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Three Ways to Set Boundaries for a Healthier Return to the Office

Three Ways to Set Boundaries for a Healthier Return to the Office

The pandemic has changed the world, in some ways perhaps forever. We're all going through a challenging, historical event. Our personal lives have been upended (if not worse) and for many of us, our professional lives have, as well. We've had to create new routines and get acclimated to a new way of working.

It's been a long time. And now, for many, it's time to head back to the office, either full-time or in a hybrid remote work arrangement. For some, it feels challenging to go back. There may be tension around the idea of less flexibility, less autonomy, the need to commute, and not as much time with loved ones.

In fact, if economists are correct, organizations may see a spike in resignations from employees who insist upon positions allowing them to continue to work remotely at least part of the time. According to the 2021 Work Trend Index released by Microsoft, over 40% of the entire global workforce could be handing in their resignations if being forced by current employers to return to the office full-time.

Still, for others, the return to the office is welcome. It signifies the start of getting back to life as usual. Some employees are looking forward to more opportunities for socialization, to feel the synergy of collaborating with others in-person, and the comfort of getting back to a familiar "normal" routine.

Either way, going back to the office represents a big adjustment both personally and professionally. It's a significant change. And, as we all know, navigating big changes in life can be difficult But, there are things we can do to ease the transition back to the office and thrive at the same time. One of them is to look at workplace boundaries.

[Related: A Harassment-Free Workplace: Where Social Justice Meets the Bottom Line]

What are boundaries in the context of our work environment? Here is one view: Boundaries are expectations you set for yourself based on your values and work priorities that serve to take care of you mentally, emotionally, and physically, in order to improve and maintain your work performance. In other words, boundaries at work effectively communicate what you need and what you want in order to do a great job.

Without clear boundaries, our experiences generally aren't easy in work and life, and in fact, can be quite difficult. Here are some signals that boundaries are missing:

  • Your work schedule and workload have become unmanageable.
  • You find yourself saying "yes" to every new project without the time, energy, or resources to do the work.
  • Feelings of stress, overwhelm, anger, loss of control, resentment, or guilt regularly appear.
  • Work demands begin to invade your personal life more and more and you miss having time for friends, family, and yourself.
  • In fact, you always feel pressed for time.
  • Burnout seeps in.

This is quite a list, but here is some good news: Although setting boundaries can be done at any point in your life, establishing new boundaries during times of transition is actually the easiest. These life-changing transitions may include starting a job, getting married, having kids, getting promoted, or relocating. Or, how about returning to the office after more than a year of working from home during the pandemic? This is an excellent time to review your boundaries and set new ones as needed.

How do boundaries help? Not only are they crucial for self-care and for delivering a strong job performance, they are an important element of career happiness. Boundaries can help you succeed both professionally and personally. They allow you to: 

  • Establish effective and enjoyable routines.
  • Sharpen mental focus and motivation.
  • Increase productivity.
  • Ensure your needs are met both inside and outside of the office.
  • Promote self-esteem and confidence.
  • Decrease stress and avoid burnout.
  • Generally improve emotional, physical, and mental health.

[Related: Rest is More Than Sleep: What You Need to Renew Your Energy]

What are some ways to set boundaries to support your shift back to the office? Here are three. 

  1. Look at your current boundaries. What structures or expectations do you have in place right now and will they remain necessary when working in the office? As an example, if you have been enjoying two hours of quiet, focused time for projects each day while working from home, how important is it to you to find that same time when in the office? If important, what can you do to make it happen?
  2. What will you miss about working from home and how can you respect that going forward? For instance, if your job sometimes requires you to work beyond a normal work day and you worry about the loss of flexibility to spend time with family, consider how long you're willing to work after hours and when. How can you structure your hours differently in order to have that time with family (taking into consideration the degree of flexibility your job allows)?
  3. Consider your values. Values are the principles that matter most to you in life. They are fundamental philosophies that serve as helpful guideposts as you make decisions in work and life. Vales are the foundation of boundaries. When our values aren't reflected in our lives, we know it. We feel stressed, unhappy, or resentful.

Once you know the top five principles most important to you in life, ask yourself some questions to create new boundaries that serve you best. Think of a recent work incident where you felt stressed, overwhelmed, guilty, angry, or any other negative emotion. What was happening in that moment? What value of yours wasn't being honored? What boundary can you set that respects that value going forward?

Whether or not you look forward to heading back to the office, think through what boundaries are best to help you reach and maintain your full potential professionally while also balancing your personal needs. Setting boundaries keeps you in the driver's seat. It will boost your resilience as you return to the office and help you succeed and thrive once there. There is no better time to do this than right now!

[Related: How to Safely Reopen Offices: Physical and Behavioral Changes are Key]

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Judy Gielniak is a career coach and consultant helping professionals and executives accomplish career goals that increase fulfillment and happiness in their work. Learn more at Accomplished Life Coaching and Consulting or be in touch at judy@acclifecoaching.com. 


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