Setting Boundaries On Work In The Borderless World

By Lily Cheah|19-02-2014 | 1 Min Read

Working from home: Where do you draw the line?

I’m not sure what it’s like for you, but work follows me home. Now with a smartphone, work not only follows me home, it sleeps next to me. We are never far from each other, separated just by a simple swipe and a click of a button. My ears prick up when I hear the beep of an email coming through and there is a compulsive need to check what it is. Then the “swoosh” as my reply gets dispatched. You know the sound I mean.

How did we get here? Technology. Yes, it’s all technology’s fault, because it has undoubtedly been the principal force in upheaving the wall between physical presence and functional capacity. Physical spaces do not matter as much anymore. England, the United States, Australia, Japan are all within a button’s reach. While this opens up numerous possibilities for collaboration and innovation, it also means that people are constantly available for communication. Emails, instant messaging, WhatsApp, Viber can all set alight at the same time and bombard us with numerous interruptions in our daily lives.

Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, calls it a culture of distraction. The demands of digital communication have risen to such an extent that people have lost the ability and opportunity to have uninterrupted moments of thought. Similarly in the work context, work demands are perpetually knocking at our door for attention, spelling less than ideal consequences on the other facets of our lives.

Of course the easy route is to pin the blame on technology for this state of affairs. “That’s just the way it is la” or “What to do? No choice…” However, that negates the capacity of individuals to be proactive beings and make the decisions we want.

An Increased Responsibiltiy

Our power of decision-making has not been extinguished by the advent of technology. Our choices have increased, and decision making is possibly harder as a result, but the responsibility to take charge of our lives and not be swept by the currents of our surroundings still exist. In this world of mass media and constant bombardment of information, a higher responsibility is placed upon us to set boundaries, and in our current discussion, boundaries on work.

Here are two big reasons why setting boundaries on work is a good idea:

1 There is more to life than work. This isn’t a novel thought, but it’s worth reminding ourselves every so often of the other spheres of our lives that merit our time and effort: family, friends, even ourselves and our interests and hobbies. Instability or neglect of these areas will inevitably nag at us, and affect concentration at work- whether through literal nagging or fatigue and restlessness.

The opposite is also true. Spending time on things outside of work can actually boost productivity and performance at work. A 2008 paper in Psychological Science by Berman, Jonides and Kaplan says spending time in nature, for instance, improves our ability to focus our attention and deal with distractions.

2 You cannot be in two places at once. Whilst some people are very proud of their ability to multi-task, multi-tasking is not quite doing five things at the same time, rather choosing to do five things together in a specific time frame, randomly jumping from one task to the next. Just like we cannot cough and swallow at the same time (try it), we cannot really sit at the dinner table and talk to our family members and reply an email at the same time. You’re there, but you’re not really there. They will notice that while you are physically there, mentally, you are elsewhere. With your work.

Allowing life to take us along its natural tide and to “go with the flow” can lead to a state of near insanity with demands pulling us in 10 different directions. We have to think about limits to impose in our lives and what walls to build to ensure that pockets of our lives can function with a degree of freedom and trust that will not be pulled away by some work task. Admittedly, everyone’s life is different and the specific details of the boundaries we choose to impose in our lives will be dependent on our values and beliefs. However, in setting those necessary boundaries, here are some thoughts on how to set limits on work so that it doesn’t take over your entire life:

1 Understand the issue. One thing to avoid doing, is to feel obligated to spend more time at home or with friends out of guilt. With condemnation as a motivation, we will rarely achieve the desired result of having thriving relationships or interests outside of the work setting. If your life partner, family, children or friends are complaining about never seeing you, understand what it is that they actually want and crave, instead of spitefully and mindlessly just doing what they ask and only that. Understanding of the issue at hand will also give necessary context to impose limits that you believe in, and take the initiative to do more than what they ask.

2 Learn to say no. This one is easier in theory than in practice. Whilst building a career, a can-do attitude and a willingness to learn is valuable. However, saying yes to absolutely everything will also wear you down, especially when you are constantly accessible on your phone. Tight deadlines and urgent projects will inevitably occur in the Malaysian working landscape and responsible employees will ensure that deliverables are completed on time. However, that should be exceptions rather than the norm.

If it is an email that can be dealt with the next day instead of at 9.30pm while you are spending time with a loved one, park it until the next day. Impose a time after which you will not reply emails. Set invisible boundaries and communicate these boundaries to the people around you. Don’t create an image for yourself that you are one who is “always working”. Diligence at work may be something to be proud of, but if that begins to erode relationships and spheres outside of work, it’s time to reconsider if that really is a “badge of honour” or a negative label.

3 Learn to say yes. Say no to work tasks once an agreed boundary has been crossed (for example, no work calls on Sundays), but also say yes to something when it definitely can be done sooner rather than later. I’m talking here about avoiding the enemy that is procrastination. If something can be done at the office quickly, do it there and then rather than letting it get urgent and you having to bring it home with you. Say yes also to mini breaks at work, because it will affect your mood when you get home at the end of the day.

Whilst it’s great to optimise the hours at work to get the most done possible in the shortest amount of time, set a limit on it at least to have lunch and spend some time with colleagues. It will give you the energy you need for the day, strengthen relationships and when you get off work, you are less likely to be grumpy and to give your family and friends the “leftovers” of what energy you have left.

4 Use technology to your advantage. Technology is not the enemy, as much as it is an easy scapegoat. Phones now offer a myriad of applications that can actually help you stand by your boundaries. Examples include a Do Not Disturb function on mobile phones, or the ability to answer a telephone call with a message saying that you are not available.

It’s been said that life is a product of our daily decisions. With the pace of development in technology, a whole realm of opportunities and communication possibilities have been made available. That said, we are only at the stage of text and voice communication. Imagine a world where teleportation is possible.

Face to face work meetings would be possible anytime anywhere. What a mess that could be. But let’s cross that bridge when we get there. For now, while we must embrace the strengths of technology, there is greater responsibility too, to impose necessary boundaries so that the people around us receive the attention and time they deserve.

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of www.leaderonomics.com (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.
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