December 2, 2021

How the pandemic has shaped our boundaries at work

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Over the past 20-months, we have seen how drastically Covid-19 has impacted the labour market. Working from home, the Great Resignation, Zoom fatigue… it’s been a lot! If we thought our work-life balance was in the throes before, the pandemic only intensified things. Burnout has been a concern for employees and employers for years – a culmination of being overworked, under-resourced, and highly stressed. When Covid-19 upended the world as we knew it, we were forced to take our work home and adapt in unprecedented times. The stress of the pandemic, lockdowns, and uncertainty were one thing; but increased digitalization and remote working further blurred our work-life balance. Being able to “switch off” has become the central problem, while opening a Pandora’s box of other issues that have been bubbling under the surface (think benefits, mental health, etc.).

The Right to Disconnect

In an attempt to regain some control over that balance, companies and individuals are legalizing boundaries at work. Just yesterday, Ontario, Canada, passed a law making it illegal for bosses to contact their employees after-hours. The 'Working for Workers Act, 2021', details a number of measures that give employees the opportunity disconnect, making it easier for them to spend time with their families and loved ones. This comes shortly after Portugal introduced a law of the same nature that "bans employers from contacting workers outside of their regular hours by phone, message or email,” CNN reported. A law – designed to “respect the privacy of the worker” – that is punishable by fines if violated. In 2017, France allowed workers the right to ignore after-hours business emails, explained The Conversation

The ‘right to disconnect’ law is part of a bigger legislation in Portugal that regulates remote working. “Employees now have the right to opt-out of remote work should they so wish — but they can also request the arrangement if it's compatible with their job. [And] employers are responsible for providing workers with the appropriate tools to do their jobs remotely”, CNN explained.

Company benefits are also evolving in an effort to reduce stress and curb burnout. Some companies (including Netflix, LinkedIn, and Bumble) have introduced a policy of “unlimited vacation”, with Bumble holding company wide #APaidWeekOff to help employees unplug at the same time – eliminating the pressure of ‘checking in’ while other team members continue to fill their inboxes. But with employee turnover at an all-time high, benefits can only go so far.

The Catalyst

The pandemic has shifted the priorities and mindsets of many employees, and companies need to get creative. Better benefits and boundaries can work together to improve the overall experience of the employee, but as Quartz puts it, “true success comes in the execution, not the concept”. Establishing boundaries, in particular, can be more complex as not one shoe fits all.

For example, some argue that ‘right to disconnect’ laws are not the answer… they don’t work for every industry, and don’t necessarily address the issue of overwork. Others agree that it may encourage a shift away from workaholism.

“The right to disconnect can be the catalyst an organization needs to review its policies”, explains The Conversation. But it doesn’t end there… “a cultural shift that destigmatizes a less frantic pace of work and allows employees more control over their work boundaries will more directly address the problem of overwork”, further explains The Conversation.

Ultimately, the answer will rely on an organizations ability to be flexible.

It’s Not Personal, it’s Better for Business

Oftentimes, when employees try to establish boundaries at work, it’s met with negativity. Workers can be seen as inflexible, difficult, or not committed. This mindset needs to change. Healthy work boundaries are not personal, they’re better for business.

If there’s anything that Covid-19 has taught us, it’s that the mental wellbeing of employees matters and should be front-and-centre of any organization. When employees have more control over their schedules and feel trusted, they tend to feel happier and more fulfilled, leading to increased productivity – a win-win for both involved.

As an employee, you need to be cognizant of the fact that the business has goals and targets – and your team (boss included) have boundaries of their own. Be mindful of that, and respect that you won’t always get your way. As an organization, it is important to understand that employees are not robots – they need to take a break, and they need to feel in control of their lives. It’s worth noting that employees will only feel empowered to make use of benefits and boundaries if everyone does – and it’s up to the boss to lead by example.

7 Ways to establish thoughtful boundaries at work

1. Offer more autonomy: Micro-management is outdated. Trust your employees to do their jobs well, the rest really doesn’t matter. Give your employees the room to manage their time, and trust that they will deliver. Some employees will thrive, and others might not. Once you identify that, you’ll be able to implement better management strategies to help your team. 

2. Be flexible: Flexibility is crucial for an organization to thrive in the pandemic era. This refers to everything – from understanding when your employee needs to take the afternoon off for their child’s doctor appointment, whether an employee prefers working slightly different hours so they can go for a walk in the morning, or providing remote-work support – being flexible to the needs of your employees can go a long way.

3. Tailor your benefits and boundaries: Not every organization can benefit from the same work boundaries. As a leader, you know your industry and you know employees. Get personal with your benefits and boundaries, and tailor them to suit your industry in a way that will be meaningful.

4. Turn off your phone: Mobile devices have made it harder to disconnect. Some employees have a work phone and a personal phone, allowing them to digitally disconnect from work. Some people simply set a time where they no longer read emails and notifications (usually after the workday). As an employer, you should respect the privacy of your employees and not contact them after hours unless necessary.

5. Be respectful and empathetic: When you ask your boss to respect a boundary, do so respectfully. Understand how your need may affect the team, provide context, and provide an alternative (if necessary). As a leader, don’t simply dismiss your employee. Listen to what they’re asking for and try be empathetic. If you can’t provide support on that specific need, think of another solution.

6. Take breaks: Seriously, take a break and stretch your legs. You have a lunch hour for a reason – use it! Some companies have also introduced screen-free time – a 30-minute break from all screens. 

7. Change your scenery: If you’re not going into the office, try separate your workspace from your ‘personal’ space if you can. Working from bed may seem like a good idea, but it just further blurs the lines between work and personal. It’s important to physically differentiate between work and life – otherwise you are, quite literally, eat-sleep-breathing work.