Broken Boundaries in the Remote Workplace


With the sudden shift to remote work, the dynamics among employers, employees, as well as customers and clients have been drastically altered. The bright line between professionalism and informality has become obscured, as all parties have moved towards new communication mediums. What we see happening across industries are less defined boundaries in the workplace due to the unprecedented amount and nature of total digital communication.


We see our friends, family members, and others having their work emails trickle into their allotted personal time without clear boundaries of when they are “allowed” to use their personal time. Unconsciously, employees are rolling out of bed, accompanied by an extra-large coffee, until they notice they clocked in 10+ hours with no work-life separation. Employers may share with their employees how they wake up before the crack of dawn to get in an early morning jog before their big client meeting, which may perpetuate guilt in those who use their personal time differently. Our clients’ clients are calling them at night and on weekends, perhaps because they assume that the business owner can’t be doing anything “leisurely” in the time of COVID.


As an employer, boundaries are the foundational elements that allow for a healthy workplace environment based on communication, understanding, and accountability. Due to the lack of physical oversight, employers are now relying much more on assumptions of the work of their employees. There is an old adage about the one who assumes… and in this case, it’s one that trending more and more in the remote workplace. Instead of assuming that the work is being done, it’s still incumbent on managers to communicate expectations (timeline, key measures, understanding of the task, etc.). Setting clear, unequivocal goals for tasks will help ensure expectations are met. Additionally, we are hearing from employers about declining work quality from certain remote workers. When outlining how remote work will function, highlighting that performance expectations are just as high as they were before. Although the environment in which the work is being done may be different, an emphasis on quality work must be set.


“I see that X individual has been taking a longer time to complete certain tasks than when they were in the office.”


Having “Accountability Conversations” (collaborative conversations aimed at uncovering shortfalls in work expectations) will not only help uncover possible underlying issues for a decrease in work quality, but perhaps help come to a resolution or additional resource for this specific case. For an employer, understanding the unique situations of each team member poses complex management problems, but that might be easily fixable when there are frequent check-ins with each member of your team.


Employers should be wary of assuming that since their employees are working remotely - removing commute times and casual office interactions - that does not automatically mean they are “more available.” The availability paradox, the assumption that they can take on more because their work is right in their home, can result in employers expecting work to get done at any time of day, on weekends, or while employees are taking vacation time. The inherent lack of commute and pack-up time does not automatically transfer to added minutes to the timesheet.


As an employer, respecting the time of your team members creates positive work interactions. As an employee, if you were to receive a late email from your superior because they know that you must be home, answering perpetuates the acceptability of off-hour responses-while not answering churns the gears of guilt or fear of a superior. It’s best to remember that the remote workplace may be the home for some employees, and allow them to separate those two entities for personal time.


As an employee, setting boundaries between employers, colleagues, clients, roommates, and-most overlooked- yourself is pivotal in creating a productive work zone. First steps in avoiding any over-stepping of boundaries must come from establishing a clear workplace. If possible, this area should be emptied of distractions, clutter, and disturbances. If living with others, putting up a sign to signify that you’re working or instituting “working hours” in the shared space could be beneficial. These “working hour” rules could include: no visitors, headphones if one is listening to music, no blenders, etc. Furthermore, setting working hours will also help to solidify a clear schedule of when you can close your laptop, and your personal time starts.


Setting other boundaries within the home will help with productivity in your workspace. Do not fall victim to the easily accessible temptations that surround you, if there are limits to the space you have available to work. A good way of sticking to your boundaries is by pretending you and your manager share a wall. So, before you put on the big game, watch that Youtube video of funny baby moments, or anything else that you probably would avoid in the office, remember to keep your work and personal time separate.


While keeping work and personal time separate, the use of company communication channels should be encouraged if not required for remote workers. Personal phones, alternative messengers, and non-work emails should be avoided for work-related matters. This not only ensures that work and personal lives stay separate, it’s also part of standard security protocols that should be followed.


On the topic of personal time, understanding that your remote work does not signify you are now an “on-call” employee is extremely important. Although showing your manager that you’re capable of exceeding expectations is a common motivator, there is an additional pressure in a decentralized workspace to display that you’re going above-and-beyond. However, the guilt of not responding does not foster a healthy work environment, nor does it display that you are excelling beyond expectations. Employers should look to set reasonable expectations for their employees to form the most productive, cohesive remote team.


Boundaries are extremely tricky to navigate while everything around us continues to remain so uncertain. However, there are things everyone involved in the workplace trio- employers, employees, clients- can do to respect the boundaries of others and promote the best experience for all. Establishing clear communication, understanding, and collaborative efforts from all angles will be the way to continue to thrive in these adaptive environments. Not every company will have a referee, but when the ball falls out of bounds, we need to blow the whistle before we can continue on with the game.