Sometimes, you just want practical tips. This year has involved enough thinking and planning and restructuring as is without having to then think more and plan more and restructure more around this new way of life that we have collectively scrambled to cultivate. We’ve all been warned of ‘burnout’, of how dangerously blurry the lines between work & home become when you’re stuck working from home and the importance of ‘switching off’. It’s great advice – crucial in fact – but how can we actually apply this to real life, where there are real jobs to do with stressed bosses and tangible deadlines?

ECC Director Debbie Moore has created a masterclass of practical advice on how exactly we can achieve this utopian dream of a healthy ‘work/life balance’.  She starts with a walkthrough guide of how best to approach your boss and structure a conversation around work boundaries, and then goes on to discuss how we can implement this with our ‘always on, always reachable’ technology. It’s the advice that everyone’s been giving, but this time with actionable insights.

Talking to Your Boss:

Setting the Scene:

Prepare for the conversation by thinking very clearly about what you actually want and the logical reasons behind your request. These reasons should not just be the arguments that make your own life easier, but they also need to play directly into their world too. These could include reasonings such as ‘I will be more switched-on within working hours if I have time to recharge’ or ‘I need to enjoy my time off so that I can fully focus on work the next day’.  If they are compelling enough then you will be far more likely to reach an agreement.

Navigating the Conversation:

Here are some tips for the conversation. Written down this can seem a little formulaic, so feel free to find your own way around it rather than follow it to the letter.

  1. Start the conversation by seeking out any common ground and show your appreciation of what’s going on for them at the moment. This builds rapport and shows empathy– they might even invite you to share about your own life which will ease you into the sticky part of the conversation.
  2. Next, talk about what’s going well and what you are loving about your job/team/responsibilities at the moment or what you are looking forward to working on in the coming weeks. It’s not buttering them up so much as letting them know that you value your role!
  3. Next, move on to the challenges you are finding with workload, pressures or balance. Try to start this part of the conversation with “and” or “yet” instead of “but” which negates the positive statement that comes before it.
  4. End with inviting their thoughts on your request so that it becomes a two-way conversation.

Sealing the Deal:

You want to set some context here; try to say enough to help them understand the situation for you, but not so much that they feel burdened. The next part of the conversation is the most important and you don’t want them to have switched off or feel like they are being guilt-tripped.

  • You will hopefully now have earnt yourself a ‘platform’ to state clearly, and succinctly what it is you want. I encourage you to use the “want” word. “Want” is a powerful word; you own a want – it’s personal and its firmer than “like” and not as easy to challenge as a “need”. Be brave, reasonable and comfortable with what you are asking for, if you are less shocked with yourself for having the guts to ask, then they will be less shocked to hear it as it sounds more conversational!
  • Give no more than three reasons to back your request up and demonstrate how they benefit them too (where that is the case). Some examples of this could be how more work life balance will help you approach project/performance goals with more energy and focus, it will reduce stress and increase productivity and it will decrease chances of burnouts and having to take days off to recuperate.
  • End with inviting their thoughts on your request. This shows confidence in what you have just said and keeps them on your agenda, so they can’t subtly change the subject. It also creates a dialogue between the two of you and will prevent you from sounding demanding.

Structuring your conversation in this way will frame your request in a positive, conversational way whilst firmly asserting your wants and boundaries. Feel free to jot down some notes to help guide you through the conversation, but don’t be too rigid with them otherwise you may come across as robotic and lose the natural flow of the conversation!

Committing to your New Boundaries

So, you’ve had the conversation and a healthy work/life balance is almost within reach, but you find yourself slipping back into old habits of checking your emails before bed or just ‘finishing that last piece of work tonight’. Although working from home has its benefits (good riddance commute/shampoo/appropriate trousers), there are psychological effects which can really start to build up and take their toll. Almost half (46%) of UK workers have experienced loneliness working from home, with that percentage rising to 74% with younger workers (aged 18-38) (1). A Stanford study (3) showed that workers are 13% more productive when they work from home, but it’s likely that this is because 60% of workers say they feel guilty for taking any kind of break during the day – including lunch (3)! It’s just not sustainable, and the only person who can enforce your boundaries, is you.

Setting Personal Boundaries:

  • Ordinarily, your commute would be your ‘psychological detachment’ (4) from work, symbolising a hard line between your work and home life. You can replicate this with a new ‘end of day ritual’ such as a walk, a shower or a run – anything that decompresses you like your commute previously did.
  • If you don’t have a separate office, at the end of the work day hide as much evidence of your work environment as you can – screens, notebooks, charts etc so that they aren’t a constant reminder when you are trying to relax.
  • Have two phones so that on non-work days you are not tempted to answer messages and you can put it out of the way.
  • Dressing for work and changing at the end of the day is a good mental trigger – even if it’s just a professional looking shirt.
  • Make a commitment ‘out loud’ to others – it helps to crystalise thoughts and allows them to remind you gently (or shut your laptop on your fingers at 9pm when you’re still working)
  • Just as you have work to-do list and objectives for the day or week, set yourself some for home too, including a finish time for the work day that will allow you to achieve these.

Managing Devices & Flexible Working:

  • Turn off email alerts after a certain time – you can even schedule this in advance.
  • Ask others to contact you on WhatsApp, not email, for critical issues so you don’t feel too out of the loop when signing off.
  • Use ‘Out Of Office’ with a redirection message for urgent calls.
  • Book a chunk out of your outlook diary so people don’t contact you.
  • Write emails but using the ‘delay sending’ feature until work hours to avoid immediate responses that you feel obligated to reply to.

We’ve been working from home for almost a year by now and chances are that you’ve settled into a routine. I urge you to take the time to consider whether or not this is actually working for you – and not to feel ashamed to mix it up and let your colleagues know if it’s not. It is very likely that your mental state will fluctuate as the economic climate does and you may need to regularly check in with your priorities and mental capacity alongside it. Our days suddenly became very elastic when the pandemic hit, and although it may be tempting to use the extra time to work, its important to remember that you’re setting that expectation for yourself, and that the extra hour of commute that you now have spare came out of your personal time, not your contracted hours. It might be easy to assume that your boss now expects 150% of your time, but don’t forget that they are human and also going through a pandemic with work/life balance issues. Starting a conversation about boundaries may even help them too.

I’ll end on some very relevant coaching experience from our CEO Geraldine Gallacher:

“I once coached a partner in a law firm who had two associate lawyers in his team, both new mothers, who had recently returned to work. One came back full time and seemed to be burning the midnight oil a lot.  The other came back and clarified that she wanted to work 4 days a week and highlighted how she wanted to work. In other words, she put in some clear non-negotiables.

The partner’s reaction was that he was initially irked with the part-time returner. However, what surprised him was that that over the course of a couple of months his feelings changed completely. He realised that he felt much more confident about the part-timer’s ability to meet deadlines and get things done than her full time colleague. He could see she was able to predict how long tasks would take and plan better because she had clear boundaries.

Her full-time colleague seemed to be sinking and the partner concluded that she wasn’t prioritising enough and was simply assuming that by being full time and always available she would be effective. He was struck by how much he preferred being able to predict the workflow better with his part-time employee who had clearer timelines and consistently managed his expectations over his full time employee who was sending emails really late and was obviously struggling under the weight of having a new child. Interestingly he said he also worried about how his full-time employee was actually coping but she was trying so hard to keep up a good front that she didn’t seem to feel she could tell him.

I helped him to find the words that allowed him to support her without being viewed as ‘mummy-tracking’ her. Getting these conversations right does require a degree of empathy because there isn’t one way of tackling your boss or your employee. It’s a dance between two people. Empathy is about understanding yourself and how you can come across whilst thinking about how the other person might receive your message and then suitably tailoring it to fit.

So, when it comes to pushing back in these times my advice would be “Do not assume that your boss will not be predisposed to you being clearer about how you want to manage your workload. Use empathy to consider how you might be coming across (even practise your request on a loved one first) and then think about how your boss is best influenced. Also, remember peak energy times are in the morning but maybe avoid that ‘hangry’ hour just before lunch.”

Good luck!