- Setting boundaries at work is universally beneficial to employees and the teams they sit on – they’re key to psychological safety and unique to each individual.
- Learn the four types of boundaries to set at work and complementary exercises to help make it happen.
At Atlassian, we live and breathe team health. From startups to Fortune-500s, remote and co-located teams and everything in between, our products and our passion revolve around helping people do their best work in an environment where they can flourish. And for the individuals that make up those teams, setting boundaries at work is absolute table stakes.
Far from restrictive, setting limits is liberating because it protects your and your team’s well-being, time, and energy, making space for everyone to put forth their best effort. Just how effective can boundaries at work be? Fifty-seven percent of quiet quitters (those who decline to take on more work than what they’re paid for) say their work-life balance has improved as a result of setting professional boundaries, according to a 2022 LendingTree survey.
Whether you’re a leader or a direct report, setting boundaries at work will benefit your team. Below, we’ll cover the four types of boundaries and helpful tips and exercises for upholding them in the workplace.
What are boundaries, exactly?
The word “boundaries” gets thrown around a lot, so let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what they are (and what they’re not).
The property lines of life and work
“A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership,” writes Dr. John Townsend, psychologist and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Boundaries. “Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.”
As Dr. Townsend explains, boundaries are like property lines. You wouldn’t want your neighbor lounging around in your yard without your permission, and similarly, you wouldn’t set up a sprinkler system to water your neighbor’s lawn. These would be boundary violations, and they’d complicate your relationship with your neighbor.
At work, we often allow this line-blurring to happen, such as when we say “yes” to helping a coworker with a task when we barely have time to finish our own projects. That would be akin to watering your neighbor’s lawn – their grass gets greener, but yours withers.
A key ingredient of psychological safety
Another fundamental component of healthy teams is psychological safety, and boundaries are a key ingredient to that balance. In order for team members to feel safe to take risks at work, they need to know what their teammates need from them – where the limits to that freedom lie. Boundaries actually create that safe sandbox of experimentation, where your team can play, test, and learn without fear of hurting themselves or others.
Unique to each person
Every individual builds a unique set of boundaries into their work and personal life – and those two realms are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A big part of understanding someone’s boundaries is understanding where they fall on the work-life segmentor-integrator spectrum.
Someone who’s a work-life segmentor will tend to have more rigid boundaries, such as: “My work hours are 9-5 p.m. After that, I’m offline.” On the other hand, a work-life integrator will still have boundaries, but they’ll be more flexible, such as: “I don’t mind answering emails or Slack messages after hours as long as it doesn’t take up more than about half an hour of my time each day.”
Because there’s no one-size-fits-all set of boundaries, it’s all the more important to figure out what yours are and help advocate for your team members’ limits as well.
know the difference
We want to make an important distinction between violating someone’s work boundaries versus violating their legal rights; the latter is much more serious. For example, if a boss tells an employee to work more than 40 hours a week but won’t pay them overtime for it, that’s likely a legal violation, and should be treated as such.
4 types of boundaries you need at work
In her New York Times bestseller Set Boundaries, Find Peace, licensed therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab outlines six types of boundaries. We’ll focus on the four that come into play at work: physical, intellectual, emotional, and time.
Physical boundaries at work refer to what’s okay and what’s not okay in terms of your body and personal space.
Examples of physical boundaries for working in-person:
- “Hey! I’d love to chat, but I’m in the middle of something right now. Can you come back in an hour?”
- “I’m not much of a hugger, but I’d be happy to shake your hand.”
- “Thanks for stopping by. Next time, do you mind knocking beforehand?”
Examples of physical boundaries for working remotely:
- “I’m going to be camera-off during this call, but I am here and listening!”
- Blurring your background on Zoom calls
- Not using your designated workspace to eat lunch or take personal calls
Try this 👇
Working agreements play
As a team, create a list of expectations of each other – including how you’ll surface and maintain personal boundaries – so you can work together successfully and avoid misunderstandings.Run the Play
Emotional boundaries protect your feelings and your capacity to hold space for others’ feelings.
Examples of emotional boundaries at work:
- “It sounds like you need to vent right now, but I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can I check in with you tomorrow?”
- “I love that you care enough to give me feedback on this, and I’m definitely going to use this to get better. Next time, could you give me your critique right away after I deliver the project, rather than waiting until my quarterly review? I prefer to get feedback early and often.”
- “Thanks for sharing with me! I don’t really feel comfortable talking about this right now, though. I’ll let you know if that changes.”
Try this 👇
Icebreaker activities play
Got 5 minutes? Then you’ve got time to start making the personal connections that help us do our best work together. We hand-picked a few that build relationships as well as help move your work forward, while giving you guardrails to protect emotional boundaries.Run the Play
Use intellectual boundaries at work to guard your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas, which should always be respected (and, conversely, shared at an appropriate time).
Examples of intellectual boundaries at work:
- “Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m definitely eager to hear them. I’ve been asked to present my ideas on this, though, so once I’m done presenting, I’ll give you the floor.”
- “It’s totally fine to disagree with me, and I respect your unique perspectives. I think we should take a break and revisit this discussion when we’ve both cooled off.”
- Here’s an example of maintaining an intellectual boundary on behalf of a teammate: “Hey, I want to call out that Lydia came up with this idea, so let’s give credit where it’s due.”
Try this 👇
Disruptive brainstorming play
Introduce new constraints to your creative thinking in this fast-paced, high-energy meeting – and practice healthy sparring.Run the Play
Of all the lines crossed at work, time boundaries are probably the most notorious.
As Tawwab writes, “Time boundaries consist of how you manage your time, how you allow others to use your time, how you deal with favor requests, and how you structure your free time.” She says those who struggle to set these types of boundaries are also likely to struggle with work-life balance.
Examples of time boundaries at work:
- “I’m off the clock and offline after 6 p.m.”
- “I’m flattered you’d ask for my help, but I don’t have time to help you with that task.”
- “I can only put in extra time at work if I’m getting compensated for it.”
- “When you send me an email or Slack message, I’ll get back to you within 24 hours.”
- “I don’t check my work phone on weekends.”
Try this 👇
Work Life impact play
As your team adapts to remote work, use this workshop to build empathy and identify the right support.Run the Play
6 tips for setting and maintaining boundaries at work
1. Assess the current state of your boundaries in your workplace.
If you’ve never set boundaries before, it can be tough to even identify what they are. To begin, try answering the following questions; they often point to boundary violations:
- Where are you feeling overwhelmed at work?
- What do you find yourself venting about to friends and family?
- Have you fantasized about quitting your job? If so, what issues led to those thoughts?
Take the information you’ve gathered from these questions and figure out where (if possible) you can establish boundaries to reduce those feelings of overwhelm.
2. Practice healthy communication by verbalizing your boundaries.
Never assume the people you work with “just know,” or should know. Barring clear violations of basic human decency and workers’ rights, people may not realize they’re violating a boundary without you verbalizing it.
Sometimes, people expect others to figure out a boundary simply by the way the person is acting. You might sigh heavily when a coworker grabs the stapler off your desk without asking, or you might go silent when someone talks over you during meetings. But waiting for someone to figure it out is bound to leave you frustrated and your coworker clueless as to why you’re so grumpy. Better to name the violation in a calm, firm, and empathetic way.
3. Master the art of saying no
While firm “no” on its own is always a perfectly acceptable response to someone who’s pushing against your boundaries, when it comes to the workplace, we of course want to maintain good relationships and keep our jobs.
Learning how to say “no” without burning bridges is a powerful skill – and it begins with recognizing your right to uphold your own boundaries by declining someone’s request.
4. Correct boundary violations in real time
When someone inevitably violates your boundaries, it’s best to correct them right away if possible.
“Speak up in the moment,” writes Tawwab in Set Boundaries, Find Peace. “When you remain silent, you give people the impression that what they said or did is okay with you. … Saying anything is better than saying nothing.”
5. Remove yourself from toxic situations
Boundaries are beneficial because they revolve around you and what you control. On their own, they can’t fix an unhealthy environment, because how others behave is outside of your control. In toxic situations at work, it’s best to remove yourself from the situation whenever possible.
For example, if a coworker is constantly roping you into gossip that you don’t want to be a part of, avoid eating lunch with that coworker or associating with them unless it’s absolutely necessary to the task at hand.
Another good idea is to learn how to recognize if your workplace is toxic. One telltale sign is when boundary violations are rampant and normalized.
6. Use technology to your advantage.
The lines between work and your personal life can be blurred by technology, and that’s not always a bad thing. But for those who need stronger boundaries, most tech comes with features that can help you uphold them. For example:
- Block out time on your calendar and share it with colleagues so they know when you’re busy (and when not to bother you).
- Turn on Do Not Disturb on your MacBook so you don’t get push notifications.
- Create a vacation responder that automatically sends a message to people who email you after-hours, letting them know when you check email and when they can expect a reply.
- Set your Slack status to “away” so your team knows when you’re not available.
Boundaries at work give you and your team freedom
Setting boundaries at work can be an empowering experience, both for the people who set them and the ones charged with upholding them. They allow your team to know what to expect, curate a work life they love, avoid burnout, and maintain healthy relationships with coworkers. So take some time to read over these tips again, and go forth and set some clear boundaries at work! If you need help getting started, try the My User Manual play, on your own or as a team – we guarantee you’ll learn things about your teammates (and yourself!) you never realized, which will trigger the empathy needed to hold those all-important boundaries sacred.
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