I recently visited a friend who is a leader at one of the world’s leading sports apparel manufacturing companies.  This was his dream job, he’d been working his whole career for the opportunity to land at the company he’d thought so highly of for so long.

After only a few years, though, the job is taking its toll and he’s quickly becoming fed up.

The job has become consuming, to hear him tell it – there are no boundaries.  Calls, texts, e-mails at all hours with an expectation of action or at the very least, follow-up.

There is no delineation between work time and personal time.

There’s a name for what he’s experiencing, and it’s familiar to most of us – the ‘always on’ culture of work.  Connectivity, it seems, means that an employee is never off the clock so long as they’re plugged in – or in this case, logged on.  Wasn’t technology supposed to make our lives easier and more fulfilling?

Now we’re constantly accessible (we’ve even reached the precipice of losing the last bastion of inaccessibility – the airplane) and that accessibility has translated into availability for some employers, managers, colleagues and clients.

So what can we do to reclaim at least a modicum of ‘time off the clock’ when we have a boss that thinks if you’re awake, you should be checking your e-mail?  Of course, it’s tricky.

Sadly, in most offices the way we work is dictated by the person we work for, even if they’re maniacal to the obvious detriment of the team.

It can be difficult to directly confront this person with the implications of their constant contact.  Despite the challenge, if your boss is a reasonable person, a conversation about boundaries may be the best, most productive avenue for resolution.

Like any conversation with your boss, you can’t go to her with your problem and no solution.

Have some ideas ready for how to handle your team’s culture of responsiveness and off-hours communication.

Here are six ideas to create boundaries at work, without putting your job at risk:

  1. Challenge our own assumptions about what is happening, why and what can be done about it.  It can be easier to assume that our boss hates us, is selfish, isn’t capable or is a workaholic.  It can be safer to assume that nothing can be done, that you’ll get fired if you bring it up or that things won’t change anyway.  These are all stories and they’re all hypothetical.  If we take our stories to be reality, we choose complacency and we leave our fate up to others.  Have the courage to challenge your assumptions and take action.

  2. Seek to understand where the behavior is coming from.  Is the ‘always-on’ mentality part of the culture of your organization or is it just your boss’s work style?  This Harvard Business Review article illustrates the concept of the ‘ideal worker’ – ‘people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call’.  The high-pressure workplaces of today all but demand ideal workers, but different people respond to these demands differently – HBR shows us people typically rely on one of three strategies – “accepting and conforming to the demands of a high-pressure workplace; passing as ideal workers by quietly finding ways around the norm; or revealing their other commitments and their unwillingness to abandon them.”

    Which is your boss?  Which are you?  The more you can understand and relate to your boss’s behavior and your own, the more likely you are to have a productive conversation with her about creating boundaries.

  3. Explain the problem in business terms.  Studies show that an ‘always-on’ work culture “denies workers a sense of individual efficacy and autonomy by putting them on a permanent state of reactive alert. It drains morale and initiative, and scatters employees’ mental resources, making it difficult for them to take ownership of projects and prioritize their efforts.“  Simply put – when we’re always on, we don’t do our best work.

    Don’t assume your boss understands or even recognizes there is a problem.  This is likely the hardest part – confronting the issue in a tactful yet compelling way.  You don’t want to come off as complaining or worse, insubordinate.  Depending on how your boss accepts feedback, this could be presented face to face, in a performance review, other formal feedback mechanism or to Human Resources.  Regardless, the problem should be presented in business terms, citing the opportunity (problem), the benefits, the risks, suggestions for change, a timeline and measurements of success.

  4. Highlight the proven benefits of work boundaries.  The same studies also show that changing a culture of responsiveness can result “in the form of smarter collaborative approaches to solving all kinds of problems that everyone had formerly ignored. Workers felt more energized and engaged, and retention rates increased.” The HBR research tells us “that if employees felt free to draw some lines between their professional and personal lives, organizations would benefit from greater engagement, more-open relationships, and more paths to success.”

  5. Test a new approach using a (risk-free) pilot.  Create a few rules and put them into practice when you start a new project or sign up a new client.  By using a pilot, the risk of an all or nothing approach is minimized, your boss and teammates can weigh in on solutions (and thus buy-in), what works can be adopted and what doesn’t can be thrown out.

  6. Suggest some small tactical changes:

    Establish predictable time-off.  Determine an agreed upon time frame for normal working hours and what is considered ‘off-hours’ – establish norms for how work requests will be handled during off-hours so all team members have a sense of control over their work life.

    Ask that all routine communication be handled through e-mail. It is a better system for tracking and archiving communications.  Request that texting or phone calls during off-hours only be used for emergencies.

    Suggest a standard for the subject lines of e-mails. This makes it easier to filter what needs immediate attention and what can wait.  Subjects such as ‘Immediate Action Required’ or ‘FYI Only’ or ‘Your Response Needed’ can be used – whatever makes it possible to know what needs to be done (or not done) without having to read the entire e-mail.

How do you create boundaries at work?  Hit reply or leave a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: After writing this piece, I asked my friend, who I referenced above, what his thoughts were about creating boundaries and what has worked for him since we had our discussion, this is his response:

“I think your advice is spot on and I definitely need to act on this. I have recently extracted myself from a lot of the tit for tat emailing/calling and that has helped IMMENSELY.

When you answer all the time, the expectation is set that you will. If you don’t, that will change expectations. It is a cycle only if you make it so. I have realized the power in just not engaging in things that I think are a waste of my time. Totally helpful. People approach you differently if you do so.”