you do from here, the painting will always look messy. If you have already got off on the wrong foot in a new role or with a new boss it is never too late to reset and start again. You just need to ask for a conversation and explain what you are doing and why. Be honest. Don’t put yourself under pressure by making up reasons that you might think sound more palatable – be yourself, be honest. “This isn’t working for me; I would like us to make some changes”.
Remember Frost’s advice. Put those fences up. Do it with your neighbour’s consent. They will respect you for it – and even in the small numbers of cases where they don’t, you will respect yourself for doing it and at least you will know that you may need to move house to get the right balance for you. The worse thing to do is not to have the conversation and just take what your given whilst your health and happiness suffer.