However, most of the discourse around boundaries focuses on their role in your personal life, especially in creating healthy relationships with your family, friends, and partner. But relationships at work matter, too—after all, what is a team but a group of relationships that share a common goal?
Just like in your personal life, strong workplace boundaries at work are crucial, not just for your own sanity, but your teammates’, too—and the quality of work you can produce together.
Keep reading to discover why boundaries matter on teams, the most important types of boundaries to set at work, and how you can put them into practice.
Why Are Boundaries Important?
Boundaries are just as important in the workplace as they are in the rest of your life. Without strong boundaries at work, you’ll end up burnt out, resentful, and unsatisfied with your job. Professional boundaries can be especially challenging on small teams, at startups, or in other close-knit environments where people tend to wear a lot of hats. In these situations, the lines between different roles and responsibilities can blur, so it’s especially important to have clear, healthy boundaries for everyone.
If you struggle with boundaries, especially at work, you’re not alone. Many people worry about seeming rude, selfish, or like they aren’t a team player if they assert a boundary. If you’re uncomfortable or anxious about boundary-setting, remember that boundaries aren’t just about you. They also help your team by ensuring you can do your best work and that you’re a healthy, calm, and happy person to collaborate with!
Boundaries To Set At Work
There are many types of boundaries. Here, we’ll go over a few that are especially relevant at work. Then, we’ll talk about how you can establish and maintain them.
Physical boundaries are some of the most basic and important to establish. Physical boundaries have to do with your body and space, and what you need or are comfortable with physically. Hopefully, you’ll find that your physical boundaries are respected at work, but you may still need to assert them sometimes.
Not every violation of these boundaries is dramatic or scary, like physical aggression—and it’s totally possible for colleagues to push up against physical boundaries unintentionally, without meaning any harm.
Here are some ways you might need to remind people of your physical boundaries at work.
- “I can’t wait any longer to take my break. I need to eat and get some fresh air.”
- “I won’t be able to stay late tonight. I need to rest so I can focus tomorrow.”
- “I’m going to move to the conference room to focus on work alone for a few hours, I can respond to questions when I’m done.”
Emotional And Intellectual Boundaries
When you have healthy intellectual and emotional boundaries, you’re prioritizing your feelings, thoughts, and ideas, and giving other people that same respect, too. Strong emotional boundaries also mean maintaining a strong sense of self, and not taking on other people’s thoughts, opinions, or struggles any more than you are comfortable with. At work, this could manifest as keeping a healthy separation between your professional and personal life.
Here are a few examples of emotional and intellectual boundary-setting in the workplace.
- “I prefer to not talk about my romantic relationships at work. I like to keep some things private.”
- “Susan is upset about the outcome of this meeting, but it’s not my responsibility to make her feel better.”
- “I may not agree with you on this matter, but that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant or bad at my job.”
Priority And Workload Boundaries
To perform at your best, you need to protect your workload with strong, healthy boundaries. Every day or week, many team members will ask you for help. This is a great thing—they think you’re skilled and they value your contributions! But if you accommodate every single request, you’re going to end up frazzled and unproductive. Remember, you only get so many hours in a week. It’s simply not possible to take on everything.
Here are some ways to set strong boundaries that protect your priorities.
- “I’m sorry to hear you need this handled so urgently, that sounds stressful! But I have a full plate right now too, so I won’t be able to take care of it on the timeline you need. I’m happy to help out next month once I have more bandwidth!”
- “Absolutely, I can take on this project. What other responsibility would you like me to put on pause?”
- “I can help out with this task, but since this is my first time tackling it I will need additional time to complete it.”
It’s very common to struggle with setting boundaries around your time at work. Time management is challenging for the best of us, so even well-intentioned co-workers might push up against your time boundaries now and then. Without strong boundaries, you’ll find that whatever time you do have gets away from you—both at work, and even on your personal time.
Here are some good ways to set boundaries around your time.
- “I’m sorry, but I can’t attend meetings before 1pm. I need uninterrupted morning work time in order to be productive.”
- “I’ve allotted us half an hour for our upcoming meeting. Here’s an agenda—let’s get the important stuff out of the way first to make sure we don’t run over time.”
- “Thank you for your message. I will respond on Monday morning when I return to the office.”
Set clear boundaries around when and how you communicate about work matters. If everyone can reach you however they want, it will be even more challenging to make sure your other boundaries, such as around time and priorities, are respected.
Here’s a few ways to set communication boundaries.
- “I’d prefer not to text about work matters. Could you Slack me or send an email instead?”
- “If you can agree to only call me outside work hours in emergencies, I promise to pick up when you do call and do my best to help.”
- “If I have my Slack status set to Do Not Disturb, that means I’m having uninterrupted work time. I will respond to your message afterwards.”
How Can I Set Workplace Boundaries?
So, now we know why boundaries matter, and some important types of boundaries to set at work. But how can you put them into practice? Here are some simple strategies.
Discuss Boundaries Ahead Of Time
It may sound obvious, but people can only respect your boundaries if they know they exist. This can feel intimidating, especially when you want to be seen as dedicated and reliable, but the truth is that there’s nothing rude, or even unusual, about having boundaries.
Here’s some ways to clarify your boundaries up front.
- When you join a new team, ask everyone else about their communication boundaries—then, it’s the perfect time to share yours!
- Headed out on vacation next week? Let everyone know you’re going totally offline, and won’t be checking work communications at all.
Set Up Structures That Support Your Boundaries
Once you’ve agreed on boundaries with your colleagues and managers, set up routines and structures that reinforce them. This can help everyone’s boundaries become part of your team’s normal way of doing things, rather than something people need to be constantly reminded of.
Here are a couple ideas:
- If long meetings tend to eat into your independent work time, start every meeting with a clear agenda and designate one person to be the ‘minutes keeper’—someone who keeps agenda items rolling and makes sure time boundaries are kept in place.
- Set up an email autoresponder outside of work hours that lets anyone trying to reach you know about your boundary—and perhaps offers an alternate way to contact you in true emergencies.
What Should I Do If My Boundary Is Crossed?
If someone oversteps a boundary, don’t panic! It’s inevitable that every now and then, situations are going to push up against your boundaries. Think about it—if you never had to enforce your boundaries, why would you need them in the first place?
Here’s a few tips on how to respond when one of your boundaries is in danger of being crossed.
You don’t need to provide a million reasons for your boundary to exist; simply stating it is enough.
Instead of saying “I can’t stay late tonight, I’ve been really tired and I have plans to get dinner with my husband,” try just saying “Sorry, I don’t work past five, and I don’t have the capacity for overtime right now.”
When You Make An Exception, Restate Your Boundary
It’s perfectly okay to be flexible with your boundaries when you need to. But by restating that the boundary will continue in the future, you’re communicating that it’s just that—an exception.
Instead of saying “No problem, I can handle that this weekend,” try saying “I don’t usually work over the weekend, but I can help out this time since it’s urgent.”
Don’t Take It Personally
Almost always, your teammates or colleagues aren’t trying to make you feel bad or pressure you by pushing up against your boundaries—they’re simply stressed and busy, and their mind is on other things!
Don’t push back in a confrontational way—if you need to, take a few minutes to calm yourself down before responding. Boundaries aren’t a big deal—so simply state yours politely and move on.
Instead of saying, “As I’ve stated multiple times, I do not take on extra work on the weekends,” try saying “So sorry to hear you’re dealing with such a tight deadline, but I don’t work on the weekend.”
Coming up with alternate solutions can be a good way to soften the blow when you’re setting a boundary. While it’s ok to say ‘no’, trying to find a win-win solution shows the other person that you care about their problem—you just don’t want to trample on your own boundaries to help them with it. This can work especially well if you’re very close to the person asking, or it’s obvious that they really need your help.
Instead of saying “Sorry, I don’t have bandwidth to help you with that,” try something like “This week is packed, but things will relax a bit next week. Is there anything I could do to help you then?”
Better Boundaries = Better Work
Setting boundaries at work might feel a little scary if you aren’t used to it. But strong boundaries aren’t selfish—they’ll actually help you perform at your best. That benefits everyone, because you can show up for the rest of your team and work toward your common goals!
If you follow these tips to understand your own boundaries, then set and maintain them in a friendly way, you’ll be well on your way to a calmer, more productive, and non-frazzled work existence. Try it out—you might find you enjoy having some order and self-determination in your working life!